The title of my novel “united states” is lowercased because we are anything but a united nation. To confront our deeply contentious times, we must do what disparate players in my novel find themselves compelled to do in the chaos of a near-future America: unite in common purpose. The urgency of this truth is made only more apparent by every passing day as we witness senseless, fracturing violence, horrific terrorism, and poisonous political rhetoric. Without compassionate community, we become fatally diminished.
Indies Unlimited, Celebrating Independent Authors
“You’ve gotta stand for something,” John Mellencamp, 1985
Impromptu background music for my novel, “united states,” from “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967
New York City, May, 2038
Quayle heard the horsemen of the Brigades before he saw them, the iron shoes of their mounts clattering behind him as the riders slowed to cross the cobblestones of the same Central Park bridge he had just traversed. The lead horseman launched his mount into a gallop off the bridge, and Quayle leapt aside to allow the squad of a half-dozen uniformed men to gallop past. The riders’ apparent quarry, a balding middle-aged man in a running suit, forged on with arms pumping, headed toward the safety of the traffic of the West Side. The lead horseman overtook him and, wheeling his horse into the man’s path, shouted a command across the grassy plain that separated him from the runner: “Stay where you are, Kidman! We’ve got you now!”
The man swerved down a steep embankment, then reappeared on the far slope of the next grassy rise. Scrambling up to its crest, he let out a groan. He had blundered into the center of a second tightening noose of riders. He was surrounded.
Quayle moved ahead, then stepped under the cover of a towering oak’s low branches.
It was always dangerous to be conspicuous at interventions, the security cameras everywhere. Even innocent observers were vulnerable to roundup, their own backgrounds subject to checks, their faces broadcast if the Brigades found their behavior even slightly suspicious. As chief publicist for the Enterprise, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, Quayle could ill afford negative notoriety.
Along nearby walkways, strollers slunk off. A foreign-looking woman in flowing black skirts and a white caftan suddenly passed him. She halted, took in the scene, and drifted back beside him, glancing at Quayle, her face uncovered for a moment.
“That poor fool,” she whispered under her breath. She tightened her scarf below her eyes. “He’s actually thinking of standing up to them.”
“He’ll be lost if he does,” Quayle said. “They’ll make quick work of him.”
“You are police?” Her dark eyes fixed on him.
Quayle shook his head.
The woman’s face was smooth, cheekbones angular, sharply defined. She appeared Arab, her accent possibly French, her age around thirty-five, although appearance-enhancers now made anyone’s true age hard to gauge. She seemed an unlikely ally of the police, although ever since passage of the Emergency Decrees, foreign-looking strangers could not be ruled out as preying on their own kind; there was money to be made in such complicity.
“News reports this morning called him some sort of dangerous agitator,” Quayle said.
“Sometimes the harmless-looking ones turn out to be most difficult,” she said.
“So it is you who are with the police then?”
She smiled — ironically, he guessed — such tests of allegiances common in this climate of suspicion. “ I have nothing to do with them. I offer healing services to people who are in distress—deep meditation and massage, holistic medicines, natural lotions.” She nodded. “Perhaps a prosperous-looking man such as yourself would require such services? You seem familiar to me. I have seen you someplace before?”
Before he could respond, the lead horseman, a helmeted, fair-skinned youth with wire-rimmed spectacles, smiled an unnatural smile and spurred his roan forward. Jaw thrust out, he leaned forward. “Speak up, Kidman. Save yourself! You know it’s useless to resist.”
The fugitives lips quivered. He shook his head. “I demand to know the charge.”
Onlookers ahead and behind surged forward, bypassing the ravine and moving to the grassy plain where the circle of horsemen now stood; Quayle and the woman felt themselves drawn forward with the crowd.
The commander of the brigade pulled a folded sheet of yellow paper from his uniform and declared in an officious tone: “You know the charge. It’s been announced. It concerns the playwright John Dalton Bright.”
The fugitive’s eyes widened. “You dare confront me with him? His play was an attack on all immigrants, vilifying all who seek refuge here, simply for the crime of breathing. I merely gave it a truthful review.”
“You misunderstand. It has become a criminal matter.”
Kidman’s mouth fell open. “Is it now a crime to criticize a poisonous play? I tell you, as I informed my readers, the play was a crime against truth, not to mention an affront to the audience’s kidneys. At four hours and five acts, the idea that this man might sit in judgment of what is admirable in our nation and what is not is insane.”
The horseman rose in his saddle, held up the damning document and calmly spoke so all could hear: “Do you deny, citizen Kidman, these are your words: ‘Mr. Bright’s play, A Season of Peace, is the spring season’s most shining example of shallowness, its subject matter grotesquely sentimental, its premise childish—pure rubbish—the very length of the work a deplorable, unendurable insult.’” The Brigadesman lifted his eyes from the document. “Are these not your exact words?”
“If you read the full review, you’ll see I also made several positive points. I wrote that the special effects were imaginative and that the view of the stage was adequate even from the cheap seats.”
“You dare mock me?” the Brigadesman snapped. “Do you not know the truth?”
