A Wild Ferment
by Thomas Messina
“I haven’t seen them since. Just these four walls, nothing else,” Mr. Johnson rambled.
“Mr. Johnson, please, we need to—”
“Maybe you can get a message to my family—maybe just let them know I’m all right. Is that something you can do?” He fell to his knees, pleading. “You have to help me!”
The two men faced one another, alone in the nine-by-eleven windowless prison cell. A white florescent light flickered rapidly, almost unnoticeably. The room was bare, with only a padded toilet and a bed, the latter made entirely of plastic, including the sheets and pillow. The walls and floor were like soft, patterned gym mats. Instead of a solid color, they were white with variously sized pink and brown polka dots. The cell smelled antiseptic, the iodine odor of a hospital.
Mr. Johnson looked tired, yet his eyes were wide with paranoia. The observer stood a few steps from the door and out of reach of Mr. Johnson.
“They’re fucking racists!” Mr. Johnson yelled as he struggled to stand. He began mumbling incoherently and shaking his head. “Fucking liars! I asked, but it’s confidential … It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a terrorist …” He snapped out of his musings and looked at the observer. “So, who are you with again?”
Mr. Johnson was a tall man and although he was a prisoner, he was surprisingly well-groomed and clean. He wore a short-sleeved, thigh-length white garment on his frail frame, much like a patient’s gown but fastened with a thick white belt. A long, white rope was fixed to the belt and connected to the rear wall like an umbilical cord, but it was short enough on slack that it restricted his access to the entire room and his ability to lie comfortably in his bed. His wrists and ankles were bound with plastic zip ties.
“I am an observer with the International Red Cross,” the observer said in a soft, matter-of-fact way, the way a lawyer might talk to a client.
“I’m an American citizen!” Mr. Johnson screamed, a speck of spit launching as he spoke. “I want a lawyer, not an observer! How come I can’t get a lawyer?” He lunged forward, then quickly snapped back and fell to the ground.
“Mr. Johnson, I’m here to help. I need you to calm—”
“Calm down? I’m in hell!” He bounced up and hopped forward, trying to break the hold of the rope. His body flexed and his face reddened from the strain as he struggled, hands still fastened behind his back.
The men stood face to face, just a few feet apart. Mr. Johnson kept struggling against the rope but soon collapsed to his knees, head down. Beaten again.
“I’m sorry you’re in this position, and I’d like this meeting to be nothing but shared pleasantries, but I don’t have much time with you. The deputy warden has allotted a fixed period for me to see you and the others.” The observer crouched down. “Do you understand?”
Still on his knees, Mr. Johnson looked at the floor.
“You’re in a very serious situation. You’re considered an illegal enemy combatant, so the rights afforded to you as an American citizen don’t apply, nor do protections under the Geneva Convention. I’m only allowed to see you today as a courtesy.”
Mr. Johnson raised his head, staring deep into the observer’s eyes. In a controlled voice, he said, “This is fucking crazy. Do you know what those two guys said to me?” After looking around as if others were watching and listening, he turned to the observer and whispered, “Torture. Can you believe that?”
Nodding, eyes fixed on Mr. Johnson, the observer replied, “I can. There are others like you.”
A momentary pause followed. Then the observer stood up. “But before we get to that, do you have any idea why they did this to you?”
Mr. Johnson tried to stand again, but between his bindings and fatigue, he failed after a couple attempts.
“Let me help,” the observer offered, assisting Mr. Johnson to his feet and over to the bed. They sat beside one another.
Once he collected himself, Mr. Johnson turned to the observer. “You mean, why am I here? They told me some bullshit, but I’ll tell you why I’m really here. Look at me.” Mr. Johnson sniggered. “I’m a few shades darker than you.”
“That may be true, but that’s not any different than telling me you’re here because you’re a Christian or a Muslim. You can’t just be thrown into prison because of your race, your religion, or anything like that. As your advocate, I need to know the true reason you’re here.”
Mr. Johnson gave the observer a condescending look.
“So, you think I don’t get it,” the observer said. “How about this: some of the others who are in here, just like you, are as white as ghosts.”
Mr. Johnson said nothing.
The observer continued, “You get it now? It’s hard to say this is a racial thing. I need something concrete. Do you remember any event, anything other than what they’ve told you, that may have triggered their suspicions?”
