I Am France
Hector sat in an armless wooden chair in front of a cold steel card table, drumming his jeweled fingers in hard-time and obsessively checking his watch. He didn’t want to miss his flight, but it looked like there was no choice about it. He would have to book another one.
He could afford it. That certainly wasn’t the problem.
He thumbed through his passport again -- and again! – and adjusted his wine-colored tie under his pink, baby-smooth set of chins.
In front of him, as imposing and out of place in the little room as the maw of an airlock, was a heavy institutional door with what seemed to be claw marks running down it in jagged stripes.
Behind him was a white brick wall.
To his right, was a white brick wall.
To his left, was a white brick wall with a hard plastic window at picture-level. Behind the window were three people in sensible glasses and pink suits with “Travel Agency” lapel pins, making notes on legal pads attached to clipboards and sitting (evenly spaced) behind one long gray desk. There was one middle-aged man, one middle-aged woman, and one young man who would soon be middle-aged and looked as if he welcomed it with open arms, as one might welcome a favorite nephew, or a golden retriever.
Every time Hector looked over at the window, one of the three watchers waved. Hector waved back.
After another fifteen minutes of waiting, the heavy institutional door opened creakily and a woman in sensible slacks and a partially open white blouse entered the room. There was a bandage across her forehead and she had a black eye. She held her left arm high up on her ribs, as if protecting her lungs, and she walked with a slight limp. Hector noticed blood on her socks. Despite her disheveled appearance, she seemed calm and composed – intense in both focus and carriage.
She sat down in the chair across from Hector and turned in her seat, watching the heavy door slowly come to a close. As soon as it snapped shut, the woman pulled a cigarette from behind her ear.
“Fuck you,” she said. “You can’t go to France. And that’s all there is to it. What the hell are you thinking anyway?”
Hector stammered. He stood up in his chair and then sat back down.
“I am going on vacation,” said Hector. “I bought a ticket and arranged all of my affairs. I have followed every security procedure down to the very last silly specification. And yet here I am. I DEMAND an explanation.”
“Fuck you,” said the woman. “You’re not getting one.”
“We’ll just see about that,” said Hector. Hector fumbled in his coat for his cell phone, but as soon as he pulled it out, the woman grabbed it and threw it into a corner where it probably broke.
“Look what you made me do,” said the woman.
Hector sat on his hands, glum.
The woman sighed and set her cigarette on the card table. She massaged her elbow, rolled the cigarette across the table to her other hand, and then picked it back up.
“I am going to start listing truths,” said the woman. “You stop me if you hear something you don’t like or that sounds as if it might be bullshit, Mr. Friesling.”
“This doesn’t sound like a very good game. Who are you, anyway? Do you work for the Travel Agency?”
“I do not,” said the woman. “My name is Alice, and I work for the Office of Immigration Management. That’s truth number one.”
“That sounds like bulls…like a lie,” said Hector. “I’ve never heard of an Office of Immigration Management.”
“Well, OBVIOUSLY you don’t know very much about anything, right? That’s why you are here. Because OBVIOUSLY you are a stupid jerk who likes to put people’s jobs in danger that he’s never even met, just so he can take a vacation, whatever that means. How the hell did you even get approval for a VACATION?”
“I work for the Office of Vacation Approval,” said Hector.
“Oh,” said Alice. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
Alice turned her head to the window and sneered.
“It seems like EVERYBODY is A WORTHLESS GOVERNMENT FUNCTIONARY NOWADAYS,” she shouted. The people behind the glass snickered and shook their heads.
“Back to truth,” said Alice. “Correct me when I’m wrong. I won’t be.”
“Alright,” said Hector. “The Travel Agency will be receiving a bill for my cell phone as soon as I put an invoice together. I know lawyers.”
“Truth number one. The government we live under is classified, unabashedly, as a Tyrannical Bureaucracy.”
“This is a big deal.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“A Tyrannical Bureaucracy functions without any enumerated rights for the people, controlling all information and transportation, and killing all dissidents with such glee that no one really gives a fuck anymore. This makes everyone free, somehow. Makes ‘em feel free. No one understands why, but everybody feels good all the time. You feel good; I feel good; we all feel fucking great.”
