Where is Junior?

by Rosa Stern Pait 

The old man hadn’t spoken in a few minutes. He scanned the plane on the tarmac, tail to tip, curving his gaze around each window. His eyes rippled like a puddle of whiskey. Inside his pocket, his fingers drummed against his thigh. Those watching, which his little soldiers were, noticed the fabric rippling. Their eyes followed his gaze to the plane, then carried back down to his eyes, darted down to the buckling of the linen of his pocket, the weak line of his mouth, the cheeks that had not yet had time to become jowly.

The mechanic standing in front of the plane kept his hands clasped tightly behind his back, the way he saw the soldiers clasp theirs. He had never spoken to the old man before. “Is the plane prepared?” the old man asked. He was looking straight at the mechanic’s eyes. The mechanic started straight ahead at the line of grass that surrounded the runway. He could see the old man out of the corner of his eyes. “Everything is ready, sir.” “Fuel?” “Yes sir.” The mechanic broke his gaze for a second, glanced at the soldiers. They had not moved, but one of them looked at the pilot for a moment. The mechanic bit the inside of his cheek.

“The people say there is not enough oil, but here we are, full tank, yes?” said the old man. “Yes, sir,” said the mechanic. “And you don’t need to go to the black market for it. It came from - ?” The mechanic opened his mouth. “PetroNas, sir.” He slid his eyes to the soldiers again. “Of course. PetroNas. So you’re a real patriot.” “Yes, sir. I try to be, sir.” The old man barely smiled. “That’s enough,” he said, turning away from the mechanic. “Go. Junior will be here any minute and then we’ll leave.”

“Yes, sir,” the mechanic said. He considered a salute, glanced at the soldiers, and dropped his hands from behind his back. He turned around and walked quickly away from the people by the plane, toward the aluminum building on the edge of the runway. The muscles of his shoulders were clenched under his thick cotton coveralls. He didn’t release them, even with his back to the old man.

The old man’s leather shoes ground against the gravel. One of his little soldiers’ eyes fixed on them. The old man tapped his foot. The soldier’s eyes widened. The old man pushed aside some gravel with the shining edge of his shoe. The soldier watched the sun bounce off the shoe. The old man showed his teeth for a moment, looked at the soldier - the soldier looked away, at the ground, at his rifle. The old man stared at him, and then looked back out at the road leading to the runway. He narrowed his eyes. “Where’s Junior?” the old man asked suddenly. His little soldiers shifted on their feet. They kept their rifles on their shoulders, cradled with hands that were growing slack. “He said he would meet me here. He’s not here.” The old man’s steady voice embedded a shard of fear in each of their spines. None of them knew where Junior was. None of them

could possibly know.

The air was beginning to fill up with heat, the sun squatting low and reaching its fingers into the hairlines just below the brims of the little soldier’s caps. One wet curl dripped sweat down a soldier’s forehead. He blinked hard, three times, until it fell from the corner of his eye down to the corner of his mouth. His tongue darted out, caught it. His eyes never left the old man’s right shoulder, wrapped in its linen jacket. He flinched at its every movement.

The soldier’s spine was rigid, and his face was tight. His foot cramped and he surreptitiously rolled it inside his shoe. The soldier didn’t dare move. The old man shoved another hand in his pocket. He took it back out and looked at the silver watch on his wrist. His wrist was thick, like the watch, but roped with veins. The silver made the dusty brown of his skin look deep and warm like bourbon. His wedding ring was thick and silver too, and steady on his wide ring finger. “Where’s Junior?” the old man asked again.

One of the little soldiers wondered if someone should answer the old man’s question. Not himself - maybe the commander. He had heard that the old man didn’t like to be spoken to by people who didn’t know what they were talking about. When he was a little boy, before he was a little soldier, his grandmother used to give him hard slaps to the jaw if he answered questions he shouldn’t have answered, questions like ‘where’s Junior’? Questions someone else had the answer to, questions asked by someone he didn’t have the face to speak to, questions no one could possibly respond but God. All of them merited her wide, creased palm. The boy didn’t answer questions unless he knew the answer for sure.