“I get it.” Mr. Johnson paused and reflected for a moment. Then in a soft, sane voice, he said, “I’ve never done anything like that in my entire life, like terrorism or anything. But not too long ago, something happened to me that might be connected to this. Every day, I used to go through Grand Central Station to get to work. For years I never noticed much. And then one day, it was like the world became visible, clear—like a veil was lifted. Something caught my attention that never had before. There was a woman’s voice over the loudspeaker, one of those recordings that are ubiquitous in transportation terminals—supermarkets, too, I think. For some reason, I listened to it.” Mr. Johnson cleared his throat, then repeated the announcement:
“‘YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. LUGGAGE AND PARCELS MUST BE ATTENDED TO AT ALL TIMES. ANY UNATTENDED ITEMS WILL BE REMOVED AND SUBJECT TO SEARCH BY THE M.T.A. POLICE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION.’
“I then noticed the police officers in riot gear with semi-automatic weapons. I noticed the soldiers in their fatigues. I noticed the dogs, the German shepherds. I noticed the signs, too; they were everywhere, in big, bold letters:
“If you see something, say something. Call the Police.
“Everything had been there since 9/11, I guess. And all these years later, the soldiers, the signs, they were still there. I’d never noticed any of them before. But let me tell you, from that day forward, I took notice of things and started wondering about the entire unseen apparatus that supported it. It creeped me out, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Johnson paused… “One day after that, I was heading downtown, so I needed to take the subway. I was going to take the Lexington Avenue Express when a police officer confronted me.”
“Sir, I need you to come over here with me,” the officer said, directing me to a table where five or six officers were standing.
“Why? What have I done?”
“You’ve been selected for a bag search,” the officer responded.
“Selected? I don’t understand.”
“Sir, we randomly inspect bags at checkpoints throughout the system. It’s parta the city’s anti-terrorism policy.”
“Why was I selected?”
“Sir, you were chosen at random.”
“What, like every tenth person or something like that?”
“Sir, I can’t disclose our method other than that it’s random.”
“It’s because I’m black, isn’t it? You profiled me.”
“Sir, like I said, you were chosen at random.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Sir, you can’t refuse.”
“Why not? I have the right to privacy.”
“Sir, if you wanna ride the subway, we need to inspect your bags.”
“Are you serious?” I looked around, and people were walking by as if everything was normal, like this was a common occurrence. “Is this legal?”
“Sir, the courts have ruled it is. Now, come with me.” And he proceeded to direct me to a table where other officers were waiting.
“You can’t search my bag,” I said, and I walked away.
“I remember looking back and seeing one of the officers on his walkie-talkie. After that, I felt like people were always watching me. I bet they put me on some kind of list, like the no-fly list or something.” Mr. Johnson looked at the observer for agreement.
The observer nodded, acutely aware that one poorly chosen word could rile Mr. Johnson back into insanity. “Could be,” he said. “Now, I have to ask you something. Please don’t get offended by this question; I have to ask. Okay?”
Mr. Johnson nodded.
“Why didn’t you let them search your bag? Was it because you may have been hiding something?”
Mr. Johnson sat up straight, his head and shoulders back. “It was the principle of it. There was nothing to find. It was my work briefcase.”
The two men stared at one another. “Okay, then. Other than the event in the subway, can you think of anything else that may have triggered this?”
“Believe me, I’ve thought about it, and there’s nothing else. One day my life is normal, and the next day I’m here.”
“So how did you get here? Were you arrested?”
Mr. Johnson’s eyes widened. “I was kidnapped! Seriously, it was kidnap. I was sitting down to a glass of wine with my wife. It was a Friday, probably around eight-thirty or so because we’d just put the girls to bed.
“We were going to head into the basement for some privacy. Suddenly, something came rolling out from the basement door across the living room floor. It looked like a keg, but much smaller, like a keg for a rat. My wife and I were startled and watched it while it rolled. I thought it was one of the girls’ toys. We turned and looked at each other, frozen by the oddity of what we were seeing. Then, there was the explosion.
“The next thing I know, I’m on the ground, and men are yelling and screaming. They must’ve put a bag over my head because I couldn’t see a thing. I was yelling for my wife. I could hear her screaming for me, too, but I couldn’t do anything. I struggled, but my hands and feet were bound. Then they gagged me and I was lifted and carried away.”
Mr. Johnson buried his head in his knees and began to sob.
“I know this is hard, but I need to hear it,” the observer said, putting his hand on Mr. Johnson’s shoulder.
