Midstudy Data Summary
The crack dealing continued apace, day and night. During the course of the Study, the PR was offered crack, weed, and prescription muscle relaxers, as well as comic books and sunflower seeds “of all different flavors.”
Sometimes the Study Area seemed like a tumor that had burst on the side of capitalism. Other times it seemed like something ancient and sensible: people building dwellings, then improving them. These houses seemed like an intelligent revolt against what modern culture had declared a house, i.e., an elaborate box built by professional builders of such boxes, part of a mutual-enrichment scheme between city and builder. But were these not houses? Were there not rugs in there and chairs and treasured little stupid items? Did the residents not look forward to returning there at the end of a long day?
At times the Study Area residents seemed bumbling, sweet, hapless, and victimized. Other times they seemed vicious, aggressive, and vituperative, unable to say a kind word about one another—self-defeating, excuse-making machines, spoiled rotten by free food.
Sometimes it seemed unimaginable that such poverty could exist in America and that the residents accepted it so passively. Why didn’t the place explode? Other times—when, for example, the PR had been out driving around the pleasant neighborhoods of Fresno—the Study Area seemed like a tiny blip on the radar, the necessary detritus of an insanely affluent country. The presence of 300 losers in a city of winners seemed not like a crisis, but rather a reasonable embodiment of Christ’s admonition that the poor would always be with us.
The Cruel Dotted Line
Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of wealth in an idealized capitalist culture. At the far right are the superrich; we note that there are not very many. In the middle, in greater abundance, are those of average wealth. To the far left are the poor. Now, let the dotted vertical line represent the level at which one becomes so poor as to become homeless.
The goal of any citizen in a capitalist society is to avoid blundering left of the dotted line. The goal of the society at large should be to minimize the negative consequences for those individuals who do happen to blunder into that region, i.e., show mercy. The true measure of a culture might be said to lie in its answer to the question: How severely are those who blunder to the left of the line punished?
The Study Area presented a unique and vexing case: With all basic needs (food, shelter, laundry, etc.) met, did all suffering vanish? Based on the observations made during the Study, it did not. The well-fed homeless of Fresno, it was observed, suffered considerably.
They suffered with feeling inadequate and left behind. They spent considerable time and energy telling and retelling the story of their lives, as if looking for the place where things had gone astray. They were lonely and seemed to long for the better things in life: ease, property, companionship. Perhaps not surprisingly, this longing sometimes manifested as anger; also impatience, derision, a tendency to gossip ungenerously. In this the Study Area was similar to any other human community, but with the endemic poverty serving as a kind of process accelerator.
Site Visit: Return to the Hill
On the afternoon of Day Three, the PR sat drinking with Jesse O., the man who had built the regal porch on the Hill. The treated porch lumber was redolent of affluence. The beer was cold. Across G Street, an ancient black woman sat on the curb in the midday heat, head between her knees. Fifty feet away, an ancient black man sat in the same posture. If only they could meet and comfort one another, the PR thought. But both appeared unconscious. A pickup flew past, ruffling their garments.
Jesse and the PR discussed many things in an increasingly friendly, telegraphic, and blurry manner. After the painful breakup of his marriage, Jesse had left Los Angeles, headed north. Passing through Fresno, he became part of a hundred-car pileup in the fog and nearly lost a leg. The hospital dropped him off in front of the Rescue Mission without even a wheelchair. He lived in the Mission briefly but didn’t like it—didn’t like the rules, the way they shoved religion down your throat, the general lack of dignity—so he came out here and built this deck and put up this tent and was now just waiting for the insurance settlement so he could get the hell out of here.
Once, Jesse had gone to a psychic. The psychic asked Jesse what he most desired in the world. Jesse said: to be anointed from the Horn of David. The psychic predicted this would come to pass. The PR felt he should know what the Horn of David was. But all that came to mind was a coat of many colors. One day a preacher was blessing Jesse, and Jesse saw that the container from which the blessing oil was being drawn was made in the exact likeness of the actual Horn of David. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.
