by Robert Earle
If he had been asked to predict the ten most significant events that would transpire between 2013 and 2033, Trace would have taken a shot at it. But they asked Callista Morellos, whose predictions soon were forgotten.
“Will wonders never cease?” she chuckled. “And I worked so hard on that!”
Now he happened to be drinking a glass of water when someone at State or the Intelligence Community (who could tell the difference) he was called and asked to look back twenty years and list the ten most significant events that really had happened since 2013.
If it weren’t for that glass of water, he might have said no, but he said yes on the condition that his list didn’t have to be in ranked order. “Just the ten most significant events.”
They agreed. Apparently, they really wanted someone who had been around in 2013, but now was out of the loop, uncontaminated by the received wisdom. He was out of the loop all right. Eighty. Read, watched movies on his projector glasses, listened to Brahms and Penderecki and other threnodists while lying back in his sound chair, walked a bit on his rebuilt hips, and so forth, but not in any loop.
He looked across the ragged tree tops in Rock Creek park, transecting Washington. Still vaguely green, the decades notwithstanding. He looked at the nicked windowsill with the bottle of Mont Blanc ink collecting dust on its shoulders. He pulled open his drawer and extracted a brownish pad of legal paper.
Sal heard him rustling and stepped into his study. “Everything all right, Trace?”
“Yeah, fine.” There was a certain youthfulness in that “Yeah” of his. He’d been worn down but wasn’t quite blunt yet.
“I heard you talking to someone,” she said.
“Oddball little project someone wants me to take on.”
“Oh, good.” She was glad when he had something to do. In her opinion he was no good at doing nothing and worse at deciding what to do about it. Just sat there, thinking, arriving at no conclusions, listening to the saddest music ever composed. People they used to call Hungarians, Poles, and of course, Germans. All those Germans. “I’m meeting Terri in the lobby. She’s bringing William and Robert. We’re going out for coffee and cake.”
She asked if he wanted to join them but for the first time in weeks, he was “busy” and not prepared to give that up, even for grandchildren (who bewildered him; he didn’t know what to make of loving someone—at least in principle—but having no relationship to hold that love together.)
The apartment door clicked shut, and he dealt with the inchoate irritation of having been tasked with something, even for good money. Come on, Trace. Get with it. For hours every day he looked out at the scrappy treetops stretching up and down the park and either drifted mindlessly or put himself through drills remembering words in Spanish, German and Russian. Memory exercises, pools of potential thought into which he couldn’t dive very deep anymore. Old age was a prison, basically. Ni mas, ni menos.
2033, he wrote, and then drew an arrow backward to the year 2013.
#1: Worldwide water shortages led to fifty million dead from drought and starvation across Africa and Asia. That’s where his glass of water came in, which he sipped again. He could sip water all day long, but hundreds of thousands and then millions and tens of millions expired in the searing deserts where no one and nothing could reach them with enough potable water. They just marched along, fell by the wayside, covered themselves from the sun, and died, died, died. Somalia, of course. Then Rajasthan, maybe the second worst place place in the world. Who knew if it was fifty million? That’s what was said. But who knew? Who counted every single seared soul?
#2: Irony of ironies: climate change-driven sea levels submerged Bangladesh. One flood struck after another and before you knew it, Bangladesh was soup. The Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (Louis Kahn’s masterpiece national assembly building) just melted, taking a defiant parliament with it, sinking them in tons of sludge. The crust of Bangladesh that survived was annexed by India out of pity more than greed, but no good deed goes unpunished.
#3: Pakistan attacked India over having helped itself to the remaining four million Muslims of Bangladesh (who until 1971 had “belonged” to Pakistan) and the two countries had their long-awaited nuclear exchange, which spilled over to Kabul where the Indian-backed government fell and Pakistani Pashtuns did their own submerging, seizing southern Afghanistan. Eighteen million were dead after three rounds of nukes incinerated Islamabad, Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and of course, poor Kabul, already an ashtray. These places still made Geiger counters crackle like popcorn.
So there you had water’s absence and presence triggering death in horrific numbers. On balance he’d rather have died of thirst. Lucky Africans. There was something personal about death within yourself rather than penetrating you in the form of indiscriminate radiation, or pieces of buildings, or other people’s bodies knocking you dead.
