The Allegory of the Passage: A Short Story Loosely Inspired by the Allegory of the Cave
Sunday morning, September 12, 2009, Old Town Alexandria: Coffee on the waterfront.
“Good girl. Good girl. Oh! I am so proud of you.” The dog is squatting in the street gutter, growling and shaking. “You are such a good girl. I am so proud of you. Yes, I am. Go ahead. You can do it. You can do it. I know you can. Good girl,” the old woman coos, carefully pronouncing each word.
The dog’s eyes bulge. It is in pain. The old woman, fashionably dressed in the latest walking styles, digs a plastic bag and a plastic glove from her handbag. The dog squeezes out a small hard looking object, and hangs its head in shame. The woman picks up the object, puts it in the tiny plastic bag. She peels the glove from her hand, back to front, drops it in the plastic bag with the byproduct of dog, ties the bag and places it in the pocket of her expensive walking jacket. “Good girl! Oh yes! You are so good!” The woman is effusive, the dog vigorous with new joy.
The three old men at the table look at each other and shake their heads. A fourth old man comes out of the shop with his coffee and stands next to the table with the three, looking at the woman and her dog. She sits at a table next to the men—erect with her knees and ankles together, toes pointing straight ahead. “It isn’t everywhere in America that you can pay two and a half bucks for a cup of coffee, five bucks for a newspaper, and sit on a corner surrounded by half million dollar condos the size of postage stamps next to a dog having a bowel movement in the gutter.”
The men at the table grin and laugh. The woman looks at the man hard.
“Oh hell, sit down and shut up.” The other men move aside and pull an empty chair to the table. “It adds to the Old Town ambiance.”
“Yeah, come on, dogface, you’re lucky they even allow you stand on the sidewalk in this town.”
The standing man looks at the third man. “You don’t have any cute comments?”
“Can I have the sports section?”
“Yeah,” he fumbles through the paper, “I wonder where all these tour buses and tourists came from? The place looks like graveyard full of unburied pachyderm carcasses.”
The man with the sports pages says, “You notice they all have those special parking permits that the city doesn’t issue.”
They all shake their heads. “Must be somebody special.”
A neatly groomed couple comes of the shop. They wear their clothing like uniforms. She wears a straw sun hat with teabags hanging from it and he sports a jaunty baseball cap with “U.S. Army Retired” blazoned across the crest. They sit at a table next to the four men.
The man speaks louder than necessary. “That looks like a table full of soldiers!”
“In a time long ago, in a place far away. How about you?”
“Colonel John Calhoun, United States Army Finance Corps, retired. This here is my wife. Where are you from?”
“Woodrow Galbraith. Los Angeles. You?”
“Killeen, Texas. Originally, Caribou, Maine. ”
“You folks here with the tour buses?
“Yes, but we’re not touring. All of us,” he gestures at the crowd, “came for the tea protest yesterday.”
“Taxes and health care.” His wife is politely firm. She looks at the men, poses, and touches her hat, “The liberal press calls us ‘The Tea Bag Party.’”
The four men and the dog lady all smile, “Very stylish.”
Mrs. Colonel John turns to the woman with the dog. She clutches her purse close, leaning forward over the animal. “That’s a pretty dog. What’s her name?”
“Thank you.” Dog lady’s manner is enthusiastic. She looks people in the eye when she talks to them, but when she talks about the dog she looks at the dog. “Her name is America; she was born on nine eleven. I’m Ruby.”
“That is so patriotic. People just aren’t patriotic any more like they used to be.” Mrs. Colonel John leans toward Ruby and asks, “How did you come by her?”
“She was owned by some people who lived in that big white house near the community center. I volunteer as an English Instructor to immigrants at the Community Center. Well, the woman used to participate in all of the community events and she would show up with her dogs and birds spray painted red white and blue and she always had little flags in her hair. That is where I first saw America.” She’s looking at the dog and the dog is looking at her.
