by Lynn Mann
part 1 of 2
The line to the Water Center is unending. Not merely a line, a way of life, a path to hoped-for salvation. Entire families wait together, hoping to gain admittance for a single member. Early on one learns that once in line there is no point in leaving; no one will save your spot, the scalpers that promise, for a hefty fee, to save your place while you take a break are all scammers. So we wait.
Some erect make-shift shelters of cardboard or tarps, most just stand, sit or squat. The lucky ones have umbrellas, the ultimate irony: that we ever considered rain an annoyance. Now the contrivances that once sheltered us from rain shield us from the sun.
After two endless, broiling days I can see the Center. Still too many people ahead of me to make it today; tomorrow I should gain entrance. Late yesterday a near riot broke out when a man, finally next in line, was told the Center had closed for the day. He went berserk, pounding on the door and screaming that his children needed water or they would die. Others, perhaps sensing a chance to advance in line, or maybe from sheer boredom, egged him on, shouting insults at the uncaring, impervious door.
Police in full riot gear appeared and dragged the man off. Ironically, while prisoners receive full water rations, there are no provisions for their families. He will receive precious water; his children, none.
With calm restored, the water trucks appeared, dispensing our scant rations. The water tasted stale and metallic, and I wondered what the tanker had carried before it became a water truck. Best not to think on it. Drink the water slowly, savor the liquid, feel it rehydrate my arid throat. Sometimes I visualize it; my throat desert dry, the water a mere trickle, disappearing before it reaches my internal organs. Was I ever not thirsty?
Others have chronicled the cascade of political spinelessness, corporate greed and general stupidity that inexorably led to this endless drought. During my lifetime everything green turned to brown, dried up and blew away. No more trees, lawns or flowerbeds.
Agriculture limps along, watered from wells drawing on an ever-shrinking, elusive aquifer. Most food is imported and few can afford more than the basics. Only the extremely wealthy can afford functioning inside plumbing now, and they live behind walls that rival mediaeval fortresses. They are profiteers or politicians; sometimes both. They are still here because outside this benighted country they have no raison d’être.
I settle in for the night, my few possessions in the bag pillowing my head. I shroud myself in my blanket, shivering in the cold. Once our temperate climate was a magnet for the elderly; now the city is a desert: baking during the day, frigid at night.
Everyone who could go fled north, until the Canadians closed their border, while the northern states enacted draconian housing legislation to limit the flow of refugees. Those of us lacking the means or the foresight to migrate while it was still possible are stuck here, in hell.
Tomorrow I will make my final, binding decision. I believe my mind is made up, but perhaps when the moment arrives, I may yet falter. My hand grasps the locket around my neck, the only valuable I have left. I needn’t open it to see the tiny picture inside. Paul has his arm around my shoulders, looking like a man with everything he ever wanted. I smile happily into the camera, my hands on the shoulders of two grinning children.
But like everything else, Paul, too, dried up and turned to dust. My children are too busy surviving to pay me any attention. I didn’t bother to tell them I was coming here, wanting to spare them the empty, formal protests.
Sunrise, cruelly early and hot. Those at the head of the line, confident they will gain entrance today, use a few precious drops to wipe their hands and faces. This early, before the real heat sets in, people are kinder and more generous. We all take turns at the chemical outhouses then resume our places in line. Those with food eat; those without, gaze off towards the horizon. We all have the same choice to make.
Over the days I’ve waited in this line I have seen many lose their resolve and leave, some convinced by the missionaries that prowl the line, trolling for lost souls. Their promises of salvation are as beguiling as their smiles, and just as empty. The National Guard, under the Governor’s orders, keeps them one hundred feet away from the entrance at all times. The courts have upheld our right to choose so often that they cannot dispute it any longer, all they can do is harass. They are most active early and late; during the heat of the day, even true believers want shade.
Now they roam the line, tempting those without food or additional water rations. Some weaken and take their bait. They are saved for a few days or weeks, but the missionaries cannot sustain them long, there are always new souls to harvest. Eventually most of them will end up back here, once again standing in line.
As the blazing sun approaches its zenith I am finally admitted into the Water Center. The foyer is well guarded, and everyone passes through the ubiquitous metal detector. Initially I am shocked that no one is veiled or covered. Then I remember: these are bureaucrats, pampered ones who rarely venture outside, their skins fashionably pale.
