THE CHIP by Devon Pitlor
I. After my father's burial
Kerry had a wrinkled pack of what passed in Harmonia as cigarettes. He pulled out the end of one and automatically twisted it so that what passed in Harmonia as tobacco didn't fall out. Then he extracted the brown-stained little cylinder from the pack and twisted the other end. He put the cigarette in his mouth, lit it with book match and blew a huge smoke ring over my head, just the way he had done when we were kids. Despite the long absence, Kerry was still the tormenting brat of a little brother I had always known. Anything that would jolt my nerves was fair game for Kerry, even at Daddy's funeral.
We sat at a picnic table near the freshly covered grave and stared at one another. Mom was in a home and had no idea anymore of who we were, and now Daddy was in the ground. A mutual and longstanding dislike welled up between Kerry and me, but we still had understandings between us, as brothers and sisters do. Glancing furtively at Daddy's grave, we both knew what the other was thinking: Daddy was much happier now wherever he was, much happier than he had ever been in Harmonia. Daddy had the wrong memories and had been, as they say, too old to forget and change.
A small, perfunctory three piece band stood by Daddy's gravesite and hastily blew out the fractured notes of the Harmonian National Anthem. Then they saluted briefly to us and were gone.
Kerry blew some more smoke in my direction and looked at my notebook.
"Still writing your memoirs, I see," he smirked. "You know that's illegal if it is what I think it is."
I stared defiantly at Kerry and said "I don't care." I said that the relatives that we had never seen in Free Vineland might like to read about us someday. I said that I enjoyed writing…remembering…trying to capture what it was like growing up in Harmonia with pre-bloc parents and an obsessed if not foolish father.
"You can put a lot of good shit in there about the old boarding house," said Kerry. "They don't have boarding houses in Free Vineland. Bet all that stuff about Mrs. Tallmyer and her cooking and gossiping would keep them entertained for hours. They say that they have more than one channel on the TV up there and that just about every family has a computer-thing and some games to go with it. When are they going to find time to read about this dump?"
Kerry blew some more smoke and stood up. He took one last look at Daddy's grave and flicked the end of his cigarette over onto the fresh dirt. "Silly man," he muttered, "silly man. I'm leaving, Katie. I have the early shift at the plant tomorrow. See you around."
Kerry held out his hand but I looked in the other direction. I was thirty years old and unmarried. I had my own boarding house to run now, single men, families and children to cook for. I was only on short leave because of Daddy's burial. Kerry shrugged and walked off, shoulders hunched. His long, calloused hands dangled from his tattered sports jacket just as Daddy's had whenever Daddy had been forced to dress up. Kerry used his hands to lift heavy objects just like Daddy always had. But he would never admit to being like our father because he and I were, thankfully, post-bloc kids, and we knew how to stay in our places---something which Daddy had never learned.
II. A pivotal day in my memoirs.
They needed a beginning because I was not going to tell about the sordid history of Harmonia. It was a personal narrative about our family and I chose the worst day of my life as the centerpiece of the story. Surely, the so-called relatives in Free Vineland would appreciate that personal touch more than reading some drab history of the Partition that they could see in any history book. I chose the day---the second day---that Daddy had won the Chip. It was a day that made me very angry to look back on and therefore a good place to start. Anger drives the pen.
III. The Chip
Daddy's turn came up to win the Chip, and, as usual, he had a plan. Mom, Kerry and I couldn't see it coming right then, but everyone else at the Cove did, especially Jacob the mechanic who first accosted Daddy in the boardinghouse driveway as Daddy returned triumphantly from the plant, where after eight years---completely as scheduled---Daddy had just collected one hundred thousand dollars on the Chip. Of course, it wasn't all that much, but Jacob, always the Cove's watchdog and peacemaker, wanted to avert tragedy. I stood silently by, a girl of 14, and listened to Jacob attempt to reason with Daddy.
"The Buick won't make it," Jacob said. "You need too many repairs, little things like wiper blades, which I can't get, and an oil change, which might be possible but a little tricky."
"Excuse me, Jacob," Daddy said as he pushed his way past the mechanic and into the main sitting room. "I have my plans made."