#4 Well, Africa again in a somewhat more positive light because he had to put the creation of the Southern Union of Africa on the list—South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Botswana all carved up and restitched together with the capital in Cape Town. Endless war about this seemed more incidental than the ultimate consequence: a fierce black giant expert at managing its natural resources (including water) at the tip of an otherwise failed continent that was being consumed by the Sahara plunging south at two hundred miles a year like a freight train made of sand.
Trace took off his titanium head unit. Weighed too much to wear while he was looking down at the desktop this long. If had a stroke, so be it. At least he was having fun. Let thinking kill him if it wanted to. He was really into this, still fascinated by the way you didn’t know what you thought before you thought it. No one had figured that out yet. Where were your thoughts before they became your thoughts? Who the hell knew? You just had this lifetime of reading and brooding and memo writing and inconclusive conversations and childhood memories and general impressions flying hither and yon, and out they popped. What next?
#5: Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Big, big deal: the destiny of demography. The youth in Arabia toppled the House of Saud and the youth of Israel echoed them by toppling the ultra-Orthodox religious right regime. Not Saudi Arabia anymore, just Arabia. Not Israel anymore, Judeo-Palestine, a one-state solution with walls falling exactly the way the Berlin Wall fell in what was it… 1989? He was there in 1989, had a piece of the Berlin Wall somewhere, sort of like a moon rock. But lots more walls and tougher, actually. Those Israelis were terrific engineers. The power of social media and unnumbered voices rising to a roar were up to the task, though. The two monotheisms finally agreed to agree on God and set the rest aside. Well, you could say they had no choice. Had to cooperate as Arabia’s oil dwindled in importance and the kids messaged each other into a frenzy of cross-marriages, joint ventures, and anti-Iranian solidarity. Come and join us, Lebanon. Syria, we can be friends. Probably going to happen. A lush quiescence in the Levant—who would have thought it? Great food, sun, seashore, and this modulation of millions in touch with one another keeping things centered, calm.
Now, #6: He wasn’t sure how to say it, hadn’t even been deeply technical. Perhaps like this: quantum engineering doubled the efficiency of electricity while tar sands in North America and natural gas in Russia neutered the Middle East, helped bring it to its senses. Was this a significant development if not an “event?” What difference did it make? Significant events were a stupid focal point. Significance an sich was what mattered.
But #7 was a quintessential event: 2018’s solar storm incapacitated Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay by frying their electrical grids. Helio-physical hell, a creamy thick wave of force battering half a continent like a tsunami. O, the darkness. O, the confusion. Where was his Milton and Dante? He could dial them up, but no one gave a shit about good rhetoric anymore. Things and actions were what mattered, not the spirit of human vulnerability within the things, a coquetry of feelings and perceptions dancing itself into “meaning.” What meaning? He focused on the ensuing anarchy, vandalism, guerrilla actions, and that magnificent quote when the three blighted countries federated: “Never has tragedy brought humanity such a great gift”—Ricardo de Funestre Carrillo, first president of LusoLatina. Yes, significant: Southern Africa and Southern Latin America both strong, influential and dynamic.
#8: The Chinese Communist Party disintegrated like the Soviet Communist Party for opposite reasons: not because China was broke, but because it was rich, and the business community wouldn’t put up with either the People’s Liberation Army or the Party anymore, each sucking up capital and air space for aviation. Get out of the way, boys. We’re into diamonds and lap pools, not “national security.” So the Uihgurs got loose in the west. No problem. The west of what? How many were there? No one ever knew in the first place. More provocative was the fact that the new Dali Lama did bear an eerie resemblance to his predecessor and of course he returned to Tibet, a very large chunk of what used to be China. But then Taiwan feared Korean unification so much that it made a Hong Kong-like deal with the Mainland and voilá!, just like that you had a colossus of 1.7 billion people again, twice as large as the U.S. economy.
He was missing his afternoon walk and his left foot was going numb. Couldn’t this could be finished up tomorrow? Yes, but if he didn’t keep going, he’d wake up at three in the morning, doubt-ridden and desolate (simply could not sleep with the head unit on.)