“I know, just give me a second.” Mr. Johnson wiped his eyes and nose on his gown, took a deep breath, and composed himself. “They carried me like I was a casket, with men on each arm and one on my waist and legs. They threw me in a van or something and took me away somewhere. I don’t know how long it was, but it seemed like forever. I didn’t eat or drink anything during that time. Every once in a while they’d stick me with something, like a needle, right in my ass cheek. I think they put diapers on me, too. Then, one day I was carried in here and unbound, with my hood taken off. It’s bad enough when some random criminal breaks and enters into your house. But you can reconcile that. They’re criminals, and if they don’t kill you, your fear helps protect you against them in the future. You buy extra-large locks for your doors. You buy an alarm for the house. You take self-defense classes. You go out and buy yourself a gun. But when it’s the government who’s done this to you, how do you protect yourself? And that’s what drives you crazy—because you can’t … you can’t protect yourself. It’s like they own you because you never feel safe again.”
The observer spent a few moments registering all he had heard. He rubbed his chin. “In a second, I’d like to talk to you about who did this to you. But first, let me ask you, how long have you been here?”
Mr. Johnson looked blankly at the observer. “I don’t know. Look around .… There’s no clock, nothing—not even a window. I don’t know if it’s day or night. I must’ve been here for months now. I don’t know. I never leave this room. My food comes through a long pink tube through the door slot—only liquids. Sometimes the straw doesn’t reach … those fuckers! If I have to crap or piss, there’s the bowl right there. You know, I was filthy. My teeth were rotten, I hadn’t taken a shower in God knows how long, and I had a beard. They cleaned me up for you, capped my teeth, and gave me new clothes.” Mr. Johnson stood up. With small, comic steps, he shuffled over to the wall in his ankle restraints. He leaned against it, closed his eyes, and gently began banging his head.
“Mr. Johnson, we’ll get to the bottom of this. What’s been done to you is terrible. Is there anything else?” the observer asked.
“I think the room is getting smaller.” Mr. Johnson stopped and looked at the observer with wild eyes. “I don’t know for sure, but everything seems to be closing in. And the lights are always on. And there’re the smells. They made it smell clean for you, but they torture me with stink. Sometimes its piss and shit, sometimes it’s the stench of garbage, or maybe it’s vomit, I don’t know for sure. They alternate between smells and sometimes they include pleasant smells like mashed potatoes or something. I think it’s so I don’t get used to the stink. But worst of all, I haven’t seen my wife and kids or anyone I know since then. The only people I’ve seen, besides you, are those two interviewers.”
“Two interviewers? Who were they, and what did they tell you?”
Mr. Johnson sat back down. “I’ve only met them once, when I first arrived here. I was blindfolded and taken to some room, a small room—you know, like you see in the movies. I sat there for hours. Then the two men came in and sat across from me. They weren’t what I would’ve expected from interviewers or interrogators or whatever they were. They looked more like central planners—not the Soviet kind, more like Harvard. They wore tweed coats like professors. They were pale old men with receding hairlines and double chins.”
“Hello, Mr. Johnson. We’ve been waiting to speak with you. My faux name is Dr. A, and beside me here is Dr. Z, which is obviously a faux name as well. Let me set one important ground rule about this discussion before we get started. If you yell or scream or in any way act irrationally, this discussion will end immediately, and you will promptly and forcibly be escorted back to your cell and punished in ways you’ve never imagined. Do you understand?” His voice was stern, as if he were talking to a child.
“What’s this all abou—”
“Mr. Johnson, please answer the question,” Dr. A snapped, interrupting me.
I wanted answers, so I shut up. “Okay, okay, relax. I understand. I don’t want any problems.”
“Excellent. We’ve come to speak with you today about your terrorist activity.”
“Terrorist activity? I don’t know what you mean! Is that what this is about? I’m not a terrorist, and I’ve never been a terrorist.”
Dr. Z leaned forward. “Your smell profile indicates that you’re a terrorist.”
“Your smell profile,” he said.
“What the hell is that?”
“Perhaps we owe you an explanation,” Dr. A said. “Dr. Z is an expert in otolaryngology, and is head of the Pentagon’s Department of Chemosensory Perception. He will explain the science of smell later. But before we get to that, let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I do. I am a psychiatrist, and I specialize in what is referred to as ‘the science of life-threatening torture without visible marks.’ The extensive use of waterboarding in Western countries was my brainchild. I imported the idea from the Orient and optimized it. My latest project is an epidemiological study of the ease cage—a fascinating device, I must say. Do you know what an ease cage is?”
“No, but I bet it’s not as pleasant as it sounds.”