“Yes, that is generally acceptable and pleasing.”
“Fuck pleasing. It’s true.”
“Truth number two. One of the easiest ways to maintain a functional Tyrannical Bureaucracy is to keep a tight lockdown on all immigration in or out of the country. We do this in any number of ways, not the least of which is controlling passport qualification and vacation approval. As you damn well know.”
“It’s my job,” said Hector.
“And how many vacations have you actually approved while doing your job?”
“Personally?” asked Hector.
“Sure,” said Alice.
“It’s a big department. There are too many numbers to keep track of. Too many personalities. I couldn’t really say.”
“No, you couldn’t,” said Alice. “Is a pattern emerging yet?”
“I don’t understand any of this,” said Hector.
“Truth number three,” said Alice. “Maintaining elaborate fictions is also vital to the sustenance of a Tyrannical Bureaucracy, both to keep the public ignorant and therefore tractable, and to give people in what were once called “creative professions” something to do. You can’t kill everyone. Plus, creativity isn’t really genetic. Some people are going to make shit up, and it is better to use them than to destroy them. Generally speaking.”
Alice picked at the edge of the bandage across her forehead.
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Hector.
“Sometimes creative people get carried away,” shouted Alice. “Sometimes they are better than the jobs they are given. Does that mean that they should be PUNISHED? Or PROMOTED?”
Hector shifted in his chair. He didn’t know how to respond, or if he should even try.
“So are you getting a picture yet?” asked Alice. “Is it all becoming clear?”
Hector played with his jewelry, twisting the bands around on his fat fingers like rings orbiting the nether planets.
“Well then,” said Alice. “I suppose you’d better tell me why you are here, then. I suppose you’d better tell me about France.”
Hector smiled and sat up in his chair. His well-scrubbed cheeks glowed.
“My favorite subject,” said Hector.
“No doubt,” said Alice.
“If you can believe it, at first I wasn’t interested in other countries at all,” said Hector. “Not one jot. Can you believe that? I didn’t care even whether any place even EXISTED beyond our beloved country. Why would I? We live in a wonderful place. Here.”
“Fair enough,” said Alice.
Hector hazarded a quick glance to the three watchers. Their three identical mugs were topped off to surface tension with lazy quiescence.
“I go to my job; I work very hard. I go home, and watch movies, and eat fruit, when I can get it. I live in a Couch Case in the suburbs, just big enough for my arms and legs. But I have a moderately fast connection for my means, and so I get around, if you know what I mean.”
“Nothing illegal, I hope?” asked Alice.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” said Hector. “I have my groups. I have my stories. I have girls I know, and places that…herm…relax me. Nothing illegal. Nothing dramatic. Nothing very INTERESTING even.”
“Fine,” said Alice.
“It was an accident, really,” said Hector.
“Most problems start that way,” said Alice.
“I was spending a tremendous amount of time AT WORK over one winter cycle, and I was processing all of these REQUESTS, when one day I must have heard about France. It wasn’t an epiphany or anything. It was just something that stuck in my mind, and I made a note on the back of my hand, with an ink pen, to look it up when I got home. I don’t like wasting official time. I’m not one of those. But I made a note to look it up, and then I didn’t even think about it. Poof. Out of my mind.
“I’m sure the request was turned down, but it was so INTRIGUING, you see. Most requests are for places like Camelot, or New York, or Oz, or Felizidadez, or for the Palace of a Million Unlit Suns. Everyone knows about those places. But what was this France? I’d never heard of it before. Who LIVED there? What sorts of enchanted folk were these Francemen and Francewomen?”
“What indeed,” said Alice.
“But to tell you the truth, I almost forgot all about it, even as I wrote it down. I have a terrible memory, and it would have just been flushed away as soon as I nestled into my Couch Case and plugged in. But I was touching myself – you know, in an approved and useful State fashion – when I must have looked down at my hand and seen what I’d scrawled there. ‘Find France,’ it said.
