Escape from an Arid Dreamland
The desert is in my dreams. How could it not be? The hollow
screaming wind, the endless orange skies, I can't escape with my
eyes open or shut. And now I'm riding with the others, zombie-like
in the back of this truck. Iím just another POV. That's what the
Marines call the people of this country, the impoverished. Povs for
I eat the dust. It clogs my nose and stings my eyes. We all have
rags tied over our faces, but it doesn't help. My sinuses feel like
vacuum cleaner bags full of fine sand. We close our eyes and hang
When the landscape turns rocky, the tires change pitch. We look
up and groan in relief. We shake ourselves off and take turns
spitting out the back. We have run out of things on which to blow
our poor noses, and they are as raw and red and caked with dust as
the dead body we saw at the side of the road. We had all seen
bodies. That is why we are leaving.
The girl Josie cries, "Auntie when is this going to be over? I
hate it." Josie is wearing a huge sun hat tied on with a scarf. With
all the dust, she looks like a mushroom.
Her aunt says, "Darling don't cry, you'll turn yourself into a
A man next to me chuckles and is shot a piercing glare by aunt
More quietly the old woman says, "You're going to have to cope
like the rest of us, sweetheart. I'm sure we're almost there."
Sniffling, the girl smears dust and tears on her cheeks with a
"Stop honey," says the aunt, smiling weakly and taking her
relation's frail hand. "You look like a Marine putting on war
Our truck rolls on. The thing is gigantic. I have no idea who
built it or even who could have. For those lucky enough to be
inside, it has not only rows and rows of seats, but different rooms,
and hundreds of compartments and appliances and multi-functional,
satellite-orchestrated gizmos. But weíre in the back, the place for
povs, packed in with the luggage and sheltered only by a ragged
canvas top. Endlessly, we're blasted by sand whipped up in the
slipstream. Itís as if weíre in a covered wagon hitched to a jet.
Suddenly, our megaton horse downshifts, bucking as it slows. The
hydraulics whine and gasp, and eventually it comes to a stop.
"Is this it?" shouts Josie.
"I don't think so, dear," says her aunt.
I lean out the back to have a look. We're parked in front of a
two-story concrete bunker, maybe a bus station or a rest stop. I
watch the privileged passengers disembark.
"Itís a bathroom break," I tell the others. "There seems to be a
cafe on the second floor."
The man next to me, the chuckler, nudges my elbow and jerks his
head to indicate a sweaty fat man standing off to the side of the
truck. He says, "That man Aziz is a thief. Pass it on." We all know
Aziz. He wears clothes meant to look like a uniform, even a
ridiculous beret at times, but he has no apparent connection to the
truck staff or anyone else. He's a pathetic joke of a man, but a dog
you have to watch nonetheless. I have every reason to believe that
his immorality is limitless.
I lean over to the aunt. "This gentleman next to me says the man
Aziz is a thief."
"They're all thieves," she snaps.
"If you're going to get out," I advise, "you might want to take
"We can't take everything," she says indignantly. "Honey," she
tells her niece, "take your passport with you. Do you have your
money belt on?"
"It itches," protests the girl.
"That's fine. That's how you know it's still there." She turns to
me. "Can't someone stay here? Canít we take turns at the washrooms?"
I consent to stay. I know I won't be able to go anyway. Itís just
another discomfort lost among many.
I watch my comrades in the dirt class climb down, stretch, and
brush off. Once they go, I do the same.
Aziz, I see, is kicking the dust, making no secret that he's
waiting for me to leave. I make myself comfortable against a massive
tire and glare with what little energy I have. Aziz comes toward me.
He takes something out of a bag slung over his shoulder. A gun, I
think at first, and straighten up, but it's only a canteen and ball
of something he keeps hidden in his pudgy fist.
"You want to buy alcohol?" he says to me.
"No," I tell him as I would to a beggar on the street.
"Courvosier," he says raising his eyebrows and sloshing the
I sputter a laugh. "I'm sure it is."
The frowning, thick-browed Aziz then unfurls his stubby fingers
revealing a dark putty-ish lump wrapped in plastic. "Hashish," he
Both substances might tempt me if they were real. Even the
fantasy of getting numb impels me to purchase, but I don't want
anything to do with this pig, and I'm sure neither is authentic in
the least. I shake my head at him. He shrugs as if the loss is mine
and shuffles toward the front of the truck.
