“This is some serious shit. You know that don’t you?”
Engle swishes coffee round his mouth. The taste is bitter. Too familiar. “Serious shit indeed,” he says. “See that’s why I called you, Woodley. You’re a f•©kin’ genius”.
He swallows. Frowns. The computer clock reads 12:37am. He looks like he has been here days. More like fifteen hours, but he has not been outside for twelve. Confined through necessity to this narrow, soundproofed warren of the Midtown St Louis Police Department - its dusty filing cabinets, its leaning stacks of manila folders, its stale studio smell that somehow evokes the eighties, Engle has finished two packs of Fortuna Menthol cigarettes. Five weeks Lenten abstinence from beer, from certain daughter’s friends on Instagram and more than five smokes a day; he was clinging to that last one. So much for that...
“It’s all about image,” he says to himself.
Woodley looks up from his iPhone. “You said that before”.
“Well I’m saying it again”. Engle downs his coffee. Chucks it out. The dustbin sits beside his desk. A multicoloured mess of cups and butts and paper piled up. “Look at her,” he fingers a smoke. “She’s playing them the whole damn time”. He taps the monitor. “Watch this shit”.
The screen depicts a lecture room. A young woman – (“though you wouldn’t know, with all that headgear”) – stands behind the podium. The image is frozen. Static flickering. In thin-typed font at the bottom-right corner, SALTA Theatre - 16B - 15:21 is faintly discernible. The location has made headlines since 5:00pm two days ago.
A female student killed by police at a college in Academy district. Age: twenty-four. Double major. Scholarship exchange from Karachi, Pakistan. Good girl, high achiever. MSNBC showed puffy, tear-shined emollient faces: she was so generous, you know, she like cared so much about social justice. I just can’t believe this can happen in America. Her friends from the Islamic Student League – usually they gave out flyers that made padding in the depths of handbags – will be organising a vigil Sunday night in Heman Park.
“It isn’t just the burka,” Engle explains. “But damned if she ain’t wearing it for good reason. Like when someone deformed sits beside you on the train. Ever shared your seat with a mongoloid Woodley? You pretend not to notice ... except you know that everyone knows it’s the one thing you’ve noticed. It’s about the only goddamned thing you can think about”. Engle shifts in his seat. His fingers dive between his legs, fast and delicate. He pinches his groin, plucking his pants out. “Know what I mean? You’re supposed to be distracted by the burka. This girl has half the audience already something heated that she’s wearing one at all. The rest also notice, but they’re feeling guilty cause she’s different. But whatever their feelings are - if they’re bigots or some pansy Liberal types - whatever their feelings are, they’ve noticed the burka. And she,” says Engle, “has them just where she wants”.
He flicks his lighter. Small lick of flame. Lights the fag.
“They know she’s not one of them,” he says. “And that f•©king terrifies them”.
He taps his finger on the girl’s head. Her hijab wraithlike. “It’s all in the image. The burka, its physical appearance, its ... what’s the word? Implication. The concept of it being worn. Everyone is looking at the burka, and the rest plays perfectly into her hands”.
Engle taps space on the grease-stained keyboard. The video plays. There is no sound.
The Muslim girl flicks her head up to the screen above her. She extends one arm towards her laptop. A hint of maple skin shows as her wrist appears from draped black cloth. Her movements: slow and careful. Precise. Deliberate. Almost – certainly in retrospect, Woodley thinks – suggestive of there being something heavy in her dress. Something obstructive. Deadly.
The screen behind her shows an image: two white men standing beside each other. They are
laughing. Holding rifles casually. Shirtless. Wearing cargo pants. Their youthful bodies: tanned and lean. One has lyrics tattooed on his belly. Like a river don’t know where it’s flow’n, I took a wrong turn and I just kept go’n. Woodley thinks he knows the line from somewhere – Lou Reed or The Doors or something.
The text beneath: “US Saviours Keep the Peace in Syria!!”
The footage does not show the audience. The video was taken so the tutor could assess it later.
“Even without sound,” says Engle, clicking on an icon that plays the footage faster, “you can imagine what she said to them. She’s timed this all too well, knowing what’s been on their minds of late”.