“At first, I could only get my hands on picture books. I read stories about King Napoleon and Queen Joanna riding around the countryside and chopping the heads off of their enemies, and then making fine cheese out of moonbeams and poetry in the empty skulls. Stories about snail races up and down towers and cathedrals, where the Gypsy winners take home maps to catacombs full of treasure, guarded by wine drinking elephants who never speak.
“As I scoured for more, however, I found stories about the REAL France. It became an obsession for me. I learned about the Louis Brothers, and the Thermidor Society for Corrective Discipline. The history was fascinating. The wars, the persecutions, the poverty, the songs. I grew addicted. In my library, my personal library, I have some of the most obscure Francian texts you could ever see. It is even said that they speak a different language – different from the way you and I speak. Can you imagine that? They wouldn’t get any work done!
“But from what I have gathered, they don’t worry about work anyway. In France, there are doctors for even the lowliest workers – albeit of inferior quality to our own medicines, of course. Work is secondary to most things, including eating. How does their State persist? I don’t get it. I haven’t the foggiest. I long to see it. I want to know. To bring back stories for my co-workers and online friends.
“I have no illusions. I know it will be a backwater. A diseased, infectious hole where people die by their own hand and there is no true happiness. Not the kind we feel, anyway. But there is some spark, there, isn’t there? I couldn’t even point to it on a map. Ha! I couldn’t tell you if it were north, south, east, or west. But I aim to see it, and as a senior Government official with over 30 years of recorded service, I think I ought to be able to go.”
Alice was silent.
“Have you ever heard the story of the Lady of Light?” asked Hector. He leaned across the table conspiratorially, and Alice leaned back out of his way, as if he were infected by plague.
“Hmmm,” said Alice.
“It is a beautiful tale,” said Hector. “Really tipped the scales. There’s nothing like it here.”
“Uh-huh,” said Alice.
“Have you heard it? I’ll tell you. Underwater in France’s biggest lake, there once lived a lady who was made completely of light. She was immense. She was as long as parts of the lake itself when she stretched out to sleep, and her fingertips breached the surface when she stood up and raised her hands to the sky. Her head was light, her clothes were light, and her body was made of light from her toes to her pate. She ate light from the sun during the day, and then at night she glowed – illuminating the surrounding villages better than electricity.
“One day, a little matchstick girl – that’s a girl who sells matchsticks to peasants for picking your teeth or cleaning out your nostril – one day a little matchstick girl was rowing on the lake and met the Lady of Light. The lady was painting a picture of the clouds from underwater, merging their billows with the rocking of the waves.
“Oh Lady of Light,” said the little girl. “We are so lucky to have you. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live next to a lake without a lady so beautiful as you.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Lady of Light. “Isn’t there someone like me in every large body of water? What are you saying?”
“Oh no,” said the little girl. “You are one of a kind and all alone. There’s no one like you in all the land.”
“But instead of being happy about being so unique, the Lady of Light was devastated. It was one thing to live peaceably all alone when it was a choice, and in fact, the Lady of Light was simply waiting for the right man to come along and sweep her off her feet – waiting to create a family with a handsome stranger who would love and respect her always. After all, she had come from somewhere, and so presumably she had parents herself, although she had never met them. But this little girl said differently! This little girl said there was no one like her in ALL the world, and that she would grow old and die – alone – nothing more than a colossal carriage lantern for the ungrateful Francian countryside.
“The Lady of Light climbed out of the lake and stood there on the shores, gazing into the horizon.
“I guess I’d better go and find me a husband,” said the Lady of Light. “I guess that means I’d better cross the ocean to where the Earth is red, and the land is new...”
“Enough,” said Alice. “Just stop right there.”
“Have you heard this one before?” said Hector. “It gets better. There’s a Prince of Darkness, and a Rainbow Pony…”
“Can’t you see how silly you are?” asked Alice.
“You HAVE heard it before, HAVEN’T you?” pouted Hector.
“Heard it!” said Alice, standing. “I wrote it!”