The PR’s forty-ounce Bud Ice was nearly gone.
Yahoo, the PR thought. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Back in Los Angeles, Jesse made $300 a pop for personalized homemade greeting cards which would include drawings of, for example, animals or race cars, as well as a personalized poem he would inscribe in calligraphy, such as the following example, composed in honor of the birth of a friend’s first son, which the PR drunkenly copied into the project notebook:
We have a son
Just a baby, our baby
The image of both you and i
So pure, so innocent so
Fascinating is life’s beginning.
By the grace of god and the virtue of heredity
And the goodness of nurture
Set out to become the product of his unique experiences.
Ever still, if meeting you was all i had ever accomplished in life, my
Past would be one pleasant memory.
And i thank god for your birth. and i love you. thank you.
Signed: jesse o.
Jesse stated that the mother of the baby (to whom the lines “Ever still, if meeting you was all I had ever accomplished in life, my / Past would be one pleasant memory” had been slyly directed) had accused him, Jesse, of trying to use the poem, for which she was paying, to hit up on her. Jesse confessed that this indeed had been his intent. But there was nothing wrong with trying, right?
People around here looked up to Jesse, he knew that. He was known as El Sabudería (which he translated from street lingo as “Mr. Wisdom”), tried to keep the peace up here—not by force, but by listening to people, hearing them out—but it was hard. People were crazy, people were angry, people were on crack. The sadness made it a volatile place.
Where was he, the PR, living at? Jesse asked.
Over in the tent city, the PR said.
Yeah, but where exactly? Jesse said.
The PR described the location of his tent.
Jesse was mortified. There was dealing going on there all the time. The PR wasn’t safe. They were going down there right now, get him moved, over by the white people, to the north end of Taco Flats, with some friends of his who’d look out for the PR.
A Step Down
The PR, Jesse, Ernesto, and a couple of white guys were hustling across the Study Area, carrying the PR’s tent between them like a wounded guy on a stretcher.
Mobile home! the PR shouted.
Some Mexicans in a doorway laughed at the PR, not with him. The PR could feel the dead weight of his stuff inside the tent, sliding downhill to the center sag.
The group stopped in front of a compound at the southwest corner of the Study Area and hefted the tent over the gate with a strange urgency, as if the need to work toward some common cause, long dormant from chronic unemployment, had suddenly come alive.
The matron of the compound appeared, a kindly woman with a touch of a Mexican accent. Where would the PR like his tent to go? She suggested a spot. The tent was dropped. Someone, outraged, pointed out that, oriented that way, the PR wouldn’t even be able to get in. The tent was lifted, rotated, dropped again.
Jesse embraced the PR. He, Jesse, could at least sleep now. This was one of Rusty’s compounds. He’d be safe here. Rusty was good people.
Rusty? the PR thought. The same Rusty who’d punched Valerie in the face, whose ass had been kicked by Pablo, who was supposedly dying of bone cancer?
Once Jesse left, the PR asked the Matron why Jesse felt his old location was dangerous.
Well, she said, the dangerous thing was, maybe in the night you hear, you know, a damsel in distress, or something like that? And you think: I should go help her. Only, in here, there ain’t no damsels. Everybody be drunk, be partying, you hear something, someone getting hit or slapped, you go to help and wind up getting stabbed yourself or whatever.…
The PR liked Jesse. But Jesse had sort of bitched him around, hadn’t he? He hadn’t wanted to move, but Jesse had made him. He was now in a relationship with Rusty, living under Rusty’s protection. Rusty, who had punched Valerie, grandmother of seven and a half, in the face. What if Rusty tried to bitch him around? Would he be expected to fight Rusty? This was a world of badly directed energy, primitive idiotic vows, pointless, vicious fights. The disposition of a cup or license plate, the nonpayment of a two-dollar debt, might come to violence if the people involved got shitfaced enough. It was too much. He needed a break. Where was Ernesto? Did Ernesto want to go to the ball game? Tonight they’d get real seats, like real people, leave this moronic place behind.