“An astute observation indeed—the cage is at ease in name only. It’s a cage where the height is an inch or so smaller than the prisoner, and the length and width are somewhat smaller than the length of the prisoner. In short, the cage is configured so that the prisoner cannot stand erect, nor can he lie completely stretched. He’s always hunched; it’s a procrustean bed of sorts. It’s said to have driven men to madness.”
Dr. Z unconsciously adjusted his crotch. “Did you know that torturing is the world’s oldest profession? People erroneously think that it’s prostitution. Some even think it’s trade. It’s fascinating that sex and trade are not greater than the desire to inflict pain. We have empirical evidence of torture dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. We can infer even further back. Gruesome tactics: cutting off feet, lips, and noses; blinding; gutting; and tearing out of the heart. We’ve come a long way since then. That’s not to say their methods and devices weren’t effective; rather, they lacked the precision science affords us today. If you remember your ancient studies, myths are ripe with torture. One of my favorites is the story of poor Tantalus. He is doomed to be forever thirsty, with satiation just out of grasp. I think, though, that the gods should have allowed him a sip at random intervals, so that he wouldn’t get accustomed to dire thirst. Not allowing one to forget keeps the torture fresh.” He said this like a clinician, as if I were the patient and he the doctor.
“I’m an American citizen. I don’t know the details of every amendment, but I do know that torture violates at least one of them. You can’t do that to me,” I said.
Dr. A smirked. “You were an American citizen. But when you decided to become a terrorist, you relinquished that privilege. You’re an enemy combatant now. You aren’t even recognized by the Geneva Convention.”
I stood up. “But I’m not a terrorist! If you torture me, there’s nothing for me to confess. There’s nothing for you to know.”
“Sit down, Mr. Johnson,” Dr. A ordered.
I paused, glaring at them, and sat down.
“Now that’s a convenient response, and one we’ve heard before. You’ve been convicted. There is no recourse but to submit. Of course we want information from you so we can protect against future attacks, but if you won’t break, then punishment alone is enough.”
“Do you understand how absurd this sounds? I’m accused of being a terrorist because of the way I smell—and that gives you the authority to torture me? I don’t even have the opportunity to defend myself against these accusations!”
Dr. A smiled. “The welfare of the state supersedes the liberty of the individual during times of war. This is nothing new. But even if we weren’t at war, Mr. Johnson, I contend that the welfare of the state always supersedes the rights of the individual.”
“This is fucking crazy!” I shut my eyes tight. I was getting a headache, and I couldn’t rub my head because of the damn wrist cuffs.
“I see that you’re struggling. Perhaps knowing why you’re here will make your stay with us more bearable. Dr. Z, please explain your great discovery.”
“Thank you, Dr. A.” He smiled. “Mr. Johnson, humans have an extraordinary faculty for smell—not as great as say, a dog’s, but great nonetheless. Now, smell for us and for other mammals depends on sensory receptors that respond to airborne chemicals called odorants. In humans, odorant receptors are located in the nasal cavity, specifically in a small patch of tissue the size of a thumbnail called the olfactory epithelium. But how we humans smell is not what’s important here; rather, what we are concerned with are the odorant molecules themselves, those released by a living body during a normal day. Corpses, of course, release a different set of odorants … but I digress.” Dr. Z paused. “I lost my train of thought. Where was I?”
“Human odorant molecules,” Dr. A prompted.
“Oh yes, human odorant molecules. There are many human odorant molecules; the ones we are concerned with are pheromones. Pheromones are unconsciously released by the body to trigger social behaviors or physiological responses in other humans. For example, a woman releases pheromones during ovulation to signal to a potential mate that she is sexually fit and ready for copulation. Brothers and sisters and other kin release a pheromone to signal to one another that they are from the same family. There are fear pheromones, food trail pheromones, sex pheromones, and many others that affect behavior or physiology.” As he spoke, white spit began to accumulate in the corners of his mouth. “After years of study and research, we’ve identified a new pheromone—a terrorist pheromone. Similar to the kin pheromone, terrorists release it as a form of shared recognition, like a secret password or handshake. In other words, the pheromone helps terrorists identify and verify one another. This all happens unconsciously, and terrorists are not aware of it. Despite all of our research though, we aren’t certain how this particular pheromone trait came about. Humans are adept at evolving based on environmental and social stimulus, so evolution is a possibility. Needless to say, through extensive testing, we’ve isolated this pheromone and proved that all terrorists share it. It was an amazing discovery.”
“So you’re saying that I am a terrorist because I emit this smell?”
“Yes, Mr. Johnson. You are because you do.”
“And this smell is exactly what?”
