Tourmaline (part two)
They were touching, packed that tightly, twisting shoulders to avoid intimacy; by this, still effaced and invisible to one another. They were queued so far along the street, he doubted he could respect Palma’s curfew. He doubted he would be fed at all. Here were three who’d given it up, seated themselves in an entry alcove, bundling under a shared blanket. This business, like all he knew of along the waterfront, was shuttered, its windows filled by tidy sheets of something black that might be cardboard, or might be steel.
By snipers hidden, looters had been shot so relentlessly… A mile overhead, the invaders might have lain on their bellies, in their slow-moving balloons. They were painted in a pattern of clouds. There was not a scrap of glass on the street. There was no ash, no paper. No grafittied symbol of defiance, no unlocked door.
To bide the time he began a story: The character fashions false news. I have tourmaline to sell, sir. I have had tourmaline stolen from me, ma’am. I remember tourmaline from the old days, child. The character has learned to compensate at such times he must do without tourmaline, the thing wanted and not wanted. Today, the character would rather eat.
That anyone would speak or shout, that any of these colorless bodies clad in dark olive, their ears wrapped in scarves, would uncouple from the train, and lose his place…meant of course, that they had all lost their places. Someone, meters ahead, out of sight but screaming, had missed…finding herself not next, but first. Her foot on the doorstone with the kitchen being shut, bolted for the night. They were a mob now. The snaking line compressed and throbbed. Something flew. Anton flung a hand to catch it, or deflect it. He was struck across the diaphragm. He felt the heel of a shoe ram the back of his knee, and sank, but could not come to rest, the crowd so dense he was jostled from collision to collision. The voices fell away.
Palma had given him (rather, the character to be called A. Leonhardt, he amended) her explanation for what the G.R.A. did. Were now doing. The sound was in fact loud, but sub-audible; the tiny hairs that transmitted sense to the nerves inside the ear told the target he was being yelled at, rebuked by a stern father. The effect was a terrible unease.
“My advice, Anton, is the same as always. You are not you. You have a friend who writes under a name. I could accept your politics if I were willing to publish lies in my own paper.”
He had tried for two years—that had been in the capital—to win her respect. But Palma had not said all of these things. Anton had no friends and had never claimed to. He had no politics, but she had accused him of it. This pedantic speaker, then, this old man, was signaling him, covering Palma’s well-remembered dismissal. The added bit…Anton wondered if he had forgotten it already.
Some other Anton grunted in reply. A woman danced in front of Anton, laying a hand on his sleeve. On the four fingers were rings, silver rings stacked and set with green stones. I am being mocked, he told himself.
The sound cannon seemed to have left off. The rings glinted.
A tin of metal glinted.
“You deserve it, don’t you? They didn’t have any business, shoving you.”
He found himself nodding, silently dropping the potted meat in a pocket of his coat, and taking too long to say the polite thing.
“Come on, Dad.”
She started down the way that led to the wharfside. She’d crooked an elbow, and taken the old man’s arm. They might be wrong, and he ought not trust them.
“No,” he said. “Wait.”
The other Anton, a thin young man with dark-circled eyes, sheared off, speaking no word; he had not bothered, even, to peer face-to-face at his doppelgänger. But Anton found there was a second girl. She came out from behind the old man’s raincoat.
“I have biscuits in my room. We might make a meal of it.” He patted the tin in his pocket. “All of you.”
He added, “I don’t mind.”
He minded intensely. Being cleaned out of store…just to learn if they would rob him properly, once he’d shut the door and was alone with them. Or they might not rob him, but he would starve for obligation anyway, and could not send the distress signal to Palma. Her scorn would be blistering. Why he would not fend for himself, if it were only food he needed…fend for himself! Like the others did.
The woman was telling him their names, chattering on the way up the hill (the man, and his younger daughter had got ahead, and seemed to be leading Anton to his own house). She had some story as well—he couldn’t listen for agitation—one in which her father figured. He had once taught the difficult grammar of the peninsula’s tribal language. A private tutor in a private home. The doctor had fled on one of the last boats leaving.
“So we’re out of employment, all of us.”
And she said it too. He was embarrassed at this inadvertent comedy. He had been going to ask her, again, what was her name.
She asked, “What is your name?”
“Anton.” And then he felt this refusal of a surname might be rude. He was sure it couldn’t be…but let it drop. In that way, he had not learned who she was.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)