Let’s go, said Ernesto.
At the Ball Game
Near the dugout, a group of Asian-American teenagers were flirting with the players. Ernesto and the PR sat looking with longing and consternation at the demonstrative slender Asian girls in their tight jeans and lingerie tops and spiked heels. It occurred to the PR that in these girls, affluence manifested as confidence: a sort of hubris, an overflow of capability and life force and sexuality that felt, in this context, almost bullying.
Ernesto was sad about the PR’s new location, sad and worried, mournful even. It was much more dangerous than the old place, especially if Rusty and his friends got to drinking. The PR asked if there was crack in his new neighborhood. Ernesto said there was crack everywhere. Ernesto had done crack himself once, he admitted, a long time ago, back in Vietnam.
Crack? the PR said. In Vietnam?
The PR had always thought of crack as a newish drug.
Yes, they’d come across the plant in the wild and smoked it right there in the jungle, Ernesto said. That had been a crazy time. Before their first battle, their officers had even injected them with steroids to make them less scared.
At the front gate, Ernesto turned suddenly self-conscious about his appearance.
Maybe, he suggested, you could say I’m your friend who just got off work and didn’t have time to change clothes.
The PR had tender feelings for Ernesto, who was courteous and intelligent and always seemed happy to see the PR. And yet Valerie had claimed Ernesto was a miserable punk, a liar. Albert agreed: Ernesto was a bitch, because when Ernesto’s wife, Jodi, got beat up, Ernesto just cowered behind her.
They took their excellent box seats and had a couple of beers. The Fresno mascot appeared, a yellow-orange bear with stained fur, standing on a chair back to perform a groin thrust in some college kid’s face. Ernesto recalled that he had gone to grade school with Barbara Bush.
Barbara Bush? the PR said. That doesn’t quite…
Laura Bush, Ernesto corrected himself.
You went to school with Laura Bush? the PR asked.
It was at DeZavala Elementary, in Midland, Texas, Ernesto said. When he first saw her, he’d believed her to be a Mexican girl. She looks a little bit Mexican, he explained. He had a crush on her. He remembered they used to have to stand in a big field before school, for attendance. He would look over, find her. It always made him happy to see her.
Then Ernesto grew up, moved to Amarillo, got drafted, was sent to Vietnam. His girlfriend loyally waited for him.
I came home, he said, asked her to marry me. She say okay, sounds good, man. We got married. It was good in Amarillo. But then we lost our first kid. And I got into trouble with drinking. This was way back in ’85. In ’89, that was when I lost my wife. In a car accident. You know the way it is, the road going to the mall? That’s the way. That’s where it happened. Interstate 40. So I said okay. That was really hard. And I took my little daughter to my mom and I say: You know what? I’ll be back. I told her: I’ll be back. But I never came back. I never saw my daughter again after that. After my wife died, I just lost everything.
After the death of their infant son, his wife had gone a little crazy, he said. She used to go out to the graveyard and try to dig the baby up. Then she died herself. His current wife, Jodi, is always saying that the reason he refuses to own a car is his first wife’s death in that car crash. And it’s true, Ernesto says. Her death was the end of him.
The PR excused himself, went to the bathroom, stood at the urinal, fighting tears.
Jesus, he thought. Jesus Christ. Would Valerie and Albert still consider Ernesto a bitch and a punk if they knew about his dead son and his wife digging up their dead baby, and that same wife shortly dead herself, and their daughter abandoned all these years? Hell, maybe they would. Mercy was, it seemed, in short supply in the Study Area, and Valerie and Albert had stories of their own.
Last night, Fresno had lost big. Tonight, Fresno was ahead. If Fresno won, Ernesto stated, there would be fireworks. You could see the fireworks from the camp. But tonight, sitting inside here, they would really be able to see them. That is, if Fresno won.