“I’m a scientist so my world is chemicals, not smells. But our sommeliers say the smell of terror has a multitude of different notes, each one subtle and distinct. Yet among them all, they say the scent of sauerkraut is more than just a hint.”
“Sauerkraut? You’re saying I smell like sauerkraut? And that makes me a terrorist?”
“Generally speaking, no, you don’t smell like sauerkraut. But to some, you definitely do. Only a few individuals possess the rare innate faculty to detect the terror pheromone. It’s a gift from nature I suppose.”
“And one of these individuals, these sommeliers, smelled sauerkraut on me, is that it?”
“I’m afraid so. As I understand, it’s quite unmistakable.”
“I’d like to talk with this person.” I’ve never wanted to kill someone, but at that moment, I could have.
“That information is privileged and confidential.”
“Well, how am I supposed to defend myself? I’m not a terrorist!”
“Mr. Johnson, control yourself,” Dr. A demanded.
I was so overcome with anger that all I could do was stare at them.
“There’s nothing to defend yourself against. You are indeed a terrorist. It’s a scientific fact,” Dr. Z. pronounced.
“Do you know how crazy this all sounds—this terrorist smell and terrorist sommeliers sniffing around?”
“Sometimes advanced science sounds crazy, when in reality, it is sound reason. You know, Mr. Johnson, when Galileo asserted that the Earth orbits the sun and is not the center of the universe, that also sounded absurd. Perhaps even more absurd than the terrorist pheromone I’ve discovered. You do believe that the Earth orbits the sun, don’t you?”
Turning to his colleague, Dr. A interjected. “Thank you, Dr. Z. Your overviews are always very enlightening. But I don’t want to get into a discussion about the merits of science. Obviously, there’s nothing to discuss, as what is true is true.”
I lunged at them, but I’d forgotten about this fucking rope. That room was equipped with the attachment too. I was a few inches short from smashing their faces with my head and tearing out their eyes with my teeth. You should’ve seen their expressions—even with this rope attached to me, they were terrified. Dr. Z even fell off his chair.
Then someone fired a dart into my neck, and a couple seconds later I was out cold.
“You know, in my heart I know there’s no hope. I’ve tried to kill myself, but they seem to have accounted for that, too.” Now Mr. Johnson’s voice was detached, unemotional. He didn’t look at the observer. He just stared at the door—seemingly at nothing; but in his mind, he could see through the door, through to the place he wished to go, a beautiful place—a place free of pain. He was only a few steps away, but that door, the door to death, it was closed too. He was even denied that. “I can’t hang myself because, as you can see, this rope is attached to the base of the floor and wall. Even wrapping this thing around my neck and hanging it over the bed rail does nothing more than make my face flush. The closest I’ve come to killing myself is diving head first off the bed. But because the bed is so low and the floor is so soft, I only managed to crick my neck, which hurt like a motherfucker. All my attempts, and I’m still here. I’m my own worst torturer.”
The observer looked at Mr. Johnson with a blank stare, one that could be mistaken for indifference. But in truth, he was both mildly amused and genuinely confused. The deputy warden had cautioned him about Mr. Johnson—that he was delusional, that he was dangerous, and above all, that he was a liar. It was plausible. The story Mr. Johnson told him was different than the deputy warden’s. But what if Mr. Johnson was being truthful?
“You need to go now.” From Mr. Johnson’s voice, it was hard to discern if he was asking a question or making a statement.
“Yes, I have others to see.”
“Tell them… tell everyone that they’ve dehumanized me. That they’ve taken my dignity and that I’m hardly a man anymore.”
The observer gently nodded. “I’ll be sure to include that in my report.”
“They’ve made my life hell.” Mr. Johnson looked at the walls and ceiling as if he were appealing to an invisible force. “They’re right you know. Hell is other people.”
“Hang in there.” The observer extended his hand for a handshake, but then remembered that Mr. Johnson was bound and so instead patted him on the shoulder.
“Goodbye, Mr. Johnson.” The observer looked him in the eyes. He pursed his lips and moved his gaze to the floor, then turned and walked to the door. As he neared, it was opened by the doorkeeper who stood outside. As it closed, the observer looked back at Mr. Johnson, who now lay on the floor curled into a fetal position. Just then, a glimmer of light rose in the observer’s eye, betraying what might have been interpreted as sympathy. At that same moment, he caught a faint whiff of what he thought was sauerkraut. But the door closed before he could be sure.
About the Author
Thomas Messina works in the Compliance department of a bank. He likes to keep his office door open.
“A Wild Ferment” © 2012 Thomas Messina