Jacob continued, talking to Daddy's back. "Zachary, why not take a few days off? They let you do that when you win the Chip. Stay in the house. The television isn't blacked out during the day, and you can watch a few games. Hang around here, and I'll rustle up the parts for you. Your Chip money will be well-spent, and you'll have a little left over by the time I finish the Buick. You and the family can spend a day in the inland hills and have a picnic."
Money in hand, Daddy pretended not to hear Jacob and closed the door behind him. He'd been waiting patiently for his Chip win since the last time, and I suddenly realized that Mom and maybe even Kerry, Dad's favorite, knew something about his plans. I drifted into Mrs. Tallmyer's dining room close to Daddy's accustomed place setting, which Mrs. Tallmyer, the boarding house keeper and cook, was deliberately avoiding. Mrs. Tallmyer bustled about in her usual manner excusing everyone for the meal which was as usual a few minutes late. Bloc stew steamed in huge pots in her cluttered kitchen, but we all knew she would have none for Daddy that day. It was now clear that he had shared his plans with nearly every boarder weeks before. The Chip was very predictable. Every plant worker knew approximately when his turn would come, and among the boarders, I had heard a lot of hushed conversations over the past few days. It was all about the other residents trying to warn Daddy. Cottage Cove people at least made a pretense of sticking together.
Inside their bedroom, I heard Mom's muffled voice pleading. She couldn't do much better than Jacob. I did not catch it all, but I did hear her exclaim several times that the hundred thousand dollars wasn't all that much. "Chips keep getting smaller all the time," she shouted at one point. But her vain reasoning trailed off into what sounded like sobs and probably were. The door sprang open and she sighed in exasperation "You're going to go, and you're going to drag us with you!"
"Not drag," Daddy snarled. "I have the three-day passes they require. Remember we're doing this for the kids."
Mom caught her face in her hands, turned around and started throwing some clothes into an overnight bag. I could see her from the hallway. She looked desperately at me watching her. "I'm packing one day's worth," she mumbled, "regardless of what he says."
"No blocs," Daddy bellowed from the common room. "They execute you on the spot for that."
IV. A dinner missed
I heard the somber sounds of our fellow boarders shuffling into the dining room for the evening meal. "'Gradulations, Zack," stammered Mr. Pooler with marked hesitation. "I knew your day was coming. Not a big pot this time, I guess," he added clinking his silverware as he always did to alert Mrs. Tallmyer that he was ready to eat. "You be careful now, Zack," cautioned another young single boarder who had recently moved in and who worked in some office where they didn't run the Chip. "When you leaving?" inquired Jacob the mechanic, washing his hands at the sink.
"Right now," said Daddy, standing beside the door to our double rooms. "Kerry and Katie are home, and we've got an hour or two of daylight for the bridge. Shana's packing our stuff. We might not be back…" His voice trailed off painfully, full of doubts. The die was cast.
V. The bridge
Kerry, whom Daddy had picked up on the way home from the plant was already sitting in the back seat of the Buick ready to go. He had no idea, no memory (as I had) of what was coming. He would slide into the front seat as soon as we got on the road. He was as selfish and self-centered as a little brat brother could be. Kerry offered no surprises. By age eight, his routines were already set. Teasing me was at the heart of his agenda.
Trembling and worried, Mom and I got into the car. A harsh late winter afternoon sun illuminated the entire Cove and its grounds and silhouetted the almost silent ring of boarders poking languidly at their variously prepared blocs at the huge circular dining room table. Inside, I could see Mrs. Tallmyer bustling about serving from large pots. Our places were vacant.
Daddy wasn't talking much as he lurched the Buick out of the cul-de-sac and onto the bridge road. When he finally did say something, it was to Mom. We were not meant to hear it, but it was something like "Gotta do this." Spring had almost come to our town and tiny yellow buds were adorning the bare trees, but none of us noticed. Our eyes were set straight forward toward the bridge which arched like an immobile gray tentacle over the near horizon. On the other side lay Saint-James with its "happy darkies," as everyone said. As the bridge neared, Kerry mechanically said "happy darkies" for no good reason other than he had heard it all his life. "Shhh," said Mom. "That's an insult. We don't want to say something to make them mad. They are nice people and just like you and I, except…"
Dad cut her off with a hand on her leg. She concluded by saying "Let's be super nice. You know they don't want us there, anyway."