Momentarily, I see our ladies emerge from the bathrooms waving
their hands before their faces, horrified by the stink. I have a
chuckled at their prissiness and watch them climb the stairs to the
cafe. When I stop making noise myself, I hear something around the
back of the truck and rush to it. I find Aziz has climbed into our
cargo hold and is already picking through luggage --mine, in fact--
like an overjoyed lizard in a nest full of eggs.
He spots me and throws himself out the back. He flies past me and
lands with a thud. I tackle him and try to pat him down, but he
grunts and flails like a captured animal. He's so desperate and
wide-eyed, I half expect him to piss. He manages throw an elbow into
my face and scuttles shitpants off as I'm picking myself up out of
the dirt. Iíd chase him but I can't leave the luggage.
I spit some blood. It clears out the dust at least.
As I check through my belongings, the Chuckler returns. "That
pigfucker," I tell him, "is riding inside with air conditioning and
cocktails while we're out here, and he's trying to steal from us!"
My man shakes his head. "Heh-heh," he laughs sympathetically. I
climb out the back and kick a tire before heading off to the toilet.
When I return, Josie is begging her aunt and the other passengers
to let her keep a tiny dog she has found. "Theyíll cook her up for
their nasty cutlets," she implores. "She can't belong to any of
them. Her owners must have lost her when they were leaving, too.
Poor doggie. I'm going to call her Forgea. Did you see that story
about the dog that was rescued?" Josie holds the dog up to her face
and says, "Do you like peanut butter, Forgi?"
Who has peanut butter, I wonder?
I hold out my hand for the dog to sniff. She licks my fingers. I
can't help feeling warmly toward her. I like dogs. I wish I could
hold her, just for a little comfort, but I don't ask.
"She was wandering about in that filthy cafeteria looking lost,"
says the aunt, who holds a plastic bag of food she has bought. She
turns to me and tells me "I hope you didn't waste your time going up
there." She shakes her gray old head. "I honestly don't know what
they eat here or how they survive. I swear they must fill up on
sand, chew the scrub, I don't know," she titters. "All they had were
gray little meat cutlets and hardboiled eggs. I asked the woman
sitting there if the cutlets were fresh and without even looking up
at me, she shook her head. Can you imagine?"
"I'm tired of boiled eggs," says Josie.
"I know dear."
The truck's engine roars to life, and we clamber aboard. As we
get underway, Josie's aunt sets a table on top of a suitcase for
their eggs. First she lays a newly cleaned handkerchief, damp from
being rinsed out at the rest stop. Then she surprises us by setting
out a crystal saltshaker.
"Salt," I say admiringly.
"This is the last of it," she says with a smile. "You're welcome
to an egg." With dignity beyond any person eating boiled eggs in the
back of a truck, she taps the shell against the hard corner of the
suitcase. Before going further, she sniffs it. "Augh!" she roars and
hurls the egg out the back, nearly pelting a man. The dog whimpers.
She wipes her hands on the handkerchief and curses, "That sow! I
didn't ask about the eggs, now did I? She looked me right in the
face and sold me rotten eggs." Seeing her niece's distress, she
eases her tone. "I wish I could go back there and throw them right
back in her face. Weíre tired of eggs anyway, arenít we sweetheart?"
Josie pouts and nods. Her eyes are teary. She clutches the
The sound of the truck's tires drops an octave and the dust
returns. We in the back moan and settle in to concentrate on taking
slow, careful breaths. Eventually, I fall asleep. It would seem like
a rare talent except for the dreams. I pray when I leave this place
these dreams dry up.
I wake to find the dust gone and Josie clapping. At last, we have
arrived at the port. She waves her hands and sings at the turquoise
The truck stops and everyone rushes off. There is no hint of
kindness between the passengers who have spent so much hard time
together. Each of us knows that if we don't get on this boat, we
could be abandoned. We could be killed.
The old aunt takes on the ferocity of a bull and shoves me aside
to get at her bags. She shouts at her niece to put down the dog and
pick up her things.
By the time I get in line, the old woman and the child are
already many brown heads in front of me. The ship hasn't even begun
loading, but each speck in the crowd pushes viciously to secure its
place. Several fights break out. I see thieves lurking at the edges
of the throng waiting to grab and flee.
Faced with travel again, I take inventory. I pat my money belt
and then the keys in my pocket. I will likely never need them again,
but I feel better that they are there. I reach into my bag for my
passport and find it missing. Panic is immediate. I search my other
bags knowing it can be in none of them.
Aziz has my passport, the only thing that makes any difference.
Gone. I always knew it was tenuous. It's such a flimsy way of
telling people apart. Now I'm truly one of them.
