Natalie was manning the phones. Picking up a call, she suddenly sat bolt upright in her chair as if someone had, with great malice, stuck a spear through the bottom of her seat straight up her spine. This caused me to look at her. Her face had turned white. In an impossibly solicitous voice she said, “Hold on, I’ll transfer you to Ross Fowler.” She transferred the call and put the receiver back down with exquisite reverence. Religious rite completed, she sprung up and lunged at Colleen, the person nearest her, grabbing her by both arms and screeching, “That was Brent Hammersmith on the phone! Brent Hammersmith! Hammersmith . . . Hammersmith . . .” She rocked her back and forth in her fervor, almost knocking off Colleen’s glasses.
“Like, Brent Hammersmith the actor?”
“No, Brent Hammersmith the plumber. Yes! Yes!”
Colleen was suitably impressed, putting her hands to her face, doing a fair imitation of the famous Munch painting, asking a myriad of questions. Mr. Hammersmith was second in line only to Ross with regard to her overabundant supply of admiration for good-looking, big-hearted men. If anyone could ever knock Ross out of her dreams, it would be this blond god of a man.
I felt only contempt for them at that moment. If Brent Hammersmith did agree to narrate our PSA, we would have to lock these two up. Colleen had a nice boy-faced husband; he came occasionally to the office to pick her up. Did he understand she was living this secret life? I had to wonder sometimes just how committed Colleen and Natalie were. Wasn’t it about time to grow up? They wanted to include me in their hysterics/jubilation, but I coldly turned away. What a couple of imbeciles, I thought. What exactly are they here for, anyway?
A notorious prison compound. Many of the inmates have been imprisoned unjustly for several years without trial. Some are killed within days of their arrest. Suddenly six or seven prisoners are pulled from the group and marched outside, chosen at random; no one is of any distinct value here. Grouped together, then shot dead. One death no different, of no consequence, from any other. The bodies dumped in shallow graves. Every day the same thing happens until the death count is in the hundreds. The families of these victims of extrajudicial execution often never know where their loved ones are, never know what happened to them. Are they alive; are they dead? Often they’re driven by this need to know to seeking freshly dug graves under the cover of night; driven in their desperation to searching the fields and riverbeds in the countryside surrounding the death camp, walking the roads leading away from the killing place under darkness, digging up strange mounds, unnatural formations in the ground—unmarked graves. Lost hidden souls and their nocturnal seekers, children of God . . .
* * *
It was just about 3:30 in the afternoon and I was sitting on the couch in the outer HRI office, eating a late lunch and holding forth to the assembled audience. Everyone had crashed here for the moment, a rare instance of relaxation in this highly-strung place, except for the volunteer who was gamely trying to answer the phone amidst all the racket. A sense of camaraderie permeated the gab session and it felt good, materializing from nowhere to comfort our sundry and various afflictions. No one could pull away.
Drawn to the commotion, Bob came out of his office and surveyed the staff sprawled about. “At ease, folks.”
“Hey, I was here till ten last night! And I’ve been on my feet since five this morning doing the press releases with a person from the planet Neptune,” I protested. Bob made his ‘watch it’ face at this characterization of another volunteer—a new one—a bit of an operator and not well liked. “She’s not here, Bob; she had an appointment. God, you know she kept trying to get me to say something like we were offering her a job. I kept thinking, why I am alone in the building at six in the morning with someone I have no idea whether they’re actually sane or not?” I hunched my shoulders and shuddered. “We kept faxing and faxing till we broke the machine.”
“Did you get’em all out?”
“Yes, Bob, they’re out. We had to do the local ones ourselves. Like an idiot I gave her all my cash to take a copy over to the Register by cab, and I delivered the Yale and downtown ones myself. This is the first time I’ve sat down all day; look, my ankles are all swollen.”
“Wear boots, then no one will notice,” suggested Natalie, perched on the arm of the couch.
“Well, I not gonna be able to get . . .”
Del, the bike courier, pushed through the door wheeling his bike, cutting short my play for sympathy—helmeted, visored, head-phoned and wired for sound—singing, quite professionally, “I got some groceries, some peanut butter . . .” He was generally summoned two or three times a day, exceedingly reliable if somewhat enigmatic. This was his second appearance today. Natalie got up and picked up an envelope off the reception desk—the volunteer still trying to talk on the phone had turned her back to us now, her free hand over her ear.
“This must get there by close of business today,” Natalie intoned, handing it to Del who read the address and nodded his understanding, singing directly to her “. . . ain’t got time for that now,” then bumped his way back out into the hallway, head bobbing rhythmically, and went on his way.
We hadn’t yet decamped by the time Ross and Paul returned from their meeting in New York with the director of our PSA, the very au courant Robbie Sarington. The boss’ eyes grew larger at the sight of us. “I’m guessing everyone’s been released, that’s the reason for this party,” he mused.
“I told Gretchen you’d call her as soon as you came in the door,” the phone volunteer said, handing Ross several messages.
“Our fax machine is broken,” I explained. “Yes, yes, Paul, we called and told them it was an emergency, to come ASAP. Colleen and Geneva are out knocking on doors right now, asking if they can use their fax.”
“Good,” said Ross. “And the rest of you are helping by sitting on your butts here. Unorthodox, but it might work.”
“Oh come on . . . I’ve been up since 5 a.m., you know that.” Natalie and Tyler exchanged meaningful glances. “My ankles are all swollen, look.” I raised my legs up parallel to the floor. Colleen and Geneva came through the door at that moment, returning from their expedition. “Did you send the faxes?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am, down on the second floor.” Colleen, the good girl.
“Did they give you a hard time?”
“No, I gave them two dollars.”
“That’s all I had.”
“I need my change to get home,” Geneva testified.
“You faxed sixteen pages to London and Buenos Aires and you gave them two bucks?”
“Actually, they said to forget it.” We all smiled.
“Bob, give this woman some petty cash,” Ross said pointing to Colleen, his arm extended dramatically in a Shakespearean gesture. Colleen beamed at him.
“How did the meeting go with Robbie Sarington?” Natalie asked.
“You mean the artiste?” scoffed Ross.
“Yeah,” said Paul. “He kept his sunglasses on during the entire goddamn meeting—we’re on the fuckin’ 15th floor.”
They are three young men from Myanmar (Burma): one a writer, the other two an actor and a film director. HRI is concerned at allegations it has received that the 29-year-old student and popular writer was severely ill-treated in detention while undergoing interrogation. He is said to have lost several teeth as a result of the beatings and to have been forced to recite his stories in front of his interrogators while hung upside down from the ceiling. ‘You think you’re very clever; tonight we’ll find out just how clever you are.’ Reportedly, the soldiers would slam his head into the wall each time he stopped talking. All three men are believed to be detained for supporting widespread demands for an end to authoritarian military rule and the restoration of multi-party democracy. Work continues on their behalf.