My wife has always been a kind woman, but during the six months when I was in prison, her kindness grew to be a firm, beating thing. She called me every day and sent small and constant gifts. She brought our children to visit, and the kids soon lost their fury and held their smiles behind their palms, watching me with a kind of incredulous wonder. My wife was so graceful in the newspaper photographs and interviews, shining on me so much of her own quiet light, that by the time I was released I was more a figure of pity, even a scapegoat, than the monster I’d been painted as throughout the trial.
It was August when a young balding man and his fat mother appeared behind the counter of the corner deli. No grand opening. The previous owner, Herman, had cleared out one night. Gambling debts, neighbors said. Herman’s Deli had always been a beat-up place on the corner, and the new owners didn’t seem very ambitious either. The pushpins that held Herman’s rick-rack borders were still on the shelves—half of which were bare and unlined, exposing warped wood. The glass case that held the cold cuts was smudged even on that first day.
I had a career, I tanked it good. They’d sent me to middle of nowhere, Australia, which was, quite possibly, the most desolate place on earth. Eight hours a day listening to the North Koreans. Most tracking stations are remote for the obvious reasons of privacy and uncluttered air space, but what really matters is being within the footprint of a satellite’s broadcast range. Hence: Nowhere, Australia, under Intelsat 2 stationed over the Pacific Ocean and handling the equivalent of about a million pages of text per second. It was grueling work and peculiar for its mix of boredom and anxiety, both of which verged on the unbearable. Rumors about the global listening system called Echelon abound, so let’s just dispense with the mystery and say yes: It exists. The UK countries listen in on what Americans are doing and then pass on the information, which loopholes that nasty proscription against spying on our own.
This earth: a ball, a play-thing. The surface, in this Age—Exploration teetering into Reason—a driving spit of black ink dividing solid and liquid. This America, claimed by Spain, raided by England, inhabited by natives. This beast of Panama, neck stretched, holding to the southern continent by its teeth. These trees, a fleshy mass heaving with monkeys, weighed down with garish, jewel-soaked birds. A red flag tied with ribbons raised high and in its wake, a host of thieves, men all marching and marching still, marching to sack Porto Bello: burglary on a large scale. And in this host, our hero, William Dampier, who steps to one side of the column of men and sits on a rock. He squints up at the sun and Lionel Wafer—his friend and fellow scholar buccaneer—thinks he might be winking. At whom? At God maybe? And why not?