I've always tried to be an understanding person, an
internationalist. I sympathize. I am here, aren't I? People think
I'm from a do-gooder nation, Canadian or Irish, but I'm so American.
I hate it here. I hate the desert and the food and the way people
smell. I grew up on TV and wandering in malls, and I wouldn't have
it any other way. I'd unzip you like a fish for a little air
And that passport was my escape pod. It was magic. I could
always, and always would, return home to prosperity and comfort and
calm and order. That's what it was for. I could never be one of
them. Look at me. I don't belong here. My house will never be blown
up or bulldozed. My family will never be refugees or huddled in
basements as bombs drop. I object to the way things are, of course,
but I'm protected. I'm the lucky one, and there is no greater power.
People here can look at me and say they know an understanding
American, but I'll never let them in my house, not the way they do
for me. They want me to see how poor they are, but also how proud,
how close. I don't want them to see what I have. We need to help
them build it for themselves. That's what I understand.
But I've had enough now! I've pulled the safety catch, but it
isn't working. How could I be so stupid? How could I have left it?
Now Aziz has my passport. He can't make it work, but he's
withholding it from me. I will kill him for it if I can.
Stop! Can it really be that important? "Yes, yes, yes," I hiss at
myself. "They won't let you leave!"
I know if I step out of line, I'll never get back in, and
passport or not, I'll never get on that ship. I shout up to the
girl, "Josie! Josie!" I think she hears, but she doesnít turn
I have no choice. I turn back. I see the truck rising out of the
scrubby crowd like a mountain. It's easy to get out of line, even
with my bags. The crowd parts for me, ushering me to the mount. They
all want my place in line. One after the other, they use my wake to
A little dark boy in a long shirt flings open the sliding side
doors of the truck after I pound on them for several minutes. He
quickly turns around and hurries back inside. My eyes have to adjust
as I step up into the mobile cathedral. I find the kid playing video
games on a built-in consul. Otherwise, the place seems empty. It
looks like a gutted whale fitted with stadium seating. "Where does
Aziz sit?" I say as I drop my heavy bags. Without looking up he
waves me away. Furiously, I snatch his controls and raise them
threateningly. The boy cowers and points to stairs I hadn't seen.
There's more truck. I want to crack the brat with his plastic
fetish, for which now he imploringly reaches out. I slam it down. I
hope it breaks. I wish I could explode this truck. I don't even care
if I were in it. If I had that power, I would use it
indiscriminately. If I sprayed the wasps and killed the ants, I
On the second level I rummage through dozens of compartments
built into the seats. What am I looking for? I find sticky little
cocktail cups. It's not like he'd steal my passport and then leave
it somewhere, I think. This is frantic. It's not going to help.
I stand up to try to pull myself together, and Thank God in
Maryland, I spot Aziz out the window. Without taking a breath, I
bolt for the door. I jump over my baggage. I'm going to tear right
through him, but he looks up. He's in tune to things, the bug. He
takes off through the crowd. I see people pushed aside as he runs
past them like a rat in tall grass.
Aziz is headed for the market, above which hangs a haze from
cooking fires and flocks of gulls scavenging as over a dump. I
expect to catch him right away, but he's faster than you'd think.
There are people in my way, women and children. He runs them down,
but it's holding me up.
I'm running and gritting my teeth when, out of all the noise of
the crowd, I hear something familiar. It's like an alarm clock in a
dream. Someone is screaming, and just faintly, I know who it is.
It's Josie. I turn my head, though my legs donít stop, and I catch a
glimpse of the old aunt at the edge of the dock. They've nearly
pushed their way up to the gangplank, but the stupid girl has fallen
in. The woman is stricken. She holds her hands up to her face. She's
crying, begging for help. She's so close to the edge, she could fall
I'm doomed. I stop. I hear the girl splash and choke as I fight
my way to the harbor wall. In the filthy sewer water below, Josie is
struggling to tread. The little dog helps its savior by scrabbling
up onto her head like a crab onto a rock. It scratches her face and
pushes her under. People laugh. Already some local boys are throwing
"Josie," I call to her. "Josie!" The aunt is at the gangplank
holding her heart. She's pinned by the crowd. Even if I jump in, I
think, I won't be able to get her back up the wall. I decide to hang
myself over the edge like a ladder. Not at all sure that I can keep
my grip, I lower myself, thinking that I'm almost sure to fall in. I
call back to her. "Josie, come hold onto me. See if you can climb
I hear her squeal as she fights off the dog. The audience laughs.
