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-1THE CHIP by Devon Pitlor

I. After my father’s burial

Kerry had a wrinkled pack of what passed in Harmonia as


cigarettes. He pulled out the end of one and automatically
twisted it so that what passed in Harmonia as tobacco didn’t
fall out. Then he extracted the brown-stained little cylinder
from the pack and twisted the other end. He put the cigarette
in his mouth, lit it with book match and blew a huge smoke
ring over my head, just the way he had done when we were
kids. Despite the long absence, Kerry was still the tormenting
brat of a little brother I had always known. Anything that
would jolt my nerves was fair game for Kerry, even at Daddy’s
funeral.

We sat at a picnic table near the freshly covered grave and


stared at one another. Mom was in a home and had no idea
anymore of who we were, and now Daddy was in the ground.
A mutual and longstanding dislike welled up between Kerry
and me, but we still had understandings between us, as
brothers and sisters do. Glancing furtively at Daddy’s grave,
we both knew what the other was thinking: Daddy was much
happier now wherever he was, much happier than he had ever
been in Harmonia. Daddy had the wrong memories and had
been, as they say, too old to forget and change.

A small, perfunctory three piece band stood by Daddy’s


gravesite and hastily blew out the fractured notes of the
Harmonian National Anthem. Then they saluted briefly to us
and were gone.

Kerry blew some more smoke in my direction and looked at


my notebook.

“Still writing your memoirs, I see,” he smirked. “You know


that’s illegal if it is what I think it is.”

I stared defiantly at Kerry and said “I don’t care.” I said that


the relatives that we had never seen in Free Vineland might
like to read about us someday. I said that I enjoyed writing…
remembering…trying to capture what it was like growing up
in Harmonia with pre-bloc parents and an obsessed if not
foolish father.

“You can put a lot of good shit in there about the old boarding
house,” said Kerry. “They don’t have boarding houses in Free
Vineland. Bet all that stuff about Mrs. Tallmyer and her
cooking and gossiping would keep them entertained for hours.
They say that they have more than one channel on the TV up
there and that just about every family has a computer-thing
and some games to go with it. When are they going to find time
to read about this dump?”

Kerry blew some more smoke and stood up. He took one last
look at Daddy’s grave and flicked the end of his cigarette over
onto the fresh dirt. “Silly man,” he muttered, “silly man. I’m
leaving, Katie. I have the early shift at the plant tomorrow.
See you around.”

Kerry held out his hand but I looked in the other direction. I
was thirty years old and unmarried. I had my own boarding
house to run now, single men, families and children to cook for.
I was only on short leave because of Daddy’s burial. Kerry
shrugged and walked off, shoulders hunched. His long,
calloused hands dangled from his tattered sports jacket just as
Daddy’s had whenever Daddy had been forced to dress up.
Kerry used his hands to lift heavy objects just like Daddy
always had. But he would never admit to being like our father
because he and I were, thankfully, post-bloc kids, and we knew
how to stay in our places---something which Daddy had never
learned.

II. A pivotal day in my memoirs.

They needed a beginning because I was not going to tell about


the sordid history of Harmonia. It was a personal narrative
about our family and I chose the worst day of my life as the
centerpiece of the story. Surely, the so-called relatives in Free
Vineland would appreciate that personal touch more than
reading some drab history of the Partition that they could see
in any history book. I chose the day---the second day---that
Daddy had won the Chip. It was a day that made me very
angry to look back on and therefore a good place to start.
Anger drives the pen.

III. The Chip

Daddy’s turn came up to win the Chip, and, as usual, he had a


plan. Mom, Kerry and I couldn’t see it coming right then, but
everyone else at the Cove did, especially Jacob the mechanic
who first accosted Daddy in the boardinghouse driveway as
Daddy returned triumphantly from the plant, where after eight
years---completely as scheduled---Daddy had just collected one
hundred thousand dollars on the Chip. Of course, it wasn’t all
that much, but Jacob, always the Cove’s watchdog and
peacemaker, wanted to avert tragedy. I stood silently by, a girl
of 14, and listened to Jacob attempt to reason with Daddy.

“The Buick won’t make it,” Jacob said. “You need too many
repairs, little things like wiper blades, which I can’t get, and an
oil change, which might be possible but a little tricky.”

“Excuse me, Jacob,” Daddy said as he pushed his way past the
mechanic and into the main sitting room. “I have my plans
made.”