He gave the study’s freckling brown walls and overburdened bookcases the kind of stout look he mustered every ten years or so. Good God, he thought, they called me because I’m eighty, not despite the fact that I’m eighty: born during the Korean War, raised during the Vietnam War, reached maturity during the Cold War, actually got tangled up in the Iraq War, and now had only two items left to record. This ominous thought made him reach for bourbon to add to his water, not bothering with ice, wanting the alcohol to settle his nerves and conscience. He knew why he was hesitating. Yet he had to wrench a truth out of himself that hurt because he had been born and educated in an Atlantic World that was no more, taps sounding with the 2021 dissolution of the European Union, and then…
Wait, go back: first the demise of the unlamented Euro in 2014, then the demise of Franco-German coordination, then the botched French Mediterranean initiative (Algeria again!), then the Russo-German energy pact, then and only then the demise of the European Union followed by the breakup of NATO, possessing neither muscle nor motive to go on. Whew, a mouthful, but true, true, and sad as his violin concertos.
He and Sal had gone to Europe the previous spring and seen it all for themselves. What a train smashup! One country slamming into the next and the next and the next, accordion-style. They used to like Paris so much… and Oxford, his favorite spot for loitering among the gargoyles… but you had these aimless, over-drugged, fuck-you-for-a-quarter hordes, down-and-outers, and things that could have still worked—elevators, windows, bathroom spigots—that didn’t work for lack of care. So many listless Europeans staring over one another’s heads… so many listless Europeans living in multitudinous solitude amidst the fragmentation of every great monarch’s dreams since Charlemagne, Son of Pepin the Short. This wasn’t Proustian, elegiac and nostalgic; it was more splintery, more Swiftian. Everyone old was dead; everyone alive was sick—pallor and bones in suits and skirts, bad teeth, bad breath, bad hair.
The collapse of European civilization was definitely #9.
Sal returned with Terri, William and Robert. He heard her saying she’d go see if Grandpa Trace was free. He slapped his head unit back on and almost cracked a tooth on the rim of his glass, swigging more bourbon. In a way it was easier to face the boys than Terri, who remembered how he’d been, but that still didn’t enable him to fathom these kids.
Yet he had to say, yes, of course, grab his cane, and swerve out into the parlor where mirabile dictu, no one was eating! Having bought them cake downtown, Sal wasn’t letting the little fatties have one cookie more. Good for Grandma. William looked unhealthily pregnant. Robert was Sir Lord Lard. Mama Terri—his very own daughter, once so lovely—was just as bad. How the three of them fit into their shoe-sized electric car, Trace couldn’t imagine. They must strap one of them to the roof, like Mitt Romney’s dog. Didn’t go to school, weren’t any schools anymore, school came to them, the great parental challenge being to get them to flick it on, listen and take the tests. It made them so solitary, Trace thought. Each boy had a hair’s breadth focus, and yet they were continuous in more than the balletic flow of their endless adipose. Nothing stopped in their lives. The time of day? What did it matter? Didn’t. Time itself, aging, reaching various stages…all this would happen in indeterminate fashion. Trace couldn’t get his sand wedge through this trap (not that he played anymore). He swung and the boys moved about two inches before rolling right back where they were embedded to begin with.
“You doing anything?” William asked.
“Can’t you put that more nicely?” Terri chastised him.
“All right. What are you up to, Gramps?” William tried again.
“Not much,” Trace said. “A little consulting.”
“About what?” Robert asked.
He didn’t want to go into #10, what had happened to America these last twenty years. If he made it sound as awful as he believed it to be, Sal would cut him off, Terri would say they had to go, and he’d find himself out there in the living room adrift on an island, no desk to prop him up.
So Trace took evasive maneuvers. “Pascal said, and I quote, ‘All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’”
Brothers for better and for worse, the boys fiercely declined to ask him Pascal Who and whether Pascal Who really was right. Actually, Trace didn’t think so. Not all man’s miseries, #1 through #9 proved that. But the pity was that if they had wanted to ask him, he would have enjoyed talking with them. They didn’t have to know who Pascal was. He could have told them. He even could have suggested ways in which misery enriched the human experience. But put something like that out there, and you were being anti-social. Even proposing a thoughtful discussion was being anti-social, much less pretending that at eighty you were capable of such a discussion.