"Who could blame them?" muttered Daddy, pushing the car forward with even greater resolve. The bridge grew larger in our view.
"Is it true that I was here before?" chirped Kerry. "I mean like when I was too young to remember?"
"Yes," Mom said in a dry tone that meant to stop him from asking questions. It didn't work.
"Is it true that I wet my pants and puked all over? I bet Katie did the same. She's got no guts."
Mom looked out the window and ignored the comment. Kerry slid between the front seats and sat on the dash console between our parents. "I want to see the bridge better," he announced. "Besides, Katie has cooties." Ahead the huge bridge became darker and more frightening, like some strange growth that was warning us away from an unseen but totally predictable danger.
VI. The border
As the signs warning of the impending border grew more frequent and the guarded bridge gate came into view between rows of dirty warehouses, Daddy pulled over to the side of the mostly deserted street. "Bloc check!" he said. "Are you all absolutely certain you have no blocs, not even the tiniest piece? They'll shoot you for that."
"Even kids?" said Kerry. "I thought they were happy darkies."
"Stop saying that!" shouted Mom, her voice strained with tension. "No, Zack, there's no blocs unless one fell out of your lunch into the car today."
"I paid a kid ninety bucks to clean the car," said Daddy, "and I personally checked it over myself, under the seats and all. You can be sure they'll look or have the dogs sniffing."
A few dour looking Harmonia government guards drifted around the bridge barrier waiting for our arrival. They were slovenly dressed and a couple leaned on their rifles like walking sticks. "Looks like we have the bridge to ourselves," said Daddy, grasping for something positive to say. Two of the guards, mere boys, one of whom went to an upper grade in my school, approached the car and asked for our passes, which they hardly glanced at. "Nice day to cross," said one. "No wind."
"Yeah," said the other, "they say it drives some people over here crazy when you can smell their cooking." Both boys chortled in laughter.
"What would you know about it?" snapped Daddy. "You weren't even around when…"
"Forget it, mister. Eat your blocs. Put some ketchup on them or something." Both teenage guards laughed heartily. Ketchup was still a big joke. The pre-bloc generation apparently used it. My father never joked about ketchup. Neither did Mom. They were pre-bloc kids, or so they always told us. Pre-bloc kids didn't laugh about ketchup.
Daddy drove several yards to the next checkpoint and stopped. One of the boys called out something about roast beef which was drowned out by the other's sporadic bursts of laughter. And older crossing guard came out with a sheet of printed regulations, things about what you could or could not bring back. Food of any kind was totally forbidden. The man eyed us casually.
"Bridge closes at ten PM," he grunted. "Suppose you know that. After that you gotta go up ten miles to the trade bridge. They keep it open all night for trucks. Can't limit foreign trade, can we? If you need to come back that way," he continued, squinting suspiciously at us, "there's an all night diner just off the road. Remember that. Run by an old gal called Ruthie. Suppose they'll call her Saint Ruthie some day. She's saved many a traveler like you folks. Watch for her sign. It blinks." With that, the older guard motioned us forward. "Good luck," he added reluctantly as if he really didn't mean it. "Stay away from the ketchup."
Neither Daddy nor Mom acknowledged the remark.
The barrier purred with electric charge and lurched upward and open. The bridge, like an enormous artificial hill, spread before us. Kerry said something about skiing. Daddy stared straight ahead and accelerated. About one hundred yards up, the bridge leveled into its main span which crossed over a dirty stream far below. "I wonder why they made it so high?" said Mom to no one in particular. Farther along, a bright neon sign flashed on especially for us:
WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF SAINT-JAMES. FOLLOW ALL POSTED REGULATIONS. IMPORTS CLOSELY MONITORED.
Under this someone had scrawled in lemon-green paint NO BLOCKS!!!!
accentuated by a badly drawn skull and crossbones. "We don't use a K in that word," said Kerry as if he'd already found a fatal flaw in Saint-James. "They can't spell."
"Why would they want to spell that awful word?" said Daddy. Kerry had no reply. A minute later he said "ketchup" and spelled it correctly letter by letter.
We eased down the other incline of the bridge into Saint-James, still the only car on the bridge. Black (or "Lost African" as they preferred to be called) soldiers in neat blue uniforms were everywhere. They carried guns, but seemed happy, jovial and welcoming. One of them approached with a dog on a leash. Like the others, the dark-skinned man was grinning cheek to cheek. "Happy darkies," whispered Kerry.