Jacob continued, talking to Daddy’s back. “Zachary, why not


take a few days off? They let you do that when you win the
Chip. Stay in the house. The television isn’t blacked out
during the day, and you can watch a few games. Hang around
here, and I’ll rustle up the parts for you. Your Chip money will
be well-spent, and you’ll have a little left over by the time I
finish the Buick. You and the family can spend a day in the
inland hills and have a picnic.”
Money in hand, Daddy pretended not to hear Jacob and closed
the door behind him. He’d been waiting patiently for his Chip
win since the last time, and I suddenly realized that Mom and
maybe even Kerry, Dad’s favorite, knew something about his
plans. I drifted into Mrs. Tallmyer’s dining room close to
Daddy’s accustomed place setting, which Mrs. Tallmyer, the
boarding house keeper and cook, was deliberately avoiding.
Mrs. Tallmyer bustled about in her usual manner excusing
everyone for the meal which was as usual a few minutes late.
Bloc stew steamed in huge pots in her cluttered kitchen, but we
all knew she would have none for Daddy that day. It was now
clear that he had shared his plans with nearly every boarder
weeks before. The Chip was very predictable. Every plant
worker knew approximately when his turn would come, and
among the boarders, I had heard a lot of hushed conversations
over the past few days. It was all about the other residents
trying to warn Daddy. Cottage Cove people at least made a
pretense of sticking together.

Inside their bedroom, I heard Mom’s muffled voice pleading.


She couldn’t do much better than Jacob. I did not catch it all,
but I did hear her exclaim several times that the hundred
thousand dollars wasn’t all that much. “Chips keep getting
smaller all the time,” she shouted at one point. But her vain
reasoning trailed off into what sounded like sobs and probably
were. The door sprang open and she sighed in exasperation
“You’re going to go, and you’re going to drag us with you!”

“Not drag,” Daddy snarled. “I have the three-day passes they


require. Remember we’re doing this for the kids.”

Mom caught her face in her hands, turned around and started
throwing some clothes into an overnight bag. I could see her
from the hallway. She looked desperately at me watching her.
“I’m packing one day’s worth,” she mumbled, “regardless of
what he says.”

“No blocs,” Daddy bellowed from the common room. “They


execute you on the spot for that.”

IV. A dinner missed

I heard the somber sounds of our fellow boarders shuffling into


the dining room for the evening meal. “’Gradulations, Zack,”
stammered Mr. Pooler with marked hesitation. “I knew your
day was coming. Not a big pot this time, I guess,” he added
clinking his silverware as he always did to alert Mrs. Tallmyer
that he was ready to eat. “You be careful now, Zack,”
cautioned another young single boarder who had recently
moved in and who worked in some office where they didn’t run
the Chip. “When you leaving?” inquired Jacob the mechanic,
washing his hands at the sink.

“Right now,” said Daddy, standing beside the door to our


double rooms. “Kerry and Katie are home, and we’ve got an
hour or two of daylight for the bridge. Shana’s packing our
stuff. We might not be back…” His voice trailed off painfully,
full of doubts. The die was cast.

V. The bridge

Kerry, whom Daddy had picked up on the way home from the
plant was already sitting in the back seat of the Buick ready to
go. He had no idea, no memory (as I had) of what was coming.
He would slide into the front seat as soon as we got on the road.
He was as selfish and self-centered as a little brat brother could
be. Kerry offered no surprises. By age eight, his routines were
already set. Teasing me was at the heart of his agenda.
Trembling and worried, Mom and I got into the car. A harsh
late winter afternoon sun illuminated the entire Cove and its
grounds and silhouetted the almost silent ring of boarders
poking languidly at their variously prepared blocs at the huge
circular dining room table. Inside, I could see Mrs. Tallmyer
bustling about serving from large pots. Our places were
vacant.

Daddy wasn’t talking much as he lurched the Buick out of the


cul-de-sac and onto the bridge road. When he finally did say
something, it was to Mom. We were not meant to hear it, but it
was something like “Gotta do this.” Spring had almost come
to our town and tiny yellow buds were adorning the bare trees,
but none of us noticed. Our eyes were set straight forward
toward the bridge which arched like an immobile gray tentacle
over the near horizon. On the other side lay Saint-James with
its “happy darkies,” as everyone said. As the bridge neared,
Kerry mechanically said “happy darkies” for no good reason
other than he had heard it all his life. “Shhh,” said Mom.
“That’s an insult. We don’t want to say something to make
them mad. They are nice people and just like you and I,
except…”
Dad cut her off with a hand on her leg. She concluded by
saying “Let’s be super nice. You know they don’t want us
there, anyway.”

“Who could blame them?” muttered Daddy, pushing the car


forward with even greater resolve. The bridge grew larger in
our view.