I lived through the Iraq debacle, the decade of occupation that drained our resources and destroyed our international reputation. How ironic that instead of oil our major Middle Eastern imports are now water conservation and reclamation technologies. Somewhere along the way we changed from despising and pitying Moslem women who wore traditional dress to imitating them. Although few Americans adopted the full hijab, everyone, male and female, wears full covering, including veils, whenever we venture outside. I live alone and care not what anyone thinks, so inside I shed all that, but I know that many wear it indoors as well. Here in the Water Center it isn’t necessary, yet I am so conditioned that I am shocked at its absence.
Defiant of tradition and fashion I remove my hat, veil, sunglasses and gloves. I approach and wait for the indifferent bureaucrat seated there to deign to notice me. Once such casual rudeness would have enraged me, now I am too dry for strong emotions. He seems disturbed to see my naked face, unable to meet my eyes. Does he need the anonymity of the veil to help shield him from the reality of the line outside? His embarrassment is my tiny victory. I savor it.
He demands identification then waves me towards the retinal scanner. Tapping his keyboard, demonstrably bored with the whole process, he runs me through the usual catechism: name, age, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, etc.
Like everyone I see there, he is well dressed, clean and sleek. Thirst is for others, the less well-connected. I wonder whether they absorb water through their skins by osmosis, or whether they are so corrupt, so indifferent to the suffering outside, that they simply drink whenever they wish and rations be damned. Rules are for other people. He waves me to the left and taps a few more keys. I am forgotten before the next wraith steps up.
The next guardian isn’t as easy to pass. She drones on and on about my rights under the law, witnessing with almost every paragraph that I understand the rules and regs and concur that I have made my decision of my own free will, without any outside influence or coercion.
I concentrate on not fidgeting or betraying any signs of the numbness in my legs from standing so long. I swear I can smell the water through the door, hear the happy splashing. I want more than anything to pass through that door. Did they paint it blue with intentional irony? I wonder. One last time I aver and concur, and she passes me a consent form to sign. There is a psych exam before they accept my decision as final. I sign and look at her expectantly.
Unsmiling, obviously disapproving of my lack of covering, she gestures towards a row of hard plastic chairs and tells me to wait, I will be called. Just before I turn away she hands me a slip of paper. An extra water coupon! I stare in disbelief. I’d expected to have to wait until all the bureaucracy was completed before I ever got a drink. I look at her and she gestures curtly to her left. “The dispenser’s over there, in the corner. Give the attendant your coupon, then wait for your name to be called.”
I thank her and shuffle off, overjoyed.
I wasn’t always like this, we weren’t always like this. I remember how it used to be; I remember having a loving family and vacations and birthday presents. There were school and friends and trips and shopping. Our descent was gradual, one fatal step at a time. We still have the outward forms of government, but real power resides with the Water Boards and water importers. At one time, experts predicted that oil would become so scare that nations would go to war for it. Yet the actual wars were over water.
The first time a Water Board declared a 24-hour moratorium and shut off all water except to hospitals and a few other key locations, riots broke out. Now the riots occur on the few days water is not shut off.
I wait for my name to be called, imagining what lies behind that door. I yearn to pass through that portal; I am gripped with fear that the examiners will discover some minute personality flaw which will allow them to turn me away. I have not prayed in many years, long ago lost all belief in an Almighty who allows this drought to consume us. Yet now, reflexively, I send silent, wordless prayers that nothing come between me and that door. I have waited long enough; it is time.
Perhaps I dozed on the hard plastic chair, perhaps simply tuned out my surroundings. I hear my name called, the speaker sounding annoyed, as if this was not the first call. I jump up, frantic. “Yes, yes, that’s me, I’m Lucy Davenport.”
“Follow me, please,” she says stiffly as she leads me, not through the blue door but down a hallway painted institutional grey. Like everyone who works here, this woman seems to have all the water she needs. Her posture is erect and confident, her skin looks soft and her hair is clean and neat. She wears a white lab coat, I am sure she is the psych examiner.
However, when we enter the tiny windowless cubicle she introduces herself as Emily Singh, a lab tech. She takes my blood pressure, peers down my throat and into my ears, takes a swab — “for DNA”, she says — inside my cheek, and draws a tube of blood. When I ask why they need my DNA, she tells me to ask the doctor; he will explain all the procedures. Once again I am left alone to wait. The tiny room is airless and stuffy, and I drowse.