Daddy pulled the Buick where he was directed onto an orange rectangle and jumped out, motioning for us to do the same. The soldiers surrounded him. One shook his hand. "Come for dinner?" he said pleasantly. A small German shepherd rushed through the inside of the Buick, sniffing everywhere, finding nothing. It ran out one of the back doors and returned to a mat where it had previously lay gnawing a fresh bone. It whined and rolled its sad eyes at us.
"They get a little reward if…" the soldier began, but cut himself off with a smile.
"Yeah," said Daddy. "Well, he won't get a reward off us. We're good tourists."
Another friendly black soldier came over and offered us a list of restaurants. "Some of them aren't too close," he said. "You may have to drive a bit. They're all in hotels."
"I've got a reservation," said Daddy.
I was unaware that he had made one. "The Painter House," he continued.
"Right up the street," said another of the soldiers. "Linda's place. Grills steaks and makes beef stew and the best mashed potatoes that… Well, I guess for you any mashed potatoes would do."
Daddy nodded his head. I suddenly saw great pity in the soldiers' eyes. "Want to see our passes?" Daddy asked. "No," said one of the soldiers. "You're free to stay here as long as you like….or can. Don't let your money run out. We don't do welfare, and things are a little more expensive here."
"And well worth it!" Daddy exclaimed with a broad smile that beamed a little about finding new freedom.
"Linda's a fine woman and a good cook," the soldier said. "She'll take care of you. But remember, she's not a nurse."
VIII. The Painter House
The Painter House, owned and operated by one Linda Newell, was only a five minute drive up the road. Its lights shone brightly in the failing dusk which had fallen over what was a cheerful looking little town of neat brick houses and fascinating aromas. "They're all cooking," Daddy said. "All cooking whatever they want, and it ain't blocs!" Another massive neon sign blinked ahead:
SAINT-JAMES, GATEWAY TO THE GULF OF MEXICO. ENJOY YOUR STAY.
Music of several sorts filtered out of the hotel. The mellow sounds of ice clinking in glasses and spirited conversation filled the air. The rich smells were unfamiliar but inviting. "It's all food," said Daddy. "They have a menu here, lots of choices."
"I have no idea what to eat," said Kerry. "That's why I have parents."
"Pre-bloc parents," added Mom, her first words in a while.
Inside the Painter House, an affable desk clerk showed us our room, which had two king sized beds and a telephone. She dropped the scribbled address of a doctor by the phone and shrugged her shoulders, always smiling. She invited us to come to the dining room whenever we were ready. "We're serving till midnight," she said, leaving and closing the door behind her. Kerry said something about being hungry but wanted to swim in the pool first. Mom shook her head dolefully. "We can't do that," she said. "We have to eat first. Then you can swim until the pool closes."
"If I can," said Kerry. He knew all about the problem. And I had half thought he didn't. It was, of course, something they never failed to teach in school.
We descended a big flowing staircase into the dining room. A bald saxophonist was blowing notes all over the place, big heavy notes from a tune I couldn't piece together. He was overweight and swatted large drops of sweat off his slick forehead. His eyes fixed on us for a moment, and he lifted his instrument as if to say "Welcome and good luck."
We were the only non-Africans in the room, and I sensed that they were going to make a fuss over us, but I didn't know how much. Linda herself, a portly woman with a deep motherly grin appeared in a slightly food-soiled apron. A man at the table next to us laughed and said "It's just show. She hasn't cooked in years. Suppose she samples everything though." He returned back to a stack of steaming green vegetables that I was unable to identify. Next to him a pretty woman sawed hungrily at a large brown chunk of what I presumed to be meat. She shoved a hunk of it in her mouth and smiled warmly at our table. "Mmm…mm…good," she said with genuine pleasure and not a hint of malice. She wanted us to eat and even went as far as to proffer a little dish of mashed orange vegetables and gravy our way. Daddy politely declined.
Linda came over to us and said, with no introduction, that she had two surprises. "First," she laughed, "your meal is free---and I don't want any argument about that. And second, I've got prime rib, mashed potatoes, mixed greens, red-eye gravy and hot pecan pie. You can pay for a cocktail if you want one. Does anyone want something different?" Linda put her hands on her substantial thighs and waited for an approval.