“Is it true that I was here before?” chirped Kerry. “I mean


like when I was too young to remember?”

“Yes,” Mom said in a dry tone that meant to stop him from
asking questions. It didn’t work.

“Is it true that I wet my pants and puked all over? I bet Katie
did the same. She’s got no guts.”

Mom looked out the window and ignored the comment. Kerry
slid between the front seats and sat on the dash console
between our parents. “I want to see the bridge better,” he
announced. “Besides, Katie has cooties.” Ahead the huge
bridge became darker and more frightening, like some strange
growth that was warning us away from an unseen but totally
predictable danger.

VI. The border

As the signs warning of the impending border grew more


frequent and the guarded bridge gate came into view between
rows of dirty warehouses, Daddy pulled over to the side of the
mostly deserted street. “Bloc check!” he said. “Are you all
absolutely certain you have no blocs, not even the tiniest piece?
They’ll shoot you for that.”

“Even kids?” said Kerry. “I thought they were happy darkies.”

“Stop saying that!” shouted Mom, her voice strained with


tension. “No, Zack, there’s no blocs unless one fell out of your
lunch into the car today.”

“I paid a kid ninety bucks to clean the car,” said Daddy, “and I
personally checked it over myself, under the seats and all. You
can be sure they’ll look or have the dogs sniffing.”

A few dour looking Harmonia government guards drifted


around the bridge barrier waiting for our arrival. They were
slovenly dressed and a couple leaned on their rifles like
walking sticks. “Looks like we have the bridge to ourselves,”
said Daddy, grasping for something positive to say. Two of the
guards, mere boys, one of whom went to an upper grade in my
school, approached the car and asked for our passes, which
they hardly glanced at. “Nice day to cross,” said one. “No
wind.”

“Yeah,” said the other, “they say it drives some people over
here crazy when you can smell their cooking.” Both boys
chortled in laughter.

“What would you know about it?” snapped Daddy. “You


weren’t even around when…”

“Forget it, mister. Eat your blocs. Put some ketchup on them
or something.” Both teenage guards laughed heartily.
Ketchup was still a big joke. The pre-bloc generation
apparently used it. My father never joked about ketchup.
Neither did Mom. They were pre-bloc kids, or so they always
told us. Pre-bloc kids didn’t laugh about ketchup.
Daddy drove several yards to the next checkpoint and stopped.
One of the boys called out something about roast beef which
was drowned out by the other’s sporadic bursts of laughter.
An older crossing guard came out with a sheet of printed
regulations, things about what you could or could not bring
back. Food of any kind was totally forbidden. The man eyed
us casually.

“Bridge closes at ten PM,” he grunted. “Suppose you know


that. After that you gotta go up ten miles to the trade bridge.
They keep it open all night for trucks. Can’t limit foreign
trade, can we? If you need to come back that way,” he
continued, squinting suspiciously at us, “there’s an all night
diner just off the road. Remember that. Run by an old gal
called Ruthie. Suppose they’ll call her Saint Ruthie some day.
She’s saved many a traveler like you folks. Watch for her sign.
It blinks.” With that, the older guard motioned us forward.
“Good luck,” he added reluctantly as if he really didn’t mean
it. “Stay away from the ketchup.”

Neither Daddy nor Mom acknowledged the remark.

VII. Saint-James
The barrier purred with electric charge and lurched upward
and open. The bridge, like an enormous artificial hill, spread
before us. Kerry said something about skiing. Daddy stared
straight ahead and accelerated. About one hundred yards up,
the bridge leveled into its main span which crossed over a dirty
stream far below. “I wonder why they made it so high?” said
Mom to no one in particular. Farther along, a bright neon sign
flashed on especially for us:

WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF SAINT-JAMES.


FOLLOW ALL POSTED REGULATIONS. IMPORTS
CLOSELY MONITORED.

Under this someone had scrawled in lemon-green paint NO


BLOCKS!!!!
accentuated by a badly drawn skull and crossbones. “We
don’t use a K in that word,” said Kerry as if he’d already
found a fatal flaw in Saint-James. “They can’t spell.”

“Why would they want to spell that awful word?” said Daddy.
Kerry had no reply. A minute later he said “ketchup” and
spelled it correctly letter by letter.
We eased down the other incline of the bridge into Saint-
James, still the only car on the bridge. Black (or “Lost African”
as they preferred to be called) soldiers in neat blue uniforms
were everywhere. They carried guns, but seemed happy, jovial
and welcoming. One of them approached with a dog on a
leash. Like the others, the dark-skinned man was grinning
cheek to cheek. “Happy darkies,” whispered Kerry.