Fresno continued to lead until the top of the eighth, then fell apart: a Tacoma single, a walk, a double, and then Fresno was down by three in the bottom of the ninth, and the saddened crowd acutely felt the impossibility of hitting a pitched ball even once, and were then confirmed in their pessimism by three straight Grizzly outs, and the game was over.
No fireworks, the PR said.
No fireworks, said Ernesto, in a not unhappy tone that seemed to indicate he’d never really expected them anyway.
Revelation: A Brief Flash-Forward
A few days later, inspired by Ernesto’s story, the PR sneaked away from camp and Googled Ernesto’s brother in Odessa and gave him a call.
Yes, he had a brother named Ernesto, the guy said, but he hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. Last they knew, he was living in Fresno. If this man really was Ernesto, the brother would love to talk to him. The PR then told the man everything he knew about Ernesto. Their family was from Guatemala, the brother confirmed. He himself, Ernesto’s alleged brother, was, yes, a preacher in Odessa, whose middle name was, in fact, Rudolpho. But something was off. Ernesto had never been to Vietnam. Ernesto had never been in the military at all. Ernesto had said he was 65? He was nowhere near 65. Ernesto had a son who died as a baby, yes. But he never had a daughter. Absolutely not. Their mother was still alive, and if a daughter had been left with her, they would have, uh, noticed. So something was off.
Something’s off all right, the PR thought. Everyone in this place is a liar, even sweet, broken Ernesto.
Enough Is Enough
After the game, Ernesto and the PR walked back to the camp. It was quiet because, Ernesto said, everyone was flat busted. It would get lively and dangerous when people who got money from the government got their money from the government.
Inside the PR’s tent, it looked like a tornado had hit. He hadn’t been back inside since the transport. He wished desperately to be back in his old spot. Good old Valerie, good old Wanda. But now attention had been called to his presence. Jesse, as he’d led the tent movement, had made it clear to everyone listening that the PR was not homeless but here for an important purpose. He was doing a Study. Jesse had called over one of the guys from the Watchtower, told him that, though it might look like the PR was a narc, the PR was not a narc, just a guy doing a Study. The Watchtower guy said he had no problem with a guy doing a Study, as long as the Study didn’t mention drugs.
Everything seemed to have changed in some unhappy way.
The PR woke to the sound of a woman being fucked or hit, he couldn’t tell which. Her cries were rhythmic and laden with sorrow. Woman, he thought, you really are the nigger of the world. Unless that is a pleasure sound. And even then, you still are. Because look where you are, and who you’re getting that pleasure from, and at what cost.
Enough was enough. He had a wife, he had kids. He had to get out of here before something bad happened. He was lying about who he was as much as anybody else in here, and it now seemed clear that the uncovering of this lie must lead to resentment, and resentment, in turn, to some retributive cost.
Time to go.
First he’d have to give away all his stuff: his sleeping bag and pad, his little light, the tent itself. Wanda had been asking for the tent. Valerie had advised him against giving the tent to that little crackhead Wanda. He’d also considered giving it to Suzanna, a lost soul just out of jail, stranded here in Fresno with no tent of her own, also a crackhead, but a crackhead more adrift than Wanda, who, though a crackhead, was also well connected and fat and slothful, always begging and playing the angles. Per Wanda, Suzanna had sold her jail-issued train ticket for crack; why give a brand-new tent to someone like that? By rights, Valerie should get the tent. Valerie was his pal. Valerie was no crackhead. Valerie was a grandmother of seven and a half. Then again, Valerie already had like five tents. Why did she need another one? Arguing in Wanda’s favor was the fact that she had been hit by a train and could barely walk and was awfully genial and forgiving for someone so down on her luck.
Jesus, he couldn’t wait to get out of here.
The camp dogs were going nuts, stirred up by someone strolling the camp and whistling a repetitive seven-note figure. The dogs in here were like the people, the PR reflected: They liked to bark unhappily at shit for no reason. The barks and yips gave way to the sound of vicious outright fighting. No one intervened. The dogs were left on their own, to rend, tear, and kill one another.
