Pauses and Moments

Rumblings from the lane next to the off-ramp.

Breaking Sad: A risky gig, for a father who’s risk averse.

Income at what expense? Tempted by an offer he should probably refuse.

What would happen if Syrian government troops or rebel bands stormed the chemical-weapons production facility while he was auditing the arsenal? stormed the storage facility while he was inventorying the stockpile? stormed the inspection team’s camp while he was taking a breather?

He’s not being offered a Star Trek adventure – there’s no recourse to “Beam me up Scotty.” He’s not going to be transformed into a Jedi Knight, equipped with a Star Wars laser sword and a deflector shield. There would not be a time capsule with an escape pod. He would not have a Harry Potter magic wand to make himself invisible; to make himself disappear.

His W-2 life and livelihood have disappeared: Ghosts of employments past. “Defunded” – in a way. How much risk is he willing to take on for full-time employment? For the sake of his kids, how much risk should he risk?

He doesn’t know one kind of wrench from another. His mechanical prowess begins and ends with the manipulation of a mechanical pencil. For upkeep of the house and repair of the old Volvo, his only tools have been a pen and a checkbook. How much longer would that tool kit suffice?

Have pencil, will travel? Have phone, will answer?

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The flip phone seemed to spring up from the kitchen table. Just his imagination. But the phone did ring – that nondescript default ring tone. Calls are so rare, he’s always a bit startled. Hopeful, and wary. Mostly wary.

His phone plan is the bottom line – with the fewest free peak minutes, and exorbitant charges for every minute over and for each-and-every text. If he picks up, will the call be worth 45 cents a minute, to him?

Most of the time, the calls are from some “robot” – a machine or a “cubicled” cold-caller in a windowless basement trying to make some money for necessities by talking others out of money for alarm systems they don’t need, vacation homes they can’t afford, investment opportunities that are hardly opportune. And then there are phone appeals from schools’ parents funds, and the weekly solicitations from his alma mater’s “annual” alumni-giving and capital-development campaigns. What pledge drive – who – does he call about funding his operating expenses?

Do the callers know that he hasn’t bothered to select a ring tone that’s more distinctive, daring or interesting? He hadn’t bothered to investigate any of the offered options: “Mystique,” “Whistling Wizard,” or “Froggy Night.” Do the callers know he’s on the cheapest phone plan available?

He has been expecting a call, though. The daughter of a client he worked for years ago had sought him out. She had come to know that, against the urgings of the auditing-consulting firm he worked for back then, he had steered her father away from several indictable involvements; he had prepared her father’s financials with actual numbers and real disclosures. She had wondered how she might express her appreciations, her gratitude. Was she doing him a favor?

Through court papers she found the name of the lawyer who had represented him – the lawyer who had got several judges and all-but-one prosecutor to acknowledge that the accounting work done for her father had nothing to do with wrongdoings that led to state and federal prosecutions of the key partners of the firm. The grateful daughter managed to convince the lawyer to relay her good intentions and contact information. She knew someone who knew someone who might have work for – a well-paying job for – the accountant who had steered her father away from forays into the indictable.

The display on his flip phone’s scratched window says, “Unidentified.”

He decides to risk the peak minutes and he answers:

"Yes, this he... this is him. Yes, speaking."

"Passport? Yes, I believe it’s still good... uh, yes, valid."

"How soon?"

"For that long?"

"I’d be helping the OPCW, right?"

"Okay.... Uhh,... yes, yes."

He wouldn’t know a canister of Sarin gas, VX nerve agent, or HD blister agent (mustard gas) from a keg of lager or a spray can of deodorant.

Precursor chemicals. Organophosphorus chemicals. In college, in the late (Vietnam) 1960s, he had convinced the chair of the business administration department that by being waived out of hard science requirements he could take an overload of accounting courses – and secure a quartermaster assignment following ROTC. He had had enough exposure to gas at ROTC sessions at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and at Indiantown Gap Military Reservation.