Daddy pulled the Buick where he was directed onto an orange


rectangle and jumped out, motioning for us to do the same.
The soldiers surrounded him. One shook his hand. “Come for
dinner?” he said pleasantly. A small German shepherd rushed
through the inside of the Buick, sniffing everywhere, finding
nothing. It ran out one of the back doors and returned to a
mat where it had previously lay gnawing a fresh bone. It
whined and rolled its sad eyes at us.

“They get a little reward if…” the soldier began, but cut
himself off with a smile.

“Yeah,” said Daddy. “Well, he won’t get a reward off us.


We’re good tourists.”
Another friendly black soldier came over and offered us a list
of restaurants. “Some of them aren’t too close,” he said. “You
may have to drive a bit. They’re all in hotels.”

“I’ve got a reservation,” said Daddy.

I was unaware that he had made one. “The Painter House,” he


continued.

“Right up the street,” said another of the soldiers. “Linda’s


place. Grills steaks and makes beef stew and the best mashed
potatoes that… Well, I guess for you any mashed potatoes
would do.”

Daddy nodded his head. I suddenly saw great pity in the


soldiers’ eyes. “Want to see our passes?” Daddy asked. “No,”
said one of the soldiers. “You’re free to stay here as long as
you like….or can. Don’t let your money run out. We don’t do
welfare, and things are a little more expensive here.”

“And well worth it!” Daddy exclaimed with a broad smile that
beamed a little about finding new freedom.
“Linda’s a fine woman and a good cook,” the soldier said.
“She’ll take care of you. But remember, she’s not a nurse.”

VIII. The Painter House

The Painter House, owned and operated by one Linda Newell,


was only a five minute drive up the road. Its lights shone
brightly in the failing dusk which had fallen over what was a
cheerful looking little town of neat brick houses and
fascinating aromas. “They’re all cooking,” Daddy said. “All
cooking whatever they want, and it ain’t blocs!” Another
massive neon sign blinked ahead:

SAINT-JAMES, GATEWAY TO THE GULF OF MEXICO.


ENJOY YOUR STAY.

Music of several sorts filtered out of the hotel. The mellow


sounds of ice clinking in glasses and spirited conversation filled
the air. The rich smells were unfamiliar but inviting. “It’s all
food,” said Daddy. “They have a menu here, lots of choices.”

“I have no idea what to eat,” said Kerry. “That’s why I have


parents.”

“Pre-bloc parents,” added Mom, her first words in a while.

Inside the Painter House, an affable desk clerk showed us our


room, which had two king sized beds and a telephone. She
dropped the scribbled address of a doctor by the phone and
shrugged her shoulders, always smiling. She invited us to come
to the dining room whenever we were ready. “We’re serving
till midnight,” she said, leaving and closing the door behind
her. Kerry said something about being hungry but wanted to
swim in the pool first. Mom shook her head dolefully. “We
can’t do that,” she said. “We have to eat first. Then you can
swim until the pool closes.”

“If I can,” said Kerry. He knew all about the problem. And I
had half thought he didn’t. It was, of course, something they
never failed to teach in school.

We descended a big flowing staircase into the dining room. A


bald saxophonist was blowing notes all over the place, big
heavy notes from a tune I couldn’t piece together. He was
overweight and swatted large drops of sweat off his slick
forehead. His eyes fixed on us for a moment, and he lifted his
instrument as if to say “Welcome and good luck.”

We were the only non-Africans in the room, and I sensed that


they were going to make a fuss over us, but I didn’t know how
much. Linda herself, a portly woman with a deep motherly
grin appeared in a slightly food-soiled apron. A man at the
table next to us laughed and said “It’s just show. She hasn’t
cooked in years. Suppose she samples everything though.” He
returned back to a stack of steaming green vegetables that I
was unable to identify. Next to him a pretty woman sawed
hungrily at a large brown chunk of what I presumed to be
meat. She shoved a hunk of it in her mouth and smiled warmly
at our table. “Mmm…mm…good,” she said with genuine
pleasure and not a hint of malice. She wanted us to eat and
even went as far as to proffer a little dish of mashed orange
vegetables and gravy our way. Daddy politely declined.

Linda came over to us and said, with no introduction, that she


had two surprises. “First,” she laughed, “your meal is free---
and I don’t want any argument about that. And second, I’ve
got prime rib, mashed potatoes, mixed greens, red-eye gravy
and hot pecan pie. You can pay for a cocktail if you want one.
Does anyone want something different?” Linda put her hands
on her substantial thighs and waited for an approval.