The old man was said to be the way his grandmother had been. The soldier had heard about the minister of agriculture, a woman with a voice like coffee through a straw. The numbers she gave the old man were never good enough for him. There were never enough sugar exports, never enough cattle raised or slaughtered or coffee grown. He asked her why, and the minister of agriculture made the mistake of answering him. The old man didn’t like her answer or her voice like coffee. She was caught a few weeks later, on this very tarmac, trying to leave the country. Nobody knew where she was now, but her great house stood empty and her little girl had been sent to live with relatives. She should have kept her mouth shut, and the little soldier kept his mouth shut now.

A car ripped down the tarmac, rolling up next to where the soldiers waited with the old man with his hands jammed in his pockets. Hot wind moved through his hair. He looked up, a moment of brightness in his eyes. “Junior -,” he called, his voice husky. The little soldiers looked away. The door opened and a man in a dark blue suit leaped out. He carried a fistful of papers and a folder under his arm. “Oh,” said the old man. “Sir, you have to take these. We found them at the last moment, they can’t stay in the mansion,” the man in the blue suit said, panting. “We came here all the way, through streets full of people. You have to leave now, sir, and take these with you.”

The man shoved the papers at the old man, who took them in his hands. He held them limply, tucked them under his arm and then tried to shove them in his pocket. They didn’t fit. “One of you take this,” the old man growled. The soldiers looked at each other. One of them coughed. Finally one man stepped cautiously out of line, looking straight ahead, mouth set. He shifted his rifle to his left hand and put out his right, straight across, elbow locked. The old man

looked at his hand, shoved the papers together and put them in his hand. The soldier wrapped his fingers around the papers, but with his hand on his rifle he couldn’t straighten them out. His mouth twitched. The old man looked at the man in the dark blue suit. The man in the dark blue suit watched the soldier.

The soldier turned sharply and walked to the plane. He rapped on the low-slung door, which was jerked open from the inside. The pilot squatted by the door. “Take these to the president’s cabin,” the soldier said. The pilot raised his eyebrows, nodded slowly and took the papers. He stood, files in hand, and looked at the old man. “We’re standing by, sir. On your orders.” The pilot jerked the door closed, bracing himself, papers clutched in his hand, for a few seconds that seemed like an eternity. The people waiting on the tarmac watched him close the door. The old man turned back to the man in the dark blue suit, who was beginning to sweat. “Have you heard from Junior?” The man blinked. “Has he not arrived?” “He said he would meet us at

the airport. It’s been hours. You said the streets are full of people?” The man in the blue suit

nodded. “Our car almost couldn’t get through. We had to take back alleys, it took almost three hours from downtown to here.” “Three hours? My God,” said the old man. “If he’s not here yet, I don’t know, Mr. President,” said the man in the blue suit, looking at the plane.

“Could the opposition have him? Have they said anything?” the old man asked, running one hand over his head. “He still has his bodyguards with him, he must. They’re loyal. They’re good men.”

The man in the blue suit didn’t answer. He looked at the soldiers. They looked back at him. “We can’t leave without Junior. He can’t stay here. Can you find out where he is?” The man in the blue suit looked back into the car, at the hidden driver. Shrugged. Looked back at the old man. “The entire capital is clogged, Mr. President. There’s no way to know where anyone is. Not even someone like Junior. It would be easy for somebody to get lost in all this mess.”

The little soldiers had heard, have seen over the past few months. On the way to the airport it was dark still and the rumble in the streets was low. The banners still hung with the pairs of sneakers tied together like rabbit ears and slung over telephone wires, but the vendors had not yet laid out their bottles of water and tiny flags to spread on blankets. Cardboard posters printed with the faces of the dead and the imprisoned lay discarded on their sides like

drunks. It was morning now, when only a few days ago the city would have been at work already, the children in shiny leather shoes squirming in front of blackboards, and the children in rubber flip flops gathering baskets of fabric scraps. For two mornings now, the only ones at work had been the mothers, whose babies wanted milk and didn’t care who was in office, the vendors, making a killing on water and tiny flags, and the soldiers.

But now, hearing the man in the dark blue suit, the soldiers imagined the streets choked with sweaty bodies. Motorcycles slept in garages and factories held in their fumes. The little

soldiers knew their mothers had thrown open the windows to bang pots and pans and sing church songs. They knew all their friends were out chanting, tearing posters with the president’s face from walls, bursting into classrooms to take down every image of his face and burning them in piles. Fathers carried their children on their shoulders and pointed to where the faces were burning and said, look, my son, look. The soldiers turned to look back at the old man. “This mess,” murmured the old man. “My son, in all this mess.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.

