In Little America

When I first arrived I was struck by how familiar or semi-familiar the enclave seemed. Some effort had been expended to make the neighborhood more home-like, even if the style of the buildings and the materials used in paving the streets and sidewalks were utterly native to this country. Unofficial signage was posted in English alongside the local undifferentiable squiggles. The principal street was lined with hamburger shops and frozen yogurt stores, some of which assumed vintage American brand names and a limited version of their former signage and trade dress.

None of our quarrels had been resolved.

Ivan Rios-Fetchko, When I Think of America, I Think of Sunsets (for Henry). 2020, oil pastel on paper. 30 × 40".

In my new country of residence no one believed I was a tourist, not at the airport when I arrived nor when I looked for places to live and work. It was hard to find work and then once I did, in a food-processing plant, I overstayed my visa, until I couldn’t any longer. Further crackdowns were coming. I went to another country and then another after that, each move a last-minute escape from a looming migrant center or prison. One desert border was crossed on foot with about a dozen other undocumented travelers of diverse origins, led by smugglers who did not know the way as well as advertised. The noonday frigidity broke records, yet in its lack of relief, its desolation, its stillness, and its boundless, cloudless, birdless sky, the desert was a place of strange and absolute beauty. Every one of the desperate migrants was aware of this beauty, this gorgeousness, this transcendence, this manifestation of perfect harmony, as if it were a discrete, substantial item, its appreciation the full purpose of human existence, even as we suffered for it. We continued on, watching our steps. Night fell, the cold like a blade slicing through every inch of our exposed skin, and a family with an elderly parent had to be left behind, still drinking in the beauty.

For ten months or so I belonged to a crew on a container ship flying a flag of convenience. My passport wouldn’t allow me ashore in most ports. The borderless, visa-free ocean was my home.

The American catastrophe had meanwhile entered a new phase that drained the world of any cruel pleasure it had taken in our downfall. Now the overwhelming sentiment was pity. I followed the news with averted eyes.

Around the same time, the technology used to monitor international travel and border security had matured into an airtight system, employing biometric indicators and closely networked databases. A cashless, digital economy and location services embedded into nearly every electronic device made it possible for any nation to know the identity and whereabouts of every last person within its borders and determine his or her residency status, legal or not. Unsanctioned migration had become virtually impossible.

Either for reasons of compassion, domestic politics, or workforce considerations, or a combination of the three, a few nations continued to accept migrant Americans. One of these, my next refuge, was a country with which the United States had few historic connections. Its principal ethnic group had never been a component of our celebrated melting pot. Its people, in turn, were mostly unfamiliar with American history, our culture, our mores, and our skin tones. Surprised sales clerks would stare when we entered their shops. Beyond linguistic specialists at the university, very few local people spoke English and the national language’s non-Indo-European roots, labyrinthine grammar, and subtle intonation system made it very difficult for us to learn. I was good at acquiring foreign languages, but I would pick up only enough for a simple conversation.

We were tolerated, though. Americans came to occupy a vast enclave on the broad marshy plain outside the capital city. Obsolete industrial buildings, abandoned data-processing and call centers, landfills, and dumps sprawled across the territory. At one time the area had been settled by workers who had come from the country’s hinterlands and laid down blocks upon blocks of bungalows, shacks, tenements, and smoky, huddled family compounds. They left and years later Americans moved in, showing some ingenuity in improving living conditions. The newcomers jury-rigged water, sewage, and electrical systems, not always safely or in conformity with government standards, which, in this outlying quarter, were laxly observed. The congestion of the streets, the ramshackleness of the residential structures and improvisational dwellings, their confines, the noise and refuse, and the limited penetration of daylight were beyond most of the Americans’ experience.

But when I first arrived I was struck by how familiar or semi-familiar the enclave seemed. Some effort had been expended to make the neighborhood more home-like, even if the style of the buildings and the materials used in paving the streets and sidewalks were utterly native to this country. Unofficial signage was posted in English alongside the local undifferentiable squiggles. The principal street was lined with hamburger shops and frozen yogurt stores, some of which assumed vintage American brand names and a limited version of their former signage and trade dress. The enclave was usually identified by a tortuously Anglicized rendering of its original, unpronounceable name. No one called it Little America, but that’s how it was thought of by its inhabitants, or at least that’s how I thought of it.