Daddy, looking thin amidst all the hearty eaters, thanked


Linda and assured her that her prime rib would be just great.
A worried look crossed his brow, a look which Mom and Linda
noticed at once. “You gave us a free meal last time,” he said
quietly. “That was about seven years ago.”

“Can’t remember,” said Linda. “But tonight you eat for


nothing again. Bon appetit.”

“Is that when I puked all over?” Kerry asked, looking around
for a laugh which didn’t come. Mom just whispered a weak
“Shhh.”

“You’ll be all right this time,” said Linda unconvincingly.


“People change…adjust, or so they say.” She strolled across
the dining room floor and massaged the broad shoulders of
another customer, who hardly took his eyes up from a plate
piled high with food that I couldn’t name. The saxophonist
came down from his raised platform and blew a sallow note or
two next to our table. I noticed that he had a shining row of
gold teeth. They seemed very pretty.

We sat in silence until our meal arrived, big hot dishes of


things with thrilling aromas, smaller plates steaming with
multi-colored substances. Dad quietly named them on arrival:
“End cut prime rib with brown gravy, mashed potatoes with
butter and bacon bits, steamed asparagus, fresh baked corn
bread, collard greens and vinegar.” And later: “Hot pecan pie
with vanilla ice cream.”

Then a dusky soloist accompanied by a clarinet player sang a


soulful song about long-ago suffering. “I was hungry and
wet,” she crooned. The mood seemed right. We ate and ate. It
was beyond delicious. It was food. Good food.

Daddy patted his stomach. Mom whispered something about a


tip. Daddy said he still had lots of Chip money and that a tip
of twenty thousand dollars would not be out of line for such an
excellent meal. Both parents looked sad but seemed distantly
content. Their eyes told me that they were remembering things
that we would never know about, old half-forgotten things. At
one point Mom made a little joke about not needing ketchup.
Only Daddy laughed.
IX. Conclusion

It started when Kerry got back from his swim.

Mom and Daddy were sitting side by side on the little couch in
the room. For a few moments they were holding hands,
something I had never seen them do before. Then a television
program about flying dogs seemed to absorb them. I read a
school magazine in a soft chair by the window. The sounds of
happy laughter from below wafted upward into our room. I
glanced at my parents and suddenly realized how thin they
both were. It had taken a trip among the “happy darkies” of
Saint-James to remind me. We were all thin.

Kerry came dripping into the room. “I’m sick, Mom,” he


groaned. “My stomach is killing me, and I have cramps.”

“Maybe you swam too much,” Mom said, worried. Daddy


grimaced and said nothing. It was then that my fingers felt
frozen. I dropped the magazine and nearly blanked out when I
bent to retrieve it. My sides started throbbing, and every
square inch of my skin blazed with the fire of deep pain. Little
grains of flashing light danced in front of my eyes, and I
shivered uncontrollably, alternately hot and cold. Through the
sudden agony I noticed that Daddy was kneading his stomach
fiercely. Mom was rubbing her forehead. Kerry staggered into
the bathroom and wretched without ejecting food. “I’m
hungry,” he gasped. “I need to eat.”

Mom looked like a caged rat. Her eyes darted back and forth
as she rubbed her head harder and harder. Daddy vomited
beside the couch and curled over in a spasm. In minutes, we
were all three prostrate on the floor writhing in hunger pangs,
hunger for the one food on earth on which our society was
founded: blocs---the artificially manufactured, totally
abundant substance that our government had introduced after
the Partition and the Great Famine. Kerry and I knew nothing
else, despite the longings of our parents for “real food,” despite
the ketchup they supposedly once used to overcome the
blandness of the original blocs. Blocs, though nutritious, were
totally addictive, and once a regimen of them was established,
nothing else could ever replace them again, not Linda’s prime
rib or candied yams, not any of the other exotic delicacies from
before the Partition.
Green with illness, queasy and hovering near unconsciousness,
stricken with hundreds of vague pains and in the grip of a
mind-numbing malaise, we crossed the trade bridge. Daddy
swerved and veered as he hunched over the steering wheel of
the Buick and nursed us back into our own land.

At three that morning, we sat staring at one another and


quietly moaning until Saint Ruthie---she’d already gotten the
name---brought us heaping plates of blocs. Saint or not,
Ruthie’s overnight prices were not cheap, and when Daddy
requested a bottle of ketchup, he gave out the last of his Chip
money.
_________________________///

Devon Pitlor -- August, 2009

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