In my dream my family is young and whole. We are at a hotel in some vacation playground. The children and I splash in the pool, reveling in the cool, refreshing water. Paul, my husband, is dozing in the warm sun, ignoring Matty’s shouts to “Watch this Daddy, watch me!” as he cannonballs into the water. I obediently applaud his daring but it is his father’s attention he craves.
Jenny stays close to me, afraid of the boisterous children and unsure, despite her water wings and the shallow water. Every time Matty jumps in and splashes her she shrieks in alarm, grabbing my arm.
My dream jumps forward, we are in our backyard. Paul grills something as I set the table. The children are playing with the hose, officially watering the flowers but really spraying each other. I pour lemonade, condensation beading down the tall glasses. As I reach for my glass, for a refreshing sip of cool liquid, the door opens and I snap awake.
A slender young man, plump with access to all this water, stands in the door looking at me. He, too, seems taken aback at my naked face and hands, and hesitates before shaking hands with me. Will this make him refuse to certify me? Then again, he sees unveiled faces all around him, every day. Perhaps it is because I am forcing him to confront my real face, my real suffering.
I have come to understand how Moslem women love their veils and chadors, how they can say being covered and veiled made them feel safe and protected. Once I pitied their passiveness, their restricted lives. Now I understand them all too well.
I sit quietly, my eyes downcast, waiting for his questions. This is the man I must convince of my honest and heartfelt desire to do this.
“Mrs. Davenport,” he begins, his voice fluid and soft.”I have your file here,” he taps of the documents before him “and must now ask you some questions. Is that all right?”
I nod, venturing a look at him. He is young — although at my age everyone seems young. His name tag reads “Dr. Quinones,” and his olive skin and molasses eyes affirm his origins. I wonder how someone so young and healthy, with enough to drink, can possibly understand me or my life. How can he judge me?
He smiles warmly at me and — another miracle, surely! — passes me a cup of water. “Please let me know when you want another, this may take a while, and we want you to be comfortable, Mrs. Davenport.”
I hold the cup between my shaking hands and sip slowly, tasting every drop. I could have moaned with pleasure but am embarrassed in front of this young man. I imagine how I must appear to him: a desiccated hag, stringy grey hair shorn close to my head, my body-covering caftan faded by sun and dust into a color for which there is no name. My knuckles are large and my nails broken short. Old enough to be his mother, I probably look more like his great-grandmother, after the burial.
He waits a moment for my response, and receiving none, continues. “May I call you Lucy?”
I nod assent.
“Thank you. I am Dr. Quinones.” He smiles and I smile back, trying to relax.
Dr. Quinones looks at the file open before him. He makes no effort to conceal it, and my heart skips a beat as I see pictures of myself, in younger, happier days. Below I see pictures of Paul, Matty and Jenny. I regret drinking all that extra water; now my body has enough liquid for tears. They rise unbidden when I see those precious faces as they once were.
Dr. Quinones looks up and sees my expression. He places a box of tissues on the desk near my hand and says gently, “It’s all right, Lucy, most people cry in here.”
Involuntarily one hand grasps my locket while the other reaches out and touches the pictures in the file. Memories, so long forced down and ignored, flood me. I must not cry: this boy is judging me; he holds the key to the blue door and I will not lose this opportunity to pass through it.
He waits until I have some semblance of control, then asks gently, “Do you want to wait? I can come back later.”
“No, no, I want to finish this, please.”
“Very well, how old are you, Lucy?”
He knows perfectly well how old I am, it’s all right in front of him. “I am 56, doctor, unless it’s after July 26, in which case I am 57.” I hear the tartness in my voice and he smiles. Apparently the old girl still has some life in her, after all.
“And your husband, Paul?”
“As you know from the file, Paul died in 2027. Were he still alive today he would be 59.”
He makes a note, then the questions I dread. “Your children?”
I look down again, this is none of his business. “Lucy?” he prompts me.
I sigh deeply. “Matty was born April 10, 2005, making him 32 this year. Jenny was born September 23, 2008, making her 29. Matty’s son Petey died when he was two and Jenny’s daughter, Annabelle, is now 9.”
“How did Paul die?”
Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Mann