The man in the blue suit jumped back into the car and the driver ripped away. The old man watched the car as it left.

When the car disappeared, he turned to look at his little soldiers. They looked at him, eyes dark. His son, in all this mess. The soldier with the birthmark met the old man’s eyes, and a crease appeared between the soldier’s brows.

A shard of fear lodged itself at the base of the old man’s spine. His eyes darted in between the soldiers, the gaps between one set of shoulders and another, the heaviness of their boots, the way they left indents in the gravel that only the wind could later wipe away. His eyes traveled up and down their rifles and the wiry hands that held them, and the hooked trigger like a tooth. The old man reached with both fists into his pockets. He yanked out a fat wallet, his hands shaking, pried it open and pulled bills from it with his thumbs.

“Here,” the old man said. His voice was harsh and his eyes were wide. He pressed towards the soldiers and they pulled back for a moment. He walked, hands shaking, down the line, pushing bills into their hands. The boy’s soldier faces creased and folded for a moment, but they let him put the paper into their stiff palms.

“Here, here, take more, take all of it,” he said, throwing fistfuls of it to the back row. The soldiers reached over each other’s shoulders for the money, looked at the images of the old man’s beautiful daughter printed on the bills. The bills ran out. He reached for coins to slide into their pockets.

When his wallet had spat out everything it held in its stomach, he put it’s gasping body back into his pocket. The soldiers put hands into their own pockets, running nails along the edges of the bills, feeling the ridges of the coins, trying to count with their fingers. No one smiled. The old man looked at the building at the edge of the runway where the mechanic had gone, but the edge of his eye stayed on the soldiers. The rifles’ curved teeth stayed empty while the fingers were on the money.

Junior arrived not long after that, in a battered Chevrolet that his father immediately recognized as his own from a time before he lived in the mansion with the marble steps. As the man in the blue suit had said, his driver had had to take him through alleys and around between suburbs, conspicuous as the only car on the street leaving the capital. The old man breathed a desperate, “Junior.”

The little soldiers saluted the old man as he climbed the stairs to the plane. The old man kept one hand on the railing and one hand on his son’s back. They were on the plane within minutes. Another few minutes and the plane was gone. The old man didn’t look out the window as he left his country roiling behind him.

The soldiers watched the plane take off. Their pockets were stuffed with paper. Their

dictator was just an old man, a scared old man, and now the old man was gone. They thought of their mothers singing in the kitchens, their girlfriends dancing in the streets. They thought of the mansion that had once been the presidents’ sitting empty, and of all the burning portraits. They looked at each other. They looked at their commander. “Back to the city,” he said. “Get in the trucks.” The soldiers look at him. “We’ll go back to the barracks. Await further orders.” “From who?” says one soldier, with a birthmark on his hands. “The new president,” said the commander. “We’ll wait for him.” “And on our way back to the city? Through the people?” the soldier with the birthmark said. “We’ll go the long way. Through the neighborhoods.” The soldiers look at each other. “They’re burning posters,” said the man with the birthmark, “and waving flags. Will they let us through to the barracks?” The commander took a breath. “Into the trucks,” he said, his voice biting. “We’ll find out when we get there. We’ll await further orders from the new president. Surely he will have use for us. He knows we’re loyal. He knows we’re good men.”

“And the people?” said the man with the birthmark. “They know we were loyal.” “And they know we’re good men,” said the commander. “Get in the trucks.” The soldiers stepped one by one back into the trucks, the hot metal branding them through their stiff uniforms. They held their rifles across their laps, damp underneath with sweat. No one spoke. They thought of the plane that would never come back to this tarmac, and the raw, barely stubbled faces even now digging through the official documents, trying to find a government in all that mess. They thought of the open years stretching in front of them, and the whole country with its mouth open.

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rosa stern pait (they/them): always finding a joke. stopped shaving years ago. convinced they would look like gwyneth paltrow if they got their act together. spent an hour screenshotting perfume genius tweets. talks like an elf trying to make a bargain. writes poems about fish? is one? pees frequently. big fan of crying later. ask them about their diva cup. just finished mad men. don't call them rosie.