He feels his respiratory system seizing up – for old time’s sake – as he studies the briefing booklet (from an international weapons watchdog organization) and several pamphlets (from a think tank committed to nonproliferation). They had been deposited in the roadside mailbox, 30 yards from the house where he would make their last fiscal stand; where he sends out job inquiries, submits resumes, fills out online job application forms; where his son (a high-school senior) and his daughter (a college junior) have nestled the things that made the diaspora from the house they grew up in.

There was no postmark on the envelope, no return address.

Working through the booklet and pamphlets, he learns that toxic munitions have to be disposed of under extremely rigorous – and hazardous – conditions. On the surface, burial seems simpler. But interment would require more men and heavy machinery. And the proximity of unfriendly boots-on-the-ground would be a distraction. Hurried and inexpert burials could leave open possibilities for those bent on retrieval and mayhem. And there is risk of soil and water contamination. Eerily, he recalls that some years ago, in Syria, a surveyor had speculated that water would one day be what oil has been for Middle East economies.

That prediction, that prophecy, nudges its way into his thoughts as he reads about incineration of lethal chemicals in a 2,700-degree furnace – no lickety-split undertaking.

What about drips or spills on the way to the furnace? Could vapors or fumes escape? Can the burn truly be contained, a hundred percent? For sure? His respiratory system begins to foment a rebellion of its own.

He can’t help but wonder how they – whoever they are – will know where to set up the furnaces. He tries to imagine where they will get the fuel or power to stoke a furnace for days and days. He wonders if the operators will facilitate his work – his inventorying of the stockpiles and his accounting for the destruction of each vat or vile. Would his counting, recording, and auditing be given priority – and protection? Will friendly boots-on-the-ground be attuned to his feats and his feet? and his fears?

Will verification workers have the best protective gear? What would it feel like to be confined head-to-toe for hours on end? Do they make haz-mat suits for that kind of work? His lungs wheeze at the thought. And he doesn’t feature standing near a 2700-degree burn: a burn of stuff that can peel skin; can paralyze nerves and halt respiration.

"Full coverage – major medical?  For me and my two kids?"

"No deductible?  No exclusions for pre-existing conditions?"

Should he disclose his pre-existing condition?

They knew, surely they knew. They knew everything else about him.

Was it 1980, or 1981? A file room at Merrill Lynch’s Beirut offices had been rearranged to accommodate a South American developer’s site- evaluation work. A lawyer for the developer had hired him to do the numbers, in cooperation with the developer’s surveyor-geologist. Early one Sunday morning, the S-G drove the two of them 5, maybe 6 hours, into the Syrian desert, around Palmyra. Aquifers. The S-G took measurements and photos of underground canals – and actually dove underwater to take photos of the submerged walls. The S-G was not interested in the ancient tomb towers. Though he did take photos of particular colonnades. The S-G had been especially keen on the immense stone Harbaqa Dam and what seemed to be underwater catacombs.

So along with the apprehensions about the confinement, the dark, the alien territory, the numbers man remembers the heartburn he had from the lamb dish they wolfed down at a dusty souk on the way back to Beirut. Limp flatbread, spread with tahini and halwa, helped neutralize the spicy lamb dish, the rancid yohgurt, and the inexplicably toxic tabbouleh salad. Never an adventurous eater, he’d probably have to get by with hermetically-sealed protein bars. Would those energy bars keep? Would he keep?

He has never been to Damascus, nor up to Aleppo or to any of the Alawite areas in Latakia, near the coast. Embattled territory now.

"No, a U. S. bank account."

"No, nothing offshore.  Just the home account... free checking for seniors."

He’ll verify his beneficiary designations, once again.

"I’d appreciate an advance... so the kids have something to draw on."

"Yes, please, direct deposit."

 

 

 

Joseph H. Cooper, J.D., teaches media law, film, and literature at Quinnipiac University.

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