As the PR started to doze off, a sound came from the freight yard, a beautiful echo-chamber freight-whistle effect that sounded like this: Whhhhhyy did it? Whhy why why did it? Whhhhhy?
The whistle made a long show. It was a gorgeous lovely sound to be half-awake to.
Then the whistle left off and there came the most complex exotic birdsong he’d ever heard, a sound made more beautiful by its occurrence in such a godforsaken place, as if the bird did not discriminate but made beauty wherever it went, just because it could, a song that then resolved itself into what it actually was: the yelp of a dog in pain—kicked, maybe, or wounded in a fight, or just tied too long to a fence by its absent, wasted master.
The Cratchit Confusion
At times, as indicated above, the PR found certain residents of the Study Area irritating, even maddening. At one particularly low point, when very tired, not himself at all, the PR, who in real life prided himself on his kindheartedness, even wrote, in the project notebook: “Exterminate the brutes.” For several days afterward, he felt bad about this while, at the same time, continuing to feel exasperated with the Study Area residents. Then the PR realized the error of his thinking, an error he thereafter thought of as The Cratchit Confusion.
Bob Cratchit, the hero of Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol, is poor yet virtuous. He is honest, forthright, hardworking, clean, and articulate. He loves his family and is forgiving of those who oppress him. He is, in other words, easy to sympathize with. In the real world, however, the unfortunate may not be so likable. They may be stupid, dishonest, lazy, or mean. They may obfuscate, they may attack those weaker than themselves, they may claim their poverty is the fault of an unfair world, they may invent lives for themselves in which they are heroic sages, ahead of the curve. These negative qualities, in fact, may be the root cause of their misfortune.
But to love the unfortunate, it is not necessary to feel fond of them or tenderness toward them. Momentary irritations are inevitable, the PR came to feel; they are also irrelevant. All we must do is what we would do if we could see the unfortunate purely. Our minds can be kind when our hearts cannot. In time, he predicted, his irritation would recede and all that would remain would be feelings of sadness and protectiveness toward the Study Area residents, who, after all, had not killed or abused him but had let him walk among them with impunity, and had even been kind to him, if not always to one another.
Good Country People
A white pickup comes into the Study Area. Three couples from a local church hop out in ranchwear—starched jeans, button-down shirts—and start distributing toiletry kits and sack lunches.
Sir, one of the women says to the PR, would you like lunch?
The PR says he’s just had lunch, but thanks very much.
No, thank you, she says. Thank you for your honesty.
The PR isn’t used to being thanked for his honesty. This is like being thanked for brushing his teeth. He likes these people. They are doing it just right: They are friendly but not too friendly; they don’t seem to be getting off on what they are doing; the lunch isn’t shit; the little toiletry kits are actually useful.
Meanwhile, Wanda is sprawled in the burning direct sunlight in front of her tent, looking frazzled and cooked, like someone who, as part of a torture regimen, has been staked out in the desert without food or water. She’s been getting high on crack since early this morning, on $20 given to her by a reporter she described as “a Howdy Doody–looking dude.”
Hey! she shouts to the PR, can you bring me a lunch? I’m hungry!
The PR approaches the woman who complimented his honesty and, to preserve her good opinion of him, goes to great lengths to explain that the lunch he’s requesting is not for him, but for his friend, over there. He is going to such great lengths to explain it all that he soon becomes aware that he is sounding insane. The more she looks askance at him, the harder he tries to convince her that he is just like her, the more the pity in her face drifts toward panic.
Finally, the PR cuts his losses by doing a difficult thing: He shuts up, takes the lunch, and turns away, letting whatever she’s thinking about his life and his sanity stand uncorrected.
The Kidnapped Tent
On the last day of the Study, the PR went around the Study Area giving away his things. He gave his reading light to Valerie, so she could play dominoes after dark; his leftover water to the Matron; his sleeping bag to the couple known as Big Mama and Sweet Daddy. He had decided to give his tent to Wanda. He had, after all, promised it to her. The thought of Wanda realizing she’d been lied to once again was just too sad.