She looks over at Augustus and smiles. Augustus’ face softens.
“She used to enter little America in the pet shows at the community center. She would paint her little toenails red, white and blue and put her in these little doggy parades. Sometimes, she would make a little sun bonnet out of small American flags. Or tie a red, white and blue bow tie to her tail.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Colonel John clutches at her heart, “That is so sweet. So, American.”
“They seemed to have lots of pets but no one said anything until people began noticing some very bad odors coming from the house. The odors became so strong—you could smell them blocks away—that the health department raided the place. I guess it was terrible—bird droppings all over everything. And the other pets had urinated on all of the furniture and in all of the corners. Feces everywhere. Some of it had been there so long it was moldy. And dead animals! And the animals that weren’t dead were eating the ones that were.”
“Goodness. How did you come to own her.
“She escaped from the animal control people during the raid, and I picked her up off the street. She was really fat—obese—and she had heart worms and several different types of intestinal parasites.” She scrunches her nose, “Worms and things like that. She looked robust on the outside, but they were sucking the life out of her on the inside. She had a real problem with bloody stools for a while. But now, she is mine.” She looks down at the dog, looking up at her with bulging eyes, and in a little voice says, “All mine. Yes she is. Little America is all mine. And I love her, and she loves me.”
“She’s doing okay, now, but she’ll eat anything she thinks a human will eat. This sometimes creates problems.
The four men at the table smirk.
Right now, she seems to be having trouble passing something, but aside from not passing it, whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be causing any other problems.”
“How does she get the stuff?”
“People drop things or throw them on the ground. Like here for instance, people drop things and sometimes things fall off the tables. If, they don’t pick it up, and I’m not careful, she’ll gobble up something before I know it.”
Colonel John turns to the men at the table, “Did you men come for the protest?”
“No, we live here.”
“We came here to participate in yesterday’s protest in front of Congress and down by the White House. We’re here, with these other folks, because we’re concerned about our freedom. And, taxes. They’re trying to tax us out of existence.”
Mrs. Colonel John says. “We’re protesting this taxation without representation that Congress keeps voting for. It’s just terrible.”
“We are very concerned about our country. Those people are taking over and they are against everything America stands for. And they don’t want you to hear the truth. Did you see the cable news last night? You should have. It was disgusting. The liberal media has been completely co-opted.”
Woodrow speaks, “Between the five of us here, we go round and round over taxes and immigration and health care all the time. I certainly respect the fact that you and these other folks are willing to go out of pocket to travel halfway across the country to present your complaints to Congress.”
“Oh, we didn’t pay for this. We were sponsored. They told us that they didn’t care what we believe in; they just wanted to give us the opportunity to speak out, to voice our concerns. These are patriotic Americans who believe in free speech.” He turns and looks at the oversized luxury buses lining the side streets, his face softens, “They paid for all of us. God bless them. Never asked what we believe in.” Turning back to the table, somber faced, “Patriots all.”
Ulysses is looking over Augustus’ shoulder at the photos in the newspaper, “Even so, those flags and t-shirts weren’t cheap. The signs look expensive, too.”
Colonel John shakes his head from side to side, “Oh no. The sponsors paid for those.”
Mrs. Colonel John leans back toward her husband, “Well, I think that some of those t-shirts were actually passed out to the people on specific buses. So, their local association or club may have paid for those.”
Augustus opens the paper and shows them the photos, “That must have been some trip. Looks like some of the protestors got a little hot with some of the counter protestors. Did you folks all ride in the same buses?”
Mrs. Colonel John leans forward and looks at a photo of a young man with a sign that looks hand painted and reads, “Health Reform Now!” surrounded by a group of angry looking people with signs of the President colored to look like the Joker or with a Hitler mustache. “Oh no, our sponsors didn’t bring any of those people. And if you look real close, you’ll see that almost all of their signs are handmade. There was no uniformity. Most of ours were professionally done. They didn’t ride on any of our buses. They would have had to have paid their own way.” She closes her eyes and shakes her head emphatically. “Those people hate everything America stands for.”
