The No-Fly List [excerpt] – Alex Beaumais
October 7, 2020
Each night before bed, I turned on the porch light, and one night when I did, there was someone sitting there. It wasn’t as frightening as I’d always imagined, all the nights I’d habitually flicked the switch. The guy on the bench was young and college-aged and looked vaguely preoccupied with something, maybe door-to-door canvassing.
He seemed to be waiting, and when I undid the deadbolt he stood up, his fraction-of-a-second embarrassment resolving back into his previous state. I stepped onto the deck, more confident than I should have been, and said, “What are you doing here?”
He said, “Are you Albert K.?” and I said, “Who’s asking?” adamant that my casualness not be taken advantage of.
“So, yes, you’re Albert K.?”
“What?” I said, throwing my hands up in an erratic way. He flinched and I said, “You come onto my porch at midnight and start demanding personal information? I should have called the police on you.”
He nodded, registering my anger, but unperturbed. “You can try, but you won’t get far. Sir, we’re here because you’ve been accused of a serious crime.”
“You’ve been accused of anti-social behaviours and conspiring to commit sedition, possibly under the direction of a foreign power.”
I combusted in a terrible guffaw, the kind that divided people into those infected by it and those disgusted by it. I exhaled under the Northern Cross, hilarity decompressing my tension headache.
“Let me guess. Benson hired you on Craigslist. You’re a crisis actor. I’ll be sure to give him a high-five tomorrow.”
“We need you to come to an interview tomorrow. You need to call in sick.”
“Prasad, my associate, is parked below.”
I walked to the railing and looked down the wood staircase to the gravel lot. There was a man hanging his elbow out of a pickup truck. He seemed to be swiping to the right on a phone or some sort of device, and when my shadow puddled over his screen, he looked up. He was East Indian in appearance, with a straight-brimmed ball cap over a ponytail, and seemed even younger than the man beside me.
Silver chains glinted on my Corolla tires. I swallowed and took out my Samsung Galaxy, aggressively wielding it like a weapon to dial 911. No mobile signal. I looked around. On the porch across the parking lot sat a woman who was always staring at me, a neighbour I’d forgotten about in the same way your eye blocked out floaters and squirrels. (Whenever someone stared, I first assumed they thought I was good-looking, but this quickly gave way to the likelihood they found me repulsive, curious, or off-putting. I’d chalked up this neighbour’s stare to her using my inscrutability to feed her not-altogether-thereness.)
The man cleared his throat and this woman, long a bucolic fixture of no consequence, was potentially my only hope — if, in fact, these men were serious.
“I simply do not believe you,” I said, though the joke had grown less plausible. “How do I know you aren’t agents of a foreign government?” The question felt absurd, but no more absurd than the charade preceding it.
The man opened his wallet to flash a badge.
I stepped forward and squinted to read it. A white star with a red background beside the words “International Data Alliance” and something adjacent. A headshot of the man looking oily-faced and pubescent; there was his name (“Johnson Watt”) and a date of birth. He was only 20. His badge looked vaguely nefarious (“IDA”) and not reassuring.
“I’m Agent Watt,” he said, “but you can call me Johnson.”
“I think you are an agent of a foreign government,” I repeated, unsure how to follow this up. Either way, hostility was not the answer, given my lack of cell reception, my incapacitated vehicle, my being outnumbered, and my being barefoot in pajamas without contacts on. I continued, “Why don’t the police come if I’ve done something wrong? Why’d they send you kids?”
I watched for his reaction to this slur. And yet when he laughed and said, “The police!” I sensed that his disdain was for the police and not me. “This is not a task for your local officials,” he said, in a way that made me think he was not local.
There was silence, filled only in part by the hum of the cicadas, and then he said, “I understand your recalcitrance, due to the novelty of the situation and the severity of the charges levelled against you. But this severity leaves no brook for compromise. You have two choices,” he said, unzipping a leather pouch. “You can either wear this security bracelet and come with us in the morning to the interview. Or we’ll take you into custody right now. I recommend option one.”
I stared at the bracelet in his hand — an oversized green and black rubber band with blinking sensors that looked generations cruder than my FitBit — wondering, given the space to wonder afforded by Watt’s rather unobtrusive presence, whether he’d attended university or else learned words like “recalcitrance” on his own. He was less than half my age, and the thought occurred to me that my seniority conferred an advantage in this interaction that I’d yet to leverage.