They left soon enough. He jiggered back into his study, sat down hard and looked out the window, ruminating on the effect the collapse of the GOP had on American politics, giving the “radical middle” its chance to squeeze in, capture the independents, traditionalist ethnic groups, and desperate states’ righters eager to flee from national disaster while abandoning the Democrats, too, and saving what they could in the far corners of the republic. What a twenty years! With climate change baking the southern states bald and singeing the great plains black, three quarters of the population had crammed into the northern tier, pursuing a hodgepodge of retrenchment from militarism (couldn’t afford it), international engagement (didn’t want it), and even big project-ism: highways were a mess, bridges were crumbling, no space program, no national labs anymore, and Washington, D.C. a physical as well as moral chancre, untreatable, gasping for breath where it had collapsed.
He saw this decay on his walks. The grand houses of Kalorama were chopped up into condos, but most of them were half full, like the streets, office buildings, restaurants and stores…if you could find one open. High office (being a senator or cabinet member or Supreme Court judge) had acquired a kind of janitorial quality. The nation’s “leaders” were living along the Potomac to mop floors, not make decisions. By rights the United States ought to have fragmented like Europe but something held it together. What was it? The inertia or inherent friction of continental dust? Still, you couldn’t move into Minnesota without a permit. California had its own chief diplomat for Asian affairs. Spanish was the state language of Florida, Texas, Illinois and what used to be New Mexico. Could Washington stop the Indo-Pak war, worldwide droughts, trans-Atlantic disintegration, the flow of U.S.-born terrorists into Judeo-Palestine?
Washington? Are you kidding? Who cared about Washington? Who even used “Washington” anymore as synecdoche for the whole country, pars pro toto? Broke and irrelevant, Washington made no matter to no one, as someone once put it to him on a visit to Chicago. The premise of national unity had been indicted and convicted by the bond default of 2024, the suspension of Social Security payments in 2026, and the incapacity of the country to feed itself: too many people, not enough water or arable land.
Shit… wow… hmmm… he hit his bourbon again and wondered if someone was up to something by giving him this assignment. Who really wanted a report like this? If he tossed his real thoughts out there, winding up with the disaster of #10, they might not be ignored, and that could lead to who knew what? The idea shook him a bit. In fact, he grew so wobbly that he had to take his head thing off again and realized he was just a frightened old man who worried he’d be penalized more than he’d be paid. For no reason, he began worrying he might end up losing this study. Not Sal, no, never, but this study. How? He didn’t know. But what if he did? What would he do? How could he survive without the view out that window? The sight of those desiccated trees struggling through the seasons? The coasting, unchallenged feelings he enjoyed when he closed the door and sat there alone, reading a little bit, snoozing a little bit, tapping into the bourbon, looking for a book, trying to remember the German word for remember, the Russian word for snow.
Their lease could be revoked. The building could be condemned. He counted once that they had lived in thirty-seven different places since college and pledged they’d never move to another, but it could happen. Someone could read his little paper and declare him out of his mind.
He pictured that: the interview, the deliberations, the bad news and terminal institutionalization. All because what had happened the last two decades had taken its toll on him, broken his spirit, common sense and ability to reason?
No, of course not.
Of course not.
More bourbon. On with the head thing again. Go ahead, say these things happened and they were significant, they had meaning, outcomes, negative effects. There had been a wrenching, withering, unholy dipsy-do in world affairs, and the United States didn’t come out on top. “Washington”? You could hardly find the place on the map of global consequence.
Who could put that right? Trace Gray? Marcus Aurelius?
What did “putting things right” mean, anyway?
“Shove your fucking money,” he said, tearing up what he had written into little bitty pieces.
Sal tapped on the door and asked if he had said something. He said no. She asked if everything was all right. He said sure. She came in and sat down.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
He knew she would shut him up before he finished the second sentence, so he said no, he didn’t. He’d keep it to himself. And eventually she gave up, letting that sad look of hers linger on him yet one more time. If only he would open up and let the world in, but she supposed at his age that was too much to expect.
Robert Earle’s last three post in government were Senior Advisor to the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State. He is the author of Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press), a reflection on his year in Iraq, and The Man Clothed in Linen: Messiah or Son of Herod? (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and other e-book vendors), a novel about Jesus, the Jews, and the Romans. He has published many short stories in literary magazines across the U.S.