‘Uniform of War’, Harry Pauff

Illustrations © 2018 Carmen Moran

 [ Fire and Iron, © 2018 Carmen Moran ] It’s Thursday at Fire and Iron Coffee and the air is electric. The crowd is buzzing. Most of them have switched from caffeine to alcohol and they’re starting to get restless and rowdy. When Machine finally steps to the microphone, the coffee house goes quiet.

They’ve all come to see tonight’s special guest, to gaze upon his physique, and to hear his words. The voices have stopped arguing. The drinking games have been put on hold. The promises to commit violence have faded. There’s no clanking of dishes coming from a kitchen in the back. There’s no door ringing announcing the arrival and departure of patrons. There are no vehicles whizzing by on the streets outside because there are no streets outside. The silence this crowd is generating in the moments before he speaks is so perfect that I want to bottle it and sip from it because it would taste infinitely better than this fake beer. I lean back and close my eyes, breathing in the moment, hoping it will last forever. And then Machine opens his mouth and ruins it.

He starts slow, speaking of oppression and disrespect and the many conspiring enemies around; builds to the need for heroic deed, glory and honor, evoking The Great Struggle to come; and finishes with steel and iron and blood, making the public promise to give his life if needed and calling on his warrior brothers to do the same.

The coffee house erupts when he finishes. They chant his name, thrusting their fists into the air and pounding the floor with their feet. He comes down off the stage and wades through the crowd, fist-bumping here, backslapping there, and hugging when necessary. All the muscular beef in the crowd trips over themselves trying to get a word of praise to him, to get acknowledgment or to whisper just the right thing to prove their genius to him in some way.

His words were eloquent, beautifully delivered with confidence and impeccable timing. He’s a rock star for a reason. I don’t rush over and try to get in his presence, but I do clap for him. I don’t really have a choice in the matter. If anyone sees me not clapping, they might get suspicious and realize I’m not who I say I am.

When Machine finally logs off, the crowd starts to calm down and open mic night can start. Those that follow Machine on the mic are not nearly as good as he or as subtle. They speak of the enemy in cruder terms, calling for their heads, demanding we throw them back into the water, or suggesting we keep them around and throw the yoke of slavery on them. Their words are uninspired. There’s no rhyming. There’s no structure. No cleverness. No imagery. These are merely statements, wish lists, ramblings more than anything. At least Machine had style.

When they call me to the stage, the butterflies start to dance inside. It’s easy to sit back and laugh at them, harder to get up in front of them and say something challenging even though I’ve done this dozens of times by now.

I’m up on the stage looking out at the sea of white faces, grateful that there’s at least a microphone between them and me. Their hairstyles are sort of different, some have beards, some don’t, but all of them are tall, muscular, and male, like they’re all from the same white rubber mold.

I look just like them. I’m big and beefy and my beard is gnarly, but the way they’re staring at me in silence makes me wonder if any of them know that they’re looking at a lie. Or maybe this is just what it’s like to be paid attention to.

I’m a lie standing right before their eyes and I don’t feel guilty because none of their avatars reflect the real them. None of them are this tall or this muscular in reality—there’s no way—but I would be very surprised if any of them were also a little brown lady from the Philippines. They would kill me if they knew. I’m the enemy. I’m Mulan. I’m the Trojan Horse.

With my audience captive, I speak of the trees, of the refuge of shade, of the nuts and the squirrels that eat them. My arms spread and waver like branches in the breeze. In my living room, I probably look ridiculous with the bulky immersion helmet strapped to my head and my stick-thin arms flailing about, but in the coffee house I know I look strong and sturdy. I speak of the grass and the tickle and comfort it brings to your cheek, and the flowers that depend on the bees and the bees that depend on the flowers.

I’m no master poet, but I’m better than almost all of them. When I finish, there’s a smattering of applause mostly from one guy with a big red beard, but there’s more confusion than anything, even some laughs. No one pines to touch me when I get off the stage, no one comes to my table and offers to buy me a drink.

What follows me is more of the same in the spirit of Machine, and as the night goes on and the drinks flow, they get worse. Kill them. Throw them back into the sea. Kill them before they can even get to the sea. Kill them where they live. Drink their blood and build cities with their bones. Take their women and brainwash their children to do the killing for us.

There’s nothing I can do but sit there and listen. I can’t get up and leave. One, that would be impolite to say my piece and leave, and two, I don’t want to look suspicious. The five pack of beefy white guy avatars is expensive and I’ve already lost four of them to various schemes. So I have to sit there and listen, which is fine. All of that is fine. I did what I came to do.

No matter what I looked like, I could never stand up there and yell at them, tell them how wrong they are, what idiots they’re being, rattle off stats proving the level of their wrongness. They’d ban me and never even think about changing their minds. But what I can do is put on my uniform and get up there and insert just a little bit of a pause between the calls for blood and inhumanity. Maybe I get up there and talk about bunnies and sunshine or whatever and I’m just some eccentric weirdo to them. Maybe no one listens, but maybe one of them does. Maybe one of them considers the connected nature of everything just long enough for a hairline crack to form in their uniform, one that can be deepened and widened over time. I don’t expect them to log off and change everything right away, but given time, maybe just maybe. Some say there are better ways to spend a Thursday night, but I don’t think so. I’m a warrior and my battle is here.