I decided that I would simply move inside, in a brisk manner, and lock the door. As soon as Watt glanced down the staircase to Prasad, I walked, at a pace that had almost enough forward tilt to be considered a jog, to the door, and as I slid open the screen door, Watt materialized and put his hand around my wrist, without undue pressure, and said “wait.” I considered ramming my elbow into his face and barricading myself in the kitchen with the knives. But I hesitated for various reasons. First, I considered Watt to be a mere apparatchik of a higher power, if not an actor, and not personally objectionable. Second, I’d been a proponent of non-violence since reading Gandhi’s autobiography the year of my divorce. Third, I was a coward.
“What do you want from me?” I asked sheepishly, setting myself up to be treated like an imbecile. This sense of confinement, of straitjacketed agency, was kindling an inner rage that would need an outlet. I was like a quiet man late for his flight who was going to have to sharpen his elbows to get anywhere.
“Shut up with this,” I said, the midnight wind sending a shiver down my back. “Just get off my property. I don’t know what this is about, and I don’t know who you are, but I’ve done nothing wrong and you have got to leave. I’m going to count to three and you are going to walk down those stairs. One…”
Watt looked down the stairs and nodded.
There were footsteps on the staircase as Watt approached with his hand out.
In the split second that “three” hung in the air, I rapid-cycled through multiverses in which I kicked Watt and wrestled Prasad on the stairs, or leapt on the neighbour’s roof (avoiding the raccoon shit) and fled down the rooftops, or vaulted over the railing and fell hard to the gravel in my bare feet.
But I did nothing, and the gentle, fraternal, “let-me-talk-you-down-from-the-ledge” look on Watt’s face only enraged me more. “It’s in none of our interests to detain you,” said Watt, but I was hardly listening. “The best thing for both parties would be for you to wear this security bracelet and accompany us to the interview in the morning. Then you can go back to work and–”
As he talked, I noticed the woman two balconies down as she tossed food, maybe popcorn, into her mouth from a cellophane bag. I thought of her resemblance to a squirrel until Watt’s voice wrenched me back to the present: “Are you listening?” I didn’t know what to say, for I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to encourage this charade on my balcony as the wind French kissed and tickled my spine under the pajamas. But I had no choice — unless–
Watt was staring cockeyed with concern, concern I didn’t mind fostering as I calculated the simplest route to extracting myself or, if simplicity was forgone, to bending gravity, dropping the curtain and going back to my normal life, at any cost.
As Watt watched, I tilted my head back and shrieked, “HELLLLLLP!” until the vocal cords palsied. Watt bound over and swept my feet in a roundhouse and I soared off the ground, glimpsing the woman eating popcorn, my head flying at the deck, but Watt cradled the back of my head before it hit, covering my mouth with his hand as my buttocks and heels slammed the ground.
Prasad loomed overhead stretching tape from a roll. When Watt let go of my mouth, Prasad deftly sealed me shut. Watt paced the balcony, rubbing his hands together, before he turned to me and said angrily, “I was wrong about you.”
He made a call on his phone as I got to my knees, slightly remorseful and wishing, given the uselessness of my maneuver, that I hadn’t done it and that he still had his former opinion of me. But the sight of Prasad — green and progeric as he hovered over awaiting instructions — only invigorated my contempt. He had taped my mouth shut, and I’m a mouth breather.
I got back on my feet under Prasad’s supervision as he held his palm out either to tell me to slow or halt. The woman two balconies down was gone. I inhaled, relieved that, unbeknownst to Watt and Prasad, she was quite possibly corralling our neighbours into a neighbourhood patrol who’d converge on the balcony.
There was screeching as Prasad dragged over a lawn chair and gestured with his stubby finger for me to sit. I gladly obliged, because sitting as Watt talked on the phone was in perfect accord with my plan to wait for reinforcements.
But as Watt finished his call and started walking around examining me from different angles, I recalled my neighbour and her psychological queerness—the fact that, despite having sat in this concrete jungle of balconies facing one another for hundreds of hours, we’d never acknowledged each other or shared a crumb of social commerce.
Watt got off his phone and came up, towering over me (not that he was tall), and I accepted it: I was barefooted and voiceless on my porch, without any sure hope of intervention.
“Let me level with you,” Watt said, pacing up and down. “When I first saw you, I didn’t think you looked particularly radicalized. Even if there is something unsettled about your mannerisms and the way you blink, not to mention how you keep swallowing and grinding your jaw. But I assumed a gentle posture — for there’s something everymanish about you, or so I thought…” He walked to the railing and put his hand on it, “in the sense that your agitations against the state are symptoms of a clueless provinciality rather than those of an ideologue trying to take down airliners.”
I yelled out that I was no radical, but the duct tape muffled the sound and ripped the inside of my lip, releasing a plasticky tang, which nauseated me and made me want to rip off the tape and all my facial hairs.