“What more is there to know?”
“Citizen Bright has killed himself; his suicide note has blamed you.”
Kidman stared, his gaze slowly assessing the ragged perimeter of the encirclement; all avenues of retreat were gone.
The fugitive finally answered: “I am aware only that last night the rest of the media called the show a triumph—hardly a surprise, given the fact this dismal work was financed by those who so profusely praise him. Why would it matter so much to him what one negative review said unless he knew I wrote the truth?”
The Brigadesman brandished his yellow sheet. “You are not appreciating the severity of this.”
Kidman shook his head. “What can one say about such an absurd response to a mere theater review. You have trumped all this up for some reason I do not understand.”
“This is no trivial matter,” the Brigadesman repeated. “Your sympathies for enclave appeasers and certain indigent factions opposed to the Emergency Decrees are well known. The evidence is clear; the polls have been taken. Unless you can convince us there are mitigating circumstances, we will have no choice but to pronounce you guilty of provocative acts leading to the death of an innocent man. That is your crime, sir.”
Kidman trembled, his face an angry crimson. “Provocation? Is it now unlawful for a theater critic to condemn the fascist propaganda of a half-witted playwright? Are you saying the decrees should extend to criticism of art? Or perhaps it is all thin cover for ridding yourselves of a Jew who has taken up the rights of immigrants and other indigent people inside the enclaves, including Islamists, for whom you and your Directorate appear to have disgraceful, racist contempt.”
The Brigadesman wheeled his mount. Quayle grabbed the woman by one arm and forced her back, sparing her from being trampled.
The Brigadesman shook his head. Facing the crowd, he began to shout his response to this verbal attack: “You see this man’s deception? He turns this into a political matter, when his own reckless acts are solely to blame. In the Directorate we care nothing about politics. Public safety—the public order—that is our charge. Homicide is a crime—a crime against order.” He dropped his eyes back to the yellow sheet, then slowly raised them again; the lenses of his glasses flashing in the sunlight. “The Emergency Decrees declare that the use of incendiary words are the same as detonated bombs. Citizen Kidman cannot deny that his words have led to the death of an innocent man; no reasonable citizen could. You, the public, agrees, as the morning polls confirm; this man has committed a crime and must confess to it or automatically pay the extreme penalty. So the decrees have proscribed.”
“I will not confess,” the fugitive repeated. “I have committed no crime.”
Quayle and the woman exchanged glances. Since the Christmas bombings, the Directorate and its Brigades, the security arm of the city’s largest corporations, had received extraordinary new powers. The same thought seemed to pass between Quayle and the woman: the fugitive was defying the Directorate; he appeared to be inviting his own death.
The Brigades commander reined in his mount. Rocking back, he again spoke directly to the crowd:
“As always, we are prepared to consider mitigating circumstances. A temporary insanity. An impairment of judgment. Divorce, alcoholism, illness, some similarly serious mitigating circumstance to explain the commission of a grievous libel against an innocent man.” He looked down at Kidman as if addressing a child. “Do you understand?”
“I make no such claim,” Kidman retorted. “The thought is absurd. I merely wrote what I thought about a bad play, nothing more. A bad writer who saw the world through a twisted lens has chosen to kill himself—- an act proving the depths of his self-delusion. I do not consider his death my responsibility. It would make more sense for you to condemn him as his own killer.”
“You would mock me?” cried the horseman, pointing a finger at Kidman. “With freedom comes responsibility; that is the point, and you know it. You have killed a worthy citizen as surely as if you had held the gun to his head. Incendiary words or incendiary bombs, it makes no difference, you have committed murder.”
“I repeat: I emphatically deny it.”
“A pity,” the horseman said, with a look as cold as Quayle had ever seen in any corporate boardroom.
Word of the fugitive’s predicament was traveling fast, people converging from all corners of the park.
“There being no statement from the accused,” the Brigadesman interjected, returning to his officious manner, “it is our conclusion, and the conclusion of public opinion, that you, Israel Kidman, must be held accountable for the untimely death of the aforementioned John Dalton Bright.” He motioned a cameraman closer. “As required by law, I hereby notify you that we will now document everything, cognizant of the fact that we are publicly accountable for all charges filed and all sentences meted out. Israel Aaron Kidman, I ask you again: Do you have anything to say in your own defense before final judgment is passed?”
The accused raised his head: “I will not be an accomplice to injustice; I will not participate in my own condemnation. You wish me to confess to a crime I have not committed, and to absolve yourselves of a crime you yourselves are about to commit. So let the record show I refuse….” He pointed a finger at the film crew drawing up to the encirclement and spoke directly into the camera’s red eye. “Citizens, this man’s words are a sham, only spoken for public effect. You must not believe any of this. These are all lies.”
“This defense you choose to offer is no defense,” the horseman answered back. “The decrees declare this unlawful, the equivalent of an admission of guilt. Do you not know this?”
“I insist on an authentic defense, not a charade.” Kidman shouted, then lowered his head. The rush of midday traffic on the West Side could be heard, the occasional laughter of children in the distance. Slowly, he lifted his eyes. “I have nothing more to say.”