I soon learned that the Americans had also imported their divisions. This was inevitable, I suppose. None of our divisions had been erased. The circumstances of living together in a single enclave, however, made it difficult to isolate the political sides geographically, as they were often separated in the States. Some buildings, some neighborhoods, and some places of business went one way or another, unpredictably, but we basically lived on top of each other. This resulted in a constant low-grade insecurity, a buzzing tension. The parties no longer had a country to fight over, so the former paramilitaries had reassembled themselves into criminal gangs still affiliated with their political convictions, even if those convictions were irrelevant in this new place and barely recalled. You’d see their men around, everywhere.

Shortly after I arrived, while I was exhausting my money at a primitive boarding house, I went for a long walk through the district, trying to get my bearings. The streets were full. People wore their clothes in the American style and their faces were recognizably American. They addressed each other in English, with familiar regional accents. It was a relief to hear the language spoken, especially by small children, most of whom, I guessed, hadn’t been born in the States. Passing a small factory that had been turned into a primary school, I heard a familiar jump rope rhyme in the yard. If I closed my eyes, I might have thought I was home, for a few moments at least, before being disabused by everything else that was strange about the place. On the main shopping avenue, a hamburger restaurant called itself by the name of the most famous American hamburger brand, which had gone out of business years earlier. The custom-made signage wasn’t quite right and neither were the indoor furnishings, which attempted to replicate the uber-familiar furnishings of the original. They too had to be made from scratch, of course, or scavenged from unrelated local businesses. I ordered a burger. I was stunned by how expensive it was and how nasty, nothing like the hamburgers I thought I enjoyed. Fries were unavailable.

Back on the street, I realized that many food and retail outlets had adopted retired brand names, in some cases the names of businesses unrelated to the items they were selling. A sporting goods store had taken on the name of a former supermarket chain; an auto repair shop called itself after a popular jeans brand, with an attempt at the jeans brand’s logo in the signage. The names had evidently been chosen because the brands had once meant something. They had each expressed a specific outlook about the world and we considered our purchases acts of self-expression. In those days, in America, one might have assigned a specific character to a person, quite reliably, by where he or she shopped and by the brands he or she valued. You could probably tell how he or she voted. Men with guns could tell too. Returning on the other side of the street, I passed the hamburger shop again and noticed the clown mascot crudely painted above the awning. The colors were more or less right, but his expression was as horrifying as a deep wound.

I was soon hired to inspect the same kind of security equipment that I had serviced in the city on the bay nearly a decade earlier. My employers were pleased with my experience and my proficiency, especially as it was difficult to find native-born repairmen comfortable with working in the enclave. No major changes had been made in the equipment’s design. The only difference in the job was that the units, installed all over the world on the roofs of buildings, were almost invariably placed in the enclave’s basements and sub-basements. This may have had something to do with the unenforced building codes. I was given a powerful flashlight and advised to wear thick boots.

I bought a bicycle, which I used to make service calls in all weather. A car was well out of my reach, as it was for most migrants who were not involved in criminal activity. Many were. Reunited in exile, the former militiamen now operated off-the-books enterprises, like moving drugs and running casinos, which seemed like the enclave’s most viable businesses. I’d see the men descending from their sports utility vehicles, often accompanied by security escorts. They paid no attention to me as I biked past and I made an effort to show that I wasn’t paying attention to them, and that in fact I hadn’t seen them at all.

The national government to some extent also ignored the former fighters and their new vocations, seemingly content with its limited writ in the enclave. Officials didn’t mind that a few vendettas had been carried over from the States and that the former militias remained intensely competitive, as long as everything was kept among the Americans. I presumed some payoffs were involved, but obviously this was none of my business.

My job satisfied me, even if my work was now conducted mostly underground. Every balky control unit represented a unique puzzle, a gratifying intellectual challenge that I was good at solving. I liked bicycling through the enclave. It was colorful and lively and intensely American, though anything resembling these particular streets and structures would never have been found in the States. I came to know some residents and their children. They recognized my company uniform and welcomed my presence as something official and benign, a rare combination in the enclave, where there was no mail delivery and few other public services. I waved at the children with my flashlight.

Sometimes the kids only stared and I wondered if they were reporting my itinerary to the militias, who I supposed kept close tabs on what was happening within the district. I thought I could sense this surveillance, even though it was very surreptitious, and close to imperceptible, and possibly a figment of my imagination. Some buildings I entered were controlled by one gang or another. A few streets were no-go areas for the other gangs. So people could have been interested in my travels, what I saw, what I knew. I could not be sure how I was being watched, but the surveillance was not a figment, I thought with some confidence, or at least with as much confidence as I could ever muster—no less aware, after these many years of dislocation, that I was susceptible to impossible fancies and radical uncertainty.