Colonel John continues, “We staged in that big open grassy area down by Congress, next to that pond, in front of those statues of those horses pulling those wagons. That is where they passed out a lot of the signs and banners and flags. Our line of march took us up that boulevard to Freedom Plaza. It was quite a crowd. The cable news said there were ‘tens of thousands.’”
Ruby looks up from the dog. “No speeches?”
“Oh yes and very inspirational. People just got carried away. In one speech, one of the sponsors mentioned that man’s oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution’ and when he paused, two or three people in the crowd shouted “You lie, you lie,” and pretty soon, the entire crowd was chanting ‘You lie, you lie.’ That happened several times—every time he would pause. I’ve never seen anything like it. The crowd just got caught up in the emotion of the moment. I listened to another speech and they were chanting ‘liar, liar’.” He wipes a small tear from his eye and turns away momentarily to regain his composure, “If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget this.”
Augustus speaks up. “Both the Times and the Post have two stories about it on the front page. It says right here that there were ‘tens of thousands of demonstrators.’ Has pictures, too.” Augustus looks at the others at his table. “One article here reads kinda like a press release, and the other like a hatchet job. The hatchet job has more detailed descriptions of the signs and chants; ‘you can’t fix Stupid but you can vote it out,’ and ‘Stupid is as stupid does,’ ‘Here is a tip Obama—Keep the Change.’ Makes it sound like you folks were protesting the man and not the taxes or programs.”
Colonel John is grim, “This is serious. Mark my words. That man is taking us down the road to socialism. That man and those people are determined to tax the rest of us to death to pay for all of it.”
Mrs. Colonel John joins in, “He’s just like Hitler.”
“Yeah,” Augustus folds the page, “just more horseshit reporting, but you know what they say, ‘Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post will ever print a lie that isn’t the truth.’”
Ruby stiffens. “Augustus!”
Woodrow nods his head, “Eloquently stated.”
Augustus looks at Ruby, “I’m exercising my right to free speech.”
“It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it. There are much more effective ways of communicating than using profanities.”
Augustus looks at Colonel John. “Ruby is a retired English teacher.”
Woodrow continues, “I do tend to think we need to do something, but I don’t trust our federal bureaucracy to get it done right.”
Colonel John nods his head, “its socialism, pure and simple.”
Mrs. Colonel John nods her head too, “He’s just like Hitler.”
“Something like Medicare might work for the uninsured. But, we still have to pay for it.”
“They need to fix Medicare first. If they can’t fix Medicare, they won’t be able to get this right either.”
Mrs. Colonel John is becoming more emphatic. “He’s just like Hitler. He wants to take away our freedom.”
Ruby takes her foot out of her shoe and tickles the dog under its chin. “When my husband died, I continued the Medicare Supplemental Health Insurance that we were getting through his Navy retirement. I don’t mind paying a little more for my premiums or my co-pays, but I don’t want my insurance to be changed.” She pauses for a moment and looks at Mrs. Colonel John, “Unless they want to increase the coverage, of course.”
Ulysses looks up from the sports page, “We need to do something, these people are Americans, too. One way we keep the country strong is to keep our people healthy and strong.”
Old Tran sets his tea cup on the table and purses his lips. The others stop talking and look at him, “I’m worried about my business. I can’t afford to buy health insurance for all of my part time employees.”
Augustus sits up and looks at Colonel John. “Hey. I saw you guys yesterday. I was coming from the National Portrait Gallery. Lots of signs with pictures of the President with a Hitler mustache or painted up like the Joker. There was a woman on the corner with a sign that had that photo of Obama the kid wearing a stingy brim hat sucking on a cigarette like it was a joint, it said ‘The Audacity of the Dope.’”
“I’ve seen that picture. He was a cute kid.” Ruby looks at Augustus for his reaction.
Augustus pretends not to hear anything.