Hey! someone shouted. I got your tent!
A red-haired man was standing in the entrance to a compound, hands on his hips. Wait a minute. Was this Rusty? He was just as Valerie had described him: a cross between Alfred E. Neumann and Danny Bonaduce.
Rusty stepped over aggressively.
You been staying there in my place all this time, Rusty said in an angry whine. You didn’t come to see me, didn’t offer to pay me nothing. All my friends that are living over there in my compound pay me a little something, ten bucks a month or something. So it’s not fair. You can have your tent back for five dollars.
Behind Rusty, in the compound, was the PR’s tent, upside down, being guarded by a leashed pit bull.
The PR was flustered. Rusty was basically extorting him. Rusty had kidnapped his tent? His poor loyal tent lay there like a bug on its back, a humiliated hostage. This was too much. But what was he supposed to do, fight Rusty? Kick the ass of a guy three inches shorter than him who was dying of bone cancer? Or, conversely, get his ass kicked by a guy three inches shorter than him who was dying of bone cancer?
His impulse was to pull out his wallet and just pay the five bucks. But if he pulled out his wallet and Rusty saw all the money in there, Rusty might increase the ransom, or grab the wallet.
Buying himself a little time, the PR claimed his money was in his wallet, which was back in the van.
Where’s the van? Rusty demanded.
Over at the Mission, the PR said.
Max! Rusty barked. Go with him.
A strange apparition appeared: a teenage boy who seemed to be on a drug that raised the body temperature to unbearable levels and made a boy sweat and look hangdog and prematurely elderly. The kid’s head sweat was giving him a wildly unlikely forelock of hair.
The PR started off for the Mission. What to do? He could refuse to pay, leave the tent there. But then Rusty would have Wanda’s tent. He could call the cops. What? Call the cops on a dying homeless guy over five bucks? That would be pretty low. If you’re going to slum incognito, he thought, it’s hardly fair to call in the big guns when something doesn’t go your way.
Still, shit, was he really going to capitulate to that little asshole Rusty? Rusty had punched Valerie in the face. Jesse hadn’t said anything about needing to pay Rusty. And he hadn’t even needed Rusty’s protection in the first place! He could have just stayed where he was and saved the five—
Ah, fuck it, the PR thought. It’s five dollars.
Five dollars to a dying guy, so he, the PR, could bequeath his tent to Wanda, a poor little crackhead who’d been hit by a train.
He felt himself forcibly pulling himself away from a sort of Homeless-Logic Vortex.
He took out his wallet, got out a five, handed it to Max. Max went through the front gate of the compound and dumped the tent over the fence.
The PR dragged the tent wearily across the camp. It was pretty light with nothing inside. Wanda wasn’t around. Suzanna, the lost soul from L.A., sat on the mattress stuffed inside Wanda’s tent, staring blankly, her Afro front-trending and oddly asymmetrical. He was leaving Wanda this tent, he told her. She, Suzanna, was to get Wanda’s old tent, this tent she was now sitting inside. Did she understand? Would she tell Wanda?
Suzanna nodded gravely.
Boy, he hoped Suzanna wouldn’t sell the tent for crack. He hoped Suzanna wouldn’t mislead Wanda and keep the nicer tent for herself. He hoped Wanda wouldn’t sell the tent for crack. He hoped…
There was so much to worry about, and yet he knew that a few days from now, he wouldn’t be worried about any of it.
We Sat and Talked/About Things on Our Minds
An hour or so after the extortion, the PR saw Rusty sitting at a picnic bench outside the Pov and attempted to eradicate his mild shame at having been bitched around by Rusty by joining Rusty at the table and asking him some intrusive questions.
Yes, he had bone cancer, Rusty said. He wasn’t even supposed to be alive right now. He wasn’t supposed to have made it past New Year’s. But here he was. He’d watched his parents and all four grandparents die of cancer, in the hospital, and wasn’t having any of that. He was going to die right here. He’d served in all four branches of the military and had decent VA benefits. It was supposed to be a really painful death, yes, but he was on a superhigh dose of morphine and had sleeping pills he took every night.