I come back next Thursday and the Thursday after that and it’s never not stressful. When I’m not on the stage, when I’m just living my life as me, I’m always writing in my notebook, scribbling poems no one else will see. Poems just for me. Sometimes I try to share them, but no one expects much from me in the real world. Just because I’m quiet they think I’m simple. Just because I come from a different country and speak with an accent they think I don’t understand anything about anything. It makes me a little ill to know that I feel most comfortable sharing my writing when I use it as a weapon dressed in the body of someone who hates me.

When I put on the immersion helmet, I fully expect to find that I won’t be able to access Fire and Iron Coffee, but I’m let in every time.

No one talks to me, but they start to recognize me, booing me when I’m on my way to the stage. There’s laughter, lots of laughter, and plenty of unprompted guesses from the audience about what I’ll talk about next. Rainbows. Unicorns. Puppies. Cuddles and kittens. The loving embrace of ten men in my mouth.

I keep it fresh every week and watch for their reactions, hoping I might latch on to something that resonates with them, but they don’t respond to the idea that we’re all breathing the same air, nor do they care that we’re all made from the same stuff as stars.

If anything, they’re getting more hostile towards me and I’m beginning to think that maybe this is a waste of time, that I should be waging my war on a different front.

On what’s to be my fourth Thursday going, I almost chicken out. I put on the immersion helmet and take it off dozens of times. I even set it down and walk away to turn on the water for a hot shower. Rationalizing giving up comes so easy. Too easy. There are better ways. They’re hopeless. Why even bother.

But guilt is a strong force and the farther I stray from that helmet, the guiltier I feel. Someone has to try. I have to go in there. I don’t have any choice.

Smoke fills the coffee house now, obscuring the tables and the stage. Whoever owns the place must have gotten the smokers’ modification. Just about everyone is exhaling huge plumes into the air. I switch on some filters so I don’t feel any of the effects of it and I grope my way through the thick haze looking for my usual spot only to find someone sitting in my chair. He’s little more than a thick outline in this smoke, but I won’t let some shadow intimidate me. I take a seat across from him and wait for him to say something.

We sit in silence until the emcee welcomes surprise guest Machine back to the stage and the man sitting across from me stands up and walks to the front. The crowd loses it. They can barely see him, but they love him. His disembodied voice blaring over the shroud covering the room is the voice of God, angrier than ever, more urgent in its demand for warrior brothers to unite and win the Final Fight against the enemy.

Those that follow him on the mic try to match his intensity, but don’t come close at all, nor are they even listened to. Most of the audience are busy mobbing Machine as he makes his way through the crowd. He gives them some of his time and poses for some photos with them before he begs them for a little peace. When they give him enough space, he makes his way back to my table and sits in my seat.

I’m stuck now. I should have left as soon as he got up to go on that stage. All the things I had thought I would say to this man if I ever got him alone now seem so inadequate.

“We’ve been watching you,” Machine says. “We’ve seen you do this shtick in other instances, in other coffee houses and other bars. Beneath that beautiful exterior you wear is something truly ugly. Whatever agenda you have, whatever you’re trying to accomplish won’t work. We’re strong. You don’t know strength like this. You can go up there and say whatever you want. We don’t fear you. No one listens to you. Your words crash on our bodies and minds like water on rock. Just know that I will kill you if we ever meet in person.”

I can hear people all around us whispering. Why is Machine talking to him? I know they don’t think this is a pep talk telling me I can do better. More likely they know he’s drawing attention to me for a reason. I feel like I should just log off here and now and take my chances elsewhere, but the man is just so damn unlikable that I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.

They call me to the stage and I bomb. Whatever I had planned for tonight departs me as soon as I crawl up there in front of all of them. There’s nothing but mush in my brain and nonsense on my tongue. The crowd’s laughter stings worse than ever.

 [ Dogs, © 2018 Carmen Moran ] Machine is wearing a huge grin when I get back to the table. He waits for me to lose it, to explode and unload on him, to call him names and deride him, and then log off in a huff. Everyone in the room is waiting for that so they can cheer their hero.

I take my seat across from him and smile back. They’re going to have to drag me out of this place.

Before he can open his mouth and say anything, the emcee calls the next person to the stage. The words that flow from this poet’s mouth are so banal and so beautiful. I’m trying to cast aside the smoke so I can see the man. I’ve seen him before. His fiery red hair and beard are hard to miss. His gruff voice speaks of the dogs that run alongside us on all the continents, the dogs that have run alongside us since we’ve been running. Black dogs, brown dogs, yellow dogs, white dogs, their friendship and loyalty are beautiful things.

The crowd is stunned when this gorgeous soul departs the stage. Machine is fuming, the thick tendons in his neck straining to escape his skin. He points at me and then snaps his finger.

I’m back in my living room in my own skin and I’m banned, but that’s ok because I’ve already won.

© 2018 Harry Pauff

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