From time to time I was sent outside the enclave to inspect rooftop equipment in the downtown business district, which had recently become the continent’s most important financial capital. Audacious new construction dwarfed the pretensions of the other cities in which I had lived. Whole neighborhoods had been razed and rebuilt and they were now serviced by sleek, superfast public transport, stylish bistros, and high-end retail shops. Sharp-looking businesspeople from all over the region flooded the granite sidewalks. In the new skyscrapers aerodynamically advanced elevators zoomed me more than a hundred stories above the landscape, where the enclave was barely discoverable among the city’s outlying territories.

Recalling an earlier architectural style, the new buildings were walled by towering sheets of glass, some of it highly reflective. Decorative and artistic objects in the plazas, situated around perfectly still wading pools, were surfaced in stainless steel. Some objects were concave-shaped, others convex, fabricated with a variety of focal lengths. The result for the observer, walking determinedly from one corporate complex to the other, was a cacophony of reflected images, some of them distorted or unexpectedly located, chunks of sidewalk or passing buses flying above his head or patches of sky scurrying by his feet.

Many of the images were generated by my own self, so that I was always accompanied on my travels to the city, under my own surveillance. Copies of Ron Patterson and his toolbox echoed between the mirrored surfaces ad infinitum. But they weren’t precise copies, probably because of something having to do with the surface optics, and they often made him look older or thinner, more American or less so, less worn or more athletic, smarter or less lonely, suggesting the other fellows that were contained within him, the fellows that could have been him, if events had turned out differently.

Compared to the skyscraper rooftops, which were noiseless save for the winds, the enclave’s basements were as clamorous as train stations, kindergartens, and football stadiums. First, I would often hear the sound of other people speaking and moving elsewhere in the building. And then the structures creaked, water dripped, rats skittered just beyond the reach of my light, the country’s indigenous cockroaches made little tap-tap-tap noises, and there were always a few other sounds I couldn’t identify. Plus, occasionally, I heard a human step very close, a shuffle, a breath, whatever emanations might signify a human presence. I’d put on a friendly, harmless smile while I waited for the person to appear. There was nobody . . .

. . . until there was. This time I hadn’t heard a thing. I was in a small alcove in a sub-basement, closing the panel of a unit I had just inspected. As I turned, a bulky figure presented itself and occupied virtually the entire doorway.

This must have given me a start, but I quickly recovered.

“Hi, how are you?” I said in the local language. “I’m just finishing up here, everything checks out.”

The light was so poor that I could hardly see the man’s face or its expression. But he was obviously a native person.

He gazed at me. Then he looked down at a pocket-sized notebook.

“You’re Ron Patterson, I believe,” he said in heavily accented English. “An American.”

“Yes sir,” I said. I told him who I worked for.

He nodded, confirming this with whatever was written in his notebook.

The man didn’t say anything for a while. His presence seemed to expand until it filled every space in the room. I couldn’t get past him, of course.

He finally spoke, staying in English with some difficulty. He told me that he was a police detective. He told me his name, a random assortment of affricates and diphthongs that I couldn’t possibly retain. He said he was assigned to the enclave, which I guessed from his manner was an unhappy assignment, perhaps a demotion. He was sent here because he spoke some English. He said his mother had been Irish, though I observed nothing about his features that were remotely Irish. He was responsible for the safety of American migrants, he explained. This declaration would have come off as idealistic or even pompous if his command of the language had been more confident.

He was, I thought, a sad and awkward person. I had no doubt about his bulk, however, and his capacity to throw it around, if necessary. Although the police in this country didn’t commonly carry guns, he reserved the other prerogatives attached to the police of most countries. And, perhaps, in this rough neighborhood, he did indeed carry a gun.

“You need to help me,” he said, his words sinking into my gut like one of the hamburgers. “You have a responsibility. You have to protect your people.”

“What people?”

“The American people,” he intoned, sounding like an American politician, except for the nearly confounding accent and mispronunciation. “You can go anywhere in the district, any building. Good. Continue with your inspections. But you need to open your eyes and ears. Tell me what the gangs are doing, what they’re planning. I have to know about any kind of conflict that might happen. I’m here to save American lives.”

Aware that my permission to live in his country was revocable with a single keystroke, I tried to show myself to be agreeable. I nodded several times to demonstrate how hard I was listening. I gritted my jaw to indicate that I was accepting a grave responsibility. I murmured, with deep regret, that I hardly ever saw or heard anything, but I would make a special effort. Although I never wanted to have anything to do with the cops, I asked how I should contact him, in the unlikely event that I did learn something.

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’ll contact you.”

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