Alice looked at the three watchers, who had all dropped their pens and their jaws. The youngish man stood up. The woman capped her pen and set it down slowly in front of her, as if it were a sharpened arrowhead dripping with cyanide.
Alice picked up her chair and sneered. She tossed it twice in the air and caught it, as if testing its weight. All three watchers were on their feet now.
She spun around to face the door behind her and jammed the strut of furniture under the door’s long steel handle. It fit surprisingly well. Alice crossed her arms and turned back around to Hector, who was gripping the table in front of him as if it were a stopped heart in his chest.
“Here’s the deal,” said Alice. “There’s no such place as France, and there never was. I inherited it from this guy Lincoln who ran the France file before me. And I’ve been making up stuff about it for the past year and a half.”
“But what about the Lady of Light, and the Amazing Louis Brothers…”
Somebody began pounding on the door. The watchers were pacing back and forth in their room, all three of them chattering into cell phones.
“There’s no such place as France. In fact, there aren’t any other countries at all, okay? Everyone knows that. What are you, a child? There are just blocks and blocks of interlocking city and rural land covering the whole Earth like a patchwork, and one united governing body that rules them all. You can’t leave your block, okay? There’s no such thing as vacations. You need to go back home and forget all about France, unless you want to get me fired or killed or worse.”
The door handle waggled back and forth furiously, but no matter how much twisting came from the other side, the chair stayed where it was.
“What’s worse than death?” asked Hector, shuddering.
“The Office of Vacation Approval, maybe,” said Alice.
“But where did France come from? Was there ever a France?”
“I am France!” shouted Alice. “Me! I read the materials that came before me, and I make up crap as it suits my tastes and inclinations. It’s supposed to be a horrible, inefficient backwards place. I can’t imagine why in a million goddamn years you would ever want to go some place like that, anyway.”
“Then how come I can buy a plane ticket?” asked Hector.
“So the authorities will know who to question,” said Alice.
The pounding grew louder. The chair, even wedged as tightly as it was, began to splinter.
“The Lady of Light…” stammered Hector.
“It’s a metaphor!” shouted Alice. “And it’s a metaphor about how great we have it here! Jesus Christ, you are dense. Now repeat after me. There is no France.”
“There is no France,” said Hector sadly.
“There never was.”
“There never was.”
“And I am very sorry I wasted a talented writer’s day.”
“And I am very…sorry…I wasted a talented writer’s day.”
The door finally gave, and a beefy-looking soldier punched through, masked in leather and carrying a shotgun. He breathed through a gasmask, probably to keep him from inhaling the tranquilizing drugs that permeated the whole atmosphere – dropped in constant lilting streams, like pollen, from orbiting hot air balloons.
Furtively, the three watchers lined up behind him inside the room and resumed taking notes on their clipboards.
“What’s going on in here, eh?” asked the soldier. A voice modulator made it impossible to tell whether the soldier was male or female.
“Nothing,” said Alice. “I was just explaining – succinctly – why it is impossible for Mr. Friesling here to go to France.”
“I suppose he’d rather go to Oz, or Las Vegas, then eh?” said the soldier, chuckling. “Maybe he’d like a VACATION on the moon?”
“No, no,” said Hector. “I’m quite satisfied with my lot in life. Work, love, life, death, and all that.”
“Yeah, very satisfying,” said the soldier with contempt. He lifted Alice’s tender arm with his shotgun, and then let it flop back against her side. Alice’s eyes filled momentarily with hate, and then clouded over. She lit another cigarette.
“France,” said the soldier. “I’ve never heard of that one. That must be one of the new ones. Sounds dumb. Like Atlantis.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” said Alice. The soldier looked back and forth between Hector (who was quivering with fear, his jowls literally flapping against his neck like dangly pancakes), and Alice (who smoked her cigarette as if she was hiding in underwater rushes and it was a straw to air, never meeting the soldier’s eye).
“You wouldn’t understand at all,” said Alice, again.
“Thank God,” said the soldier. “Now back to work everyone.”