Mrs. Colonel John looks surprised.
“Yeah, and, there was one really big sign of the dead bodies stacked in one of those WWII Nazi ovens with the words ‘Nationalist Socialist Healthcare System.’ That one stands out in my mind. That and a bunch of people with pictures of that guy who called the president a liar chanting ‘You lie.’ Actually, but for those few signs on 14th, there wasn’t much to see. The 6 Mile Pink Ribbon Run/Walk had a larger crowd.”
Mrs. Colonel John stiffens. “Was that a Gay Pride thing?”
“No it was a fund raiser for breast cancer research.” He looks at Ruby, “Protecting God’s two most precious creations.”
Ruby smiles, lowers her eyelids and returns his gaze.
Mrs. Colonel John looks uncomfortable.
Old Tran is looking at the newspaper photos, “Angry people.”
Colonel John continues. “With good reason. That man and those people are against everything America stands for. Last night, the liberal cable news commentators were all over us for exercising our freedom of speech.”
“Do you guys remember that big Peace March back in November ‘69? Just before Thanksgiving?” Augustus puts down his newspaper.
They shake their heads.
Tran looks at Augustus, “I think I was on patrol in the Ba Long Valley.”
Colonel John looks at Tran, “And I salute you too, sir. We owe you and your countrymen a debt of gratitude and an apology for selling you out.”
Tran looks him, “Sir, America didn’t sell me out.”
Augustus continues, “Now that was a protest. That might have been a good half million people—old, young, rich, poor and everything in between. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, black, white, brown, pink, chartreuse, whatever, the Mall was wall to wall people: all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to Grant’s Memorial and all over the Hill. Literally.” He looks at Colonel John, “That wagon the horses are pulling is a caisson, and that statue is part of Grants Memorial. It took them all day and half the night to march up Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House. Even then, I don’t think they all made it.” He again looks at Colonel John, “Pennsylvania Avenue is that boulevard that runs from Grants Memorial and the Capital to the White House.”
Woodrow looks at the line in front of the coffee shop and sets his empty cup down, “That didn’t get a lot of play out around Chu Lai, either. Were you marching against the war, Flower Child?”
“No. I had just come back and I was trying to get into this little Georgetown co-ed, that march kind’a interrupted my plans for that particular day.”
The other men laugh. Ruby doesn’t.
“Seems like most of their signs were hand painted. I’m sure some of the protestors were sponsored by their churches or student groups, but I think most paid their own way. They were stuffed into the dorm rooms and hotels like sardines. Then again, that was a long time ago so my memory may be faulty.”
Colonel John says. “You men are heroes, patriots. That was an unpopular war and you each answered the call. We disgraced ourselves, and our country by the way we treated you when you came back from that war. And, those marchers were and still are a disgrace to our country.”
Ulysses is watching a couple of jogging young women pass. “It’s the same First Amendment.”
“Huh?” Colonel John and Tea Hat lady are confused.
“The First Amendment Right to Free Speech—that’s the liberty they were exercising in that march. Come to think of it, most of them probably didn’t have a ‘sponsor.’ I didn’t.”
Colonel John says nothing but Mrs. Colonel John joins in. “Yes. And we have to protect those rights. He is trying to take our freedom away like they do in Russia. He’s a communist. He’s just like Hitler.”
Ulysses is now watching a group of young women in shorts stretching and getting ready for their morning run. He turns to Mrs. Colonel John. “Actually, I think Russia gave up on Communism and Socialism and centrally planned economies about twenty years ago when the wall came down. And, Hitler tended to execute Communists.”
Colonel John steps in, “Real Americans don’t want anything to do with this that man. That’s why those people are trying to grant amnesty and instant citizenship to all of the illegal aliens in this country. Real Americans won’t vote for them so they’re buying all those votes.”
Ulysses turns back to the young women. “Illegal aliens can’t vote and there is no such thing as instant citizenship.”