The head horseman began reading from the scripted charge. “You have the right to appeal for clemency. You have the right to cite mitigating circumstances. You have the right to express remorse.”
Quayle knew how the body would be disposed of; the newly-enacted Emergency Decrees had proscribed this well, evoking pity in him for this stranger. The corpse would be dumped in a potter’s field in an unmarked grave, his survivors denied his pension. On every television channel nightly-news loops would play, then replay, selected segments of the Kidman intervention, until his face and carefully edited responses were imprinted on millions of minds, fair warning to all why the emergency decrees’ recent curbs on dissent must be obeyed. How much less extreme for Kidman to confess publicly to his breach of decorum, then accept whatever lesser penalty the Brigades’ tribunal might impose, fair warning enough in its own right.
From the yellow sheet, the Brigadesman read the final interlocutory:
“Are you Israel Aaron Kidman, of 2019 Avenue of the Americas, City of New York, Borough of Manhattan, son of Spellman and Constantine Kidman, both deceased?” The horseman paused. “Let the record note the accused has failed or refused to answer. “Do you admit to having authored the damaging article, appearing on page 13 of the ‘Theater-in-New York’ section of The New York Spectator, dated May 6, 2038, which has been found to have led to the untimely death of one playwright, John Dalton Bright, of 42 Spring Street, Soho, New York, N.Y., found deceased of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on the 14th of May in this year of 2038?”
Kidman again refused to respond.
“There being a note discovered in the deceased’s own hand blaming the accused, Israel Aaron Kidman, whose long-standing malicious contempt for the deceased has been confirmed by the wife of the aforementioned Kidman….flash polls also having identified these inflammatory words as crimes against the public order… and there being no statement of mitigating circumstances on the part of the accused, despite repeated efforts to afford him that right, it is my duty to exercise the completion of the warrant as proscribed by paragraph 3, subparagraph (b) of the Emergency Decrees of December last, in the year 2037, by administering the proscribed sentence.”
He raised his pistol. The fugitive raised his head. For an instant their eyes met, the fugitive’s still wide in apparent disbelief that this could happen, Then the shot cut Kidman’s skull in two. His body tumbled to the grass, blood pooling around his splintered head on the bright green grass.
Beside him, Quayle noticed the woman in the caftan. She was writing something in a small black notebook.
Two riders dismounted and lifted Kidman’s remains into a zippered rubber bag. Closing it, they lifted the corpse over the first Brigadesman’s horse, remounted their own, and trotted swiftly away. The intervention had taken less than thirty minutes.
Quayle attempted to move back to the path, but the woman stopped him, staring directly into his face. “I know you,” she exclaimed.
Quayle, still stunned by the circumstances of the intervention, stared back blankly.
“You are Benjamin Quayle of the Enterprise,” she insisted. “I have seen you on television as a corporate spokesman. You are an important man. Please take this.” She pressed a business card into his hand. “I wish to be of service to you.”
Quayle looked at the card without expression: “De-Stress, Inc.,” it read. “Raisa Amin, Doctor of Meditation.” Below the elaborate gold script was a Park Avenue address and a communicator number.
He tried to hand the card back.
“You do not understand,” she insisted again. “I must speak with you in private. It’s very urgent.”
Before he could refuse a second time, she turned away. Swiftly, she walked up the path, away from the departing Brigadesmen, her long skirts billowing. In seconds, she was gone.
Jack Flyte, head of the Enterprise, an international conglomerate, 2038:
“Under the city’s Emergency Decrees, the Directorate’s intention is to transform the consortium into…an Ayn Rand sort of free enterprise city-state in which New York’s most powerful corporations can conduct business unshackled from all city regulation, taxation, and public oversight…accountable to no one….”
Flyte looked at Benjamin Quayle, his chief publicist and friend, with chagrin. Slowly he shook his head. “I was so consumed by our own empire building, I didn’t see any of it coming—yet there it was, right under my nose.”
Albert Longueille, Algerian ambassador to the United States, at a “safe house” in Brooklyn, 2038:
“Worst of all, your tyrants are among you, your powerful corporate and political elites. They already have the keys to the doors of power—and the safes—yet they still want more. Meanwhile, your government allows them to act in their own interests and against those of the people.”
Cecil Collander at Columbus Circle, 2038:
In a chorus of horns, a gridlock of drivers began to honk their impatience. In a minute, Cecil’s cab lurched forward. With painful slowness it passed by the motionless still-hooded corpses swaying from their ropes. The cab rounded Columbus Circle and crept onto Broadway, finally heading uptown again. Outside her window, Cecil could see a broad expanse of Central Park empty and tranquil, as if the scene two blocks behind had never occurred.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christmas 1942, Germany:
“The reasonable people’s failure is obvious. With the best of intentions and a naive lack of realism, they think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has got out of joint. In their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved. …Still more pathetic…The fanatic thinks that his single-minded principles qualify him to do battle with the powers of evil, but like a bull he rushes at the red cloak instead of at the person who is holding it; he exhausts himself and is beaten….”