Daddy, looking thin amidst all the hearty eaters, thanked Linda and assured her that her prime rib would be just great. A worried look crossed his brow, a look which Mom and Linda noticed at once. "You gave us a free meal last time," he said quietly. "That was about seven years ago."
"Can't remember," said Linda. "But tonight you eat for nothing again. Bon appetit."
"Is that when I puked all over?" Kerry asked, looking around for a laugh which didn't come. Mom just whispered a weak "Shhh."
"You'll be all right this time," said Linda unconvincingly. "People change…adjust, or so they say." She strolled across the dining room floor and massaged the broad shoulders of another customer, who hardly took his eyes up from a plate piled high with food that I couldn't name. The saxophonist came down from his raised platform and blew a sallow note or two next to our table. I noticed that he had a shining row of gold teeth. They seemed very pretty.
We sat in silence until our meal arrived, big hot dishes of things with thrilling aromas, smaller plates steaming with multi-colored substances. Dad quietly named them on arrival: "End cut prime rib with brown gravy, mashed potatoes with butter and bacon bits, steamed asparagus, fresh baked corn bread, collard greens and vinegar." And later: "Hot pecan pie with vanilla ice cream."
Then a dusky soloist accompanied by a clarinet player sang a soulful song about long-ago suffering. "I was hungry and wet," she crooned. The mood seemed right. We ate and ate. It was beyond delicious. It was food. Good food.
Daddy patted his stomach. Mom whispered something about a tip. Daddy said he still had lots of Chip money and that a tip of twenty thousand dollars would not be out of line for such an excellent meal. Both parents looked sad but seemed distantly content. Their eyes told me that they were remembering things that we would never know about, old half-forgotten things. At one point Mom made a little joke about not needing ketchup. Only Daddy laughed.
It started when Kerry got back from his swim.
Mom and Daddy were sitting side by side on the little couch in the room. For a few moments they were holding hands, something I had never seen them do before. Then a television program about flying dogs seemed to absorb them. I read a school magazine in a soft chair by the window. The sounds of happy laughter from below wafted upward into our room. I glanced at my parents and suddenly realized how thin they both were. It had taken a trip among the "happy darkies" of Saint-James to remind me. We were all thin.
Kerry came dripping into the room. "I'm sick, Mom," he groaned. "My stomach is killing me, and I have cramps."
"Maybe you swam too much," Mom said, worried. Daddy grimaced and said nothing. It was then that my fingers felt frozen. I dropped the magazine and nearly blanked out when I bent to retrieve it. My sides started throbbing, and every square inch of my skin blazed with the fire of deep pain. Little grains of flashing light danced in front of my eyes, and I shivered uncontrollably, alternately hot and cold. Through the sudden agony I noticed that Daddy was kneading his stomach fiercely. Mom was rubbing her forehead. Kerry staggered into the bathroom and wretched without ejecting food. "I'm hungry," he gasped. "I need to eat."
Mom looked like a caged rat. Her eyes darted back and forth as she rubbed her head harder and harder. Daddy vomited beside the couch and curled over in a spasm. In minutes, we were all three prostrate on the floor writhing in hunger pangs, hunger for the one food on earth on which our society was founded: blocs---the artificially manufactured, totally abundant substance that our government had introduced after the Partition and the Great Famine. Kerry and I knew nothing else, despite the longings of our parents for "real food," despite the ketchup they supposedly once used to overcome the blandness of the original blocs. Blocs, though nutritious, were totally addictive, and once a regimen of them was established, nothing else could ever replace them again, not Linda's prime rib or candied yams, not any of the other exotic delicacies from before the Partition.
Green with illness, queasy and hovering near unconsciousness, stricken with hundreds of vague pains and in the grip of a mind-numbing malaise, we crossed the trade bridge. Daddy swerved and veered as he hunched over the steering wheel of the Buick and nursed us back into our own land.
At three that morning, we sat staring at one another and quietly moaning until Saint Ruthie---she'd already gotten the name---brought us heaping plates of blocs. Saint or not, Ruthie's overnight prices were not cheap, and when Daddy requested a bottle of ketchup, he gave out the last of his Chip money.
Devon Pitlor -- August, 2009