Someone steps on my hand. But momentarily I feel her grabbing at my
pant cuffs, trying to get a grip on my boots.
"I can't," she wails.
"Put my feet under your arms. I'll pull you up." I feel her
weight as she hooks one foot under her arm. I'm not going to be able
to do this. I hook my fingers and hold on desperately as she yanks
at my legs. "Hold on." I work my elbows up to the top of the wall.
I'm getting scraped up, but we're moving. I see peoples' shoes. I'm
at chin level with the top of the wall. I get my shoulders up and I
feel people actually helping me, pulling at my shirt. When I'm able
to hoist up my hips, I reach back and grab the girl by the hair.
"Climb up," I scream at her.
I look over to the aunt. She is overjoyed but still holds her
heart. Josie is crying but is on the ground. Her hair is tangled in
my fingers. "I'm sorry," I tell her, "I had to grab something."
She coughs and cries "Forgea!" The little dog still paddles
frantically, it's claws scraping the stone wall. The local boys are
throwing stones, which plunk around her and thump against her. I try
chasing them away, but am shown a knife. Josie bawls. Her aunt is
calling for her.
Maybe I can scoop it up somehow, snag it with something. Maybe
the dog will bite onto my pant leg, I think, but before I can begin
to lower myself again, I hear a stone squarely pelt her and the
piteous yelp she emits as she disappears.
"Josie, you have to calm down," I tell the hysterical girl. "If
you don't listen to what I say, you will never leave here. You have
to get back in line." I turn her around and force her into the mob.
"I can't stay with you. Go to your aunt. Don't let them push you.
As I again head off to find Aziz, they begin loading the boat.
The market is a maze of cinder-block shops, tents, and converted
shipping containers. It smells like fish and whatever it is they
burn for fuel, camel shit, sea weed, crude oil. People are agitated.
They hustle as if time is running out. There are armed men in robes.
I hate these places. Even now vendors mob me. Someone hangs a
boogery squid in my face and shouts a price. I push and shout at
them. I've learned some choice curse words.
Then, bearing through the shouldering sheets, I hear Aziz before
I see him.
"American passport. You can get on the ship, no problem. Five
I burst through and attack him just as he claims to all around
him, "You can sell it for more."
We go down in the dust and I go for his eyes. As before, he
freaks like a creature and kicks and scratches and pants with his
eyes bulging out. Then there is shooting. I almost let him go. I
think I must have holes through my back. But instead the crowd
rushes over us like a landslide. Stomped upon, I loose my grip. I
loose Aziz. I can't see my passport. And the machine guns are
roaring. I hear bullets punching glass, crashing through
cinder-block walls and thumping into the dirt around me.
I run for cover like everyone else. So this thing has begun, I
think. They have arrived in their amphibious vehicles. But wait
until they get a load of our truck.
I hear the Marines yelling, "Move out the povs. Go through the
shops, through the shops." I hear explosions and debris scattering
like handfuls of dried beans. I don't know why I think of beans.
Aziz ducks into an abandoned vendor's stall, but I can't go after
him. People are shooting back at the Marines. In the dust I catch
glimpses of fluttering robes and blazing Kalishnikovs.
The Marines, I realize, aren't going to come down the lanes.
They're blasting through the shops, coming through the walls, making
a sheltered tunnel for themselves into the heart of the market.
I'll be mowed down with bullets I paid taxes to produce, I think,
and I go for Aziz. There are shots close by, people being hit,
picked off as if by whizzing lethal insects. As I abscond into
Aziz's booth, I fantasize for an instant in the sudden dark that
this is the entrance to a secret tunnel that will lead me away, that
I'll actually escape from this nightmare. But then I hear him
"You think you found a good hiding place, eh" I growl as I reach
for him. I grab hold of his face, his slippery bald head. I can
smell the Corvosier he's been sampling. I work my way down to his
neck. He kicks and throws us both against one wall then another. I
finally get an adequate grip and begin to strangle him in earnest
when the Marines blast through our wall. We're thrown. Aziz gets
something through his head. Just like that. He's dead, I think,
although I hear him gurgle. I notice my hand is wet.
Big green army men with goggles and guns stand before me. I am at
their feet. Light cuts in rays through the dust of righteous
destruction. Their guns are lowered at me.
"Wait!" I scream, holding out my bloody hands. "My passport."
This is the second time Corin Cummings has appeared in the
Blip Magazine Archive. He is from Vermont and lives in Toronto.
His novella Night Support is available online from Wind River
He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2003.