Colonel John resumes, “Granted, some of the speech was rough, crude, impolite at best,” he nods his head to Ruby, “But we have a right to freedom of speech and those signs.”
Woodrow has been watching the man, saying nothing. “Almost any speech short of yelling fire in a crowded theater is a legitimate exercise of free speech. Did you get your message across?”
“Who knows, we gave it our best.”
Old Tran is looking at the photos in the newspaper, “Most of these signs are focused on the President. It seems that the protestors are protesting him more than taxes or anything else.”
Woodrow is slumped back in his chair, looking at Colonel John, he lifts his hands and spreads them slightly, “Why don’t you call that man ‘The President?’”
Colonel John doesn’t respond. Woodrow continues, “Does either house have a bill yet?”
Augustus answers, “No.”
“How would he know?”
“He reads a lot. You know, I understand what those people were protesting back in ’69. And, even though I wasn’t there, I’m pretty sure that some of them had signs with a Hitler mustache painted on Nixon. But, I’m not sure I understand this.”
He and Colonel John sit in silence looking at each other.
Woodrow continues, “Your sponsors don’t care what you believe, they just wanted to give you the opportunity to express yourselves.”
“And they paid for the buses you came here on.”
“Yes, they did.”
Mrs. Colonel sits a little straighter. “These are true patriots who love America and love freedom.”
“And, the sponsors paid to have a few thousand of those signs printed?”
“Yes, they did.”
“And, the t-shirts and banners and so on?”
“And, some of the sponsors gave rousing speeches and every time they mentioned the President, cheerleaders got the crowd to chant “Liar, Liar?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“And that was on cable news?”
“On one channel, yes.”
“And, the sponsors came up with the sign slogans, too?
“Yes they did. They understand these things much better than most of us. They are professionals at this.”
“Using that photo of dead Jews stacked in burn piles is professional?”
“What is that suppose to mean?”
“Well, I’m just wondering, do you think that if all of you folks had simply showed up unannounced on the same day in the same place at the same time and had your protest without those sponsors that you would have made the front page of the national papers?”
Colonel John stares at Woodrow, not blinking.
“You don’t feel even a little bit used?”
The dog growls and then howls. It’s wailing cry of pain and hurt rises in the morning air, reverberates off the surrounding buildings and floats along the streets and out over the river. Suddenly she begins scooting in a circle dragging her bottom on the sidewalk—growling, whimpering and gasping for air. She pulls herself toward the gutter.
Colonel John stands abruptly and motions to Mrs. Colonel John. “Let’s go. These people have their minds made up. There’s nothing we can do here.”
“Sir, you don’t have to leave…”
Ruby extends her hand to Mrs. Colonel John, “I’m enjoyed meeting you. Best of luck in your endeavor.”
“Yes, well, thank you.”
Colonel John and Mrs. Colonel John walk away.
Ruby hurries to the dog.
The other three men are smiling. Augustus looks at Woodrow, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
“How did I say what?”
Now, the other three are laughing. Ulysses adds, “You kind of came across a little like an old curmudgeon explaining to a disbelieving child that there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy.”
Woodrow looks at the back of the departing man and wife and stands to pursue them. Then he sits down and looks at the others, “There isn’t?”
The dog howls louder and, in between wails, sounds as though she is dying. Ruby stands helpless by her side, watching her convulse in pain. “Oh, oh! Sweetie, sweetie, hang in there, hang in there.”
The men at the table cheer her on. “Come on America. You got it America. You can do it. You can do it. Good girl.”
Ruby urges her on, “Push! Push!”
The four men chant, “America! America! America!”
She trembles and shakes and growls and howls and strains and her eyes bulge horribly. The object passes with a “plop.” She falls exhausted to the street.
Ruby picks up the limp dog and holds her to her bosom.
Ulysses uses a plastic fork to roll the object onto a paper napkin. He places the napkin on the table and the other men lean closely to examine it.
“What is it?”
He forks it and holds it up for them to see.
“A tea bag.”