Woodley hesitates. “You talking about the Dowebury aquatic centre? Where that high school kid knifed three girls in the bathroom?”
“Where that Muslim kid knifed three girls in the bathroom”. Engle squares his shoulders, leaning back, professorlike. “Don’t forget his religion man. This girl doesn’t want us to. She wants us to see her, standing before plus-one-hundred Americans, telling them our boys are being naughty over there in Osamaland, and immediately assume she’s packing something. Look how hard she’s trying to provoke them”.
I have, thinks Woodley. Too many times.
Engle draws the cursor over the playback timeline. He speeds the video forward.
The Muslim student nods her head at frantic pace, gesticulating as the screen behind her changes. The slides flick through a gradual montage. Graphic pictures: an Arab child, naked with his stomach open, crying as he holds his organs. A juicy mass of red-white tubes. Next: a renegade prisoner, blindfolded. A soldier hacks his ears off. Even on the grimy screen, wild tears can be seen drizzling from the sodden blindfold. Next photo: a mother and child, crushed into the stony ruts behind a US tank convoy. Their heads are spattered into gel that melds their deaths together. They are holding hands. And the photographs get worse. A mutilated female corpse
... cans of Budweiser jutting from the lacerated holes that once had formed her breasts. A group of men inside a mosque, engaged in what appears to be a pissing contest over a mound of bodies. A bearded man clasping a child to his chest. One of the boy’s arms is missing.
Pictures of death. Of torture. Cruelty.
Mindless violence. The worst of humanity on display...
And always the Americans. Such ebullient young men. All disaffected grins, all sunbrowned nipples. Navels: gaping toothless mouths. Pictures of a privileged youth, honed into a matchless force of sanctified oppression. My boys can’t do nuthin’ wrong ... as they prise a screaming infant from its mother, throwing it above her head like schoolboys in the playground.
The pictures keep on coming, getting worse.
Engle takes them vacantly. His eyes are shaded with fatigue.
Woodley sighs. “I must have watched this fifty times; it only makes me sicker though. What do think you’re gonna find here anyway?”
“A goddamned reason,” Engle snaps. “This smartass bitch comes in with shit she should have been arrested for. Telling us, in our own country, we’re the bad guys. And you’ve got a hundred people stuck in their seats, too scared to stand and argue back. They’re conditioned into thinking
they can’t, you know. Our own f•©king society won’t let them. It’s no longer acceptable to look at America and say it’s gone to shit. There are millions like this girl ... all of them coming onto the continent for the sole purpose of destabilising it. Of pissing on the flag and calling our forefathers a bunch of racist rednecks. Can’t have a f•©king manger scene outside a church anymore cause the sandniggers might get upset. President wishing us a happy Ramadan, and folks down in Oklahoma think Walmart’s having a sale. Little brats not worked a day in their lives pulling down statues outside campuses. And the icing on the godamned cake is the kids – the future of this f•©king Godforsaken country – they think it’s wrong to be scared”.
Woodley spots a sheen of spittle underlying Engle’s lip. Decides he best not mention it.
Engle isn’t finished: “There’s a cancer in the system, Woodley, and our media is pretty much saying, Hey, what’s the big deal? Let it grow. It’s absolutely harmless. How dare you try and stop them destroying us, they tell you. Tumours are technically a living organism, are they not? So hey,” he laughs, throwing up his arms, “why not let’s give them human rights as well. It’s hardly more insane than what they are doing”.
Engle stops and glares at the screen. Woodley sits there, hands between his legs. During the silence he looks at the dustbin. They, Woodley muses. Who’s They? Is They us ... or Them?
Cautiously he speaks. “I never thought I’d say this, Bill”. He notices – of course he does – the sudden splinting tautness. Engle seems to grow into the chair, his back pressed firm against the rest. “But how about we take a break? Grab a coupla beers? The guys are worried about you, mate. Since you ... since it happened, you’ve been...”
Engle bites his lip. His eyes remain fixed on the computer.
Woodley almost gives up, knowing he has overstepped. But he thinks he sees a shade of... something. Engle’s features soften.