He hadn’t told anybody about the cancer, not his sister, not his kids, not his ex-wife. He didn’t want to be a burden or ask anyone for anything.
Was he scared of dying? the PR asked.
Yeah, yeah, Rusty said. The thing is, you have to make your peace with yourself. You have to ask yourself, have I been a good person?
Rusty has a nice way about him, the PR thought. And of course, even someone who’d punched a woman in the face and so forth could find a way to fit that into a larger narrative in which he was a good person.
He was satisfied, Rusty said. He’d been all over the world, done everything he wanted to do in life. He’d skydived, had three great kids: twin teenage sons and another son in veterinary college on a full scholarship.
Everyone, the PR reflected, made a sort of sense when you gave them time to explain themselves. Rusty made sense to Rusty. Rusty was just a guy. The PR imagined Rusty dying in his tent, nauseous, no one to care for him, waiting for the end. Soon, Valerie’s husband, Pablo, would be home from jail, gunning for Rusty, and might beat the shit out of him again, after which Rusty would have to crawl back to his tent and continue dying, until such time as he was shitting and pissing himself in what would probably be, by then, the heat of the coming Fresno summer.
The PR asked about Rusty’s famous fight with Pablo.
Rusty warmed to this topic. The way that went down was, Pablo had attacked him with a board. But what Pablo didn’t know was that back in the service, Rusty had received special hand-to-hand training. He’d taught martial arts in El Salvador, when he was down there in the ’80s, as part of a secret CIA mission. So poor Pablo wore himself out swinging that board, but the board never even touched Rusty. Pretty soon, Pablo got exhausted. Then, luckily for Pablo, the cops showed up. Rusty had said it loud and clear, for everyone to hear: He didn’t want to press charges. But sadly for Pablo, stupid Pablo was out on parole. So off to jail he went.
Not long afterward, five paisas attacked Rusty, trying to avenge Pablo. Using the same techniques, he fought them off single-handedly in an epic battle that spanned the tent city, from one end to the other. Finally, the paisas got so frustrated, scared, and exhausted, they just gave up and ran away.
Once, in El Salvador, Rusty said, they’d come into this village. Nobody would give them any information. Everyone was too scared of the rebels. In that village, he’d befriended a 7-year-old girl, real sweet kid.
A few weeks later, when they returned to that village, he brought the kid a bunny.
A bunny, the PR said.
A rabbit, Rusty said. Like for a pet.
But the rebels had already been there. They’d torched the village. The horrible things they did to that little girl, Rusty said. He got hold of all kinds of shit he wasn’t supposed to have, weapons and whatnot. But luckily, his gunnery sergeant had talked him down.
They, uh, mutilated her? the PR said.
Skinned her, Rusty said. Everything but her face.
The PR realized he had reached an exquisite level of perfect Study Area immersion: He honestly didn’t know if Rusty was lying or not. And he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the display. It was beautiful to hear Rusty, this dying man, this vanishing soul, say the crazy things he was saying, whether they were true or not.
Soon Rusty would be gone. Soon the camp would be gone. The City of Fresno had initiated a radical and seemingly enlightened plan to place every person in the Study Area in an apartment and assign him or her a case worker who would help that person with whatever he or she needed—get them into rehab, identify unclaimed government benefits to which they were entitled, help them find jobs—and the city had just approved half a million dollars for this program.
It was all just gorgeous smoke: Rusty, the camp, the Study, the PR, the world itself.
So you’re just going to die out here in your tent? the PR asked.
Yep, Rusty said. I’m hoping to just wake up dead someday.
In parting, the PR expressed his wish that everything in Rusty’s future would go well.
As good as it can go anyway, Rusty said.
*All names have been changed.
George Saunders teaches at Syracuse University. His last book was The Braindead Megaphone.
This piece originally appeared in GQ Magazine we have reposted it here on a single page, rather than GQ’s 28 mini-pages, for readability.