How, I wanted to know, could the state look at our harmless, provincial travails and declare anyone radical? But I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to skin my lips.
“I’m afraid,” Watt continued, “that my sympathy has run its course. Should you cooperate, you’ll be treated like any garden-variety dissident. But the alternative is worse.”
He stopped and smirked, waiting for my facial response, but I was too cold and tortured to contort my face in an innovative manner.
“The sooner you cooperate, the better. And I’ll tell you this for free,” he said, flourishing his arms like Aristotle in the acropolis. “Civilization is a furnace that only burns if we can use you, the unintegrated, to fuel us to the direction we’re heading. Everything is a permutation of this. And so I’ll tell you your options for the last time and you can decide how smart you are. You can wear this security bracelet and enjoy partial freedom, although we’ll require the interview in the morning. Otherwise, we take you right now and I make no guarantees. Nod your head if you choose freedom.”
I let my heart palpate a few times and then nodded.
“Excellent,” he said. He fastened the swamp-colored plastic around my wrist and it clicked. It blinked and I thought I heard the whir of a CPU, but I didn’t know if CPUs whirred.
“Hold still,” said Watt, ripping the tape off my mouth, which caused a burning sensation but did not seem to cause any hair removal or bleeding.
“We’ll pick you up at 7 a.m. on the nose. Do not attempt to leave this property, because the bracelet will tell us your location. Do not try to remove the bracelet or speak to anyone about this cypher. Finally, if you do not to call in to work, we will do it for you in a way you will not like.”
I nodded eagerly, desperate to get out of the cold, to fart, and, above all, to wash my mouth, which was bone dry and tasted like the floor of a plastics factory.
“We will bring you to Agent DeQuincy in the morning.”
I didn’t entertain the prospect of escaping or maximizing my rights. I kept saying yes as they went down the steps. Then I went inside and lay down in bed, my eyes crossing between the orange and green flashes.
In the morning when I opened my eyes to let in the white sun, we were pulling into a village-sized Goodwill depot. Watt snaked around orange-vested men unloading boxes and crates at the loading docks. He parked between two spaces and got out and I followed him through an unlocked metal door, one of dozens, into a hall in the depot. It smelled of bleach, old wood and soggy cardboard. At a doorway I glimpsed a colossal sorting room with mechanical arms shoveling items in outdoor-pool-sized bowls. Watt continued down the hall and knocked at one of the doors, which had a handwritten sign that said “Ministry of Deradicalization (DRM).” A springy bald man answered the door in a navy plaid vest, his round gold-framed glasses hanging from a string. He shook my hand, saying, “My name is Dr. DeQuincy. You must be Albert. Sit.”
I sat on a metal chair with a ripped cushion. I turned to see Watt watching at the back.
“So,” said DeQuincy. “We’ve gone down a wayward path, haven’t we?” He stared at me in a clinical way, his pen poised on a memo pad as if he would sketch a polygraph based on my response, but the need to empty my bladder overrode any possibility of self-reflection.
“Is there a bathroom?”
“There is, on the other side of the sorting yard.”
“Better finish this first,” snapped Watt.
I crossed my legs and waited for DeQuincy to continue.
When he didn’t, and instead stared at me with an invasive smirk, I said, “I have no idea what kind of behaviour I’m accused of. These last eight or nine hours have been a grotesque violation of my statutory rights. I don’t know what authority you have, if any, but I will be in contact with my attorney at that end of this meeting, and he’s very good.”
DeQuincy smiled without concern, then put a hand up to stop me: “I understand your position. There’s nothing unusual about your reaction, which is somewhere between a sincere delusion and outright falsity.”
He added, “But we won’t apologize for doing our jobs. You’ve been on our radar for some time now, and we intend to take the necessary steps for your reintegration in society. While that remains our raison d’être, we’d also like to explore making you, in time, into a VoC.”
“A what?” The need to pee burned so hot that I would have agreed to sell vacation timeshares in a Dravidian language to get out of this.
“A vehicle of conversion. A proselytizer of sound, modern, progressive, group-oriented thought.”
I sat stiffly in the chair, stung by this talk of waywardness and VoCs, wondering what the hell I’d done to warrant this intrusion. It was true that after Becca moved away to college, I’d detached from my youthful ambitions and pluck and had slunk into a grasping, middle-aged crankiness. It was true that I’d done some unsightly things that I wouldn’t want broadcast in Times Square. But nothing that’d make you blink if you heard it — nothing that warranted a case file for the Ministry of Deradicalization.