Short Story by Jack Bragen

I wasn’t looking my best that morning. I hadn’t shaved for a few days and my hair was unwashed following a grueling experience at the IRS. Still, I had to go out in public to get some groceries, as my refrigerator and cupboards were bare.
I had arranged for some time off from my job at the law firm, where I worked as a file clerk and word processor. I thought it would be good enough to put on a hat for my trip to the grocery store so I wouldn’t freak people out with my dirty hair.
When I got out of my car, an old model Toyota that barely ran and that I was soon intending to replace, I noticed a uniformed man who stood next to the entrance to the grocery store. However, I didn’t recognize the uniform, nor did I know what it represented. I tipped my hat to the gentleman, and I proceeded to go into the store for groceries.
I exited the store with a cartload of food. Abruptly, I noticed that there was a tow truck, and realized that it was my vehicle being towed. Then I saw that two more uniformed men had joined the first, and they were looking at me.
“What the hell!” I exclaimed. I walked toward the tow truck, hoping to have a word with the tow driver. I turned around at the sound of my shopping cart rolling, and I saw it strike the bumper of someone’s new Camry. The Camry owner got out of his car and was obviously quite angry. I profusely apologized to the Camry owner and gave him my insurance information.
Meanwhile, my vehicle was gone, and I was stranded there with a cartload of groceries. I checked for my cellphone and realized it was in my shirt pocket as usual. I was going to phone for a taxicab, when the three unformed men closed in on me.

Detention for ‘Looking Homeless’

“Take off your hat and your glasses,” they ordered.
I replied, “I will do nothing of the kind.”
“You are under citizen’s arrest. You had better cooperate.”
Another of the uniformed men said, “We’re here to help. You deserve a home.”
“You’re obviously homeless and you need our help,” said the third. However, his tone wasn’t sympathetic, it was cold and hostile.
“Turn around.”
A number of spectators had gathered, and a couple of them were laughing.
The man held a Taser and it was aimed at my chest. I again reached for my phone with the intent of calling the police. The man’s Taser went off, and I hit the ground from the shock. My grocery cart began rolling again, and one of the three men grabbed it.
One of the men sat on top of me, while another wound wire around my wrists. They pulled me to my feet, and I was escorted to the back of a van. Two of the men got into the van with me, and as the van was driven off, I noted that my groceries were being loaded into the third man’s new Chevrolet.
“You assholes,” I shouted.
“You will speak to us respectfully or we will punish you.”
“What is this about? Do you think I’m homeless or something? Am I being taken to the Homeless Reserve?”
“It is clear that you need our help.”
“I’m not homeless. I have a job and I rent a very nice apartment.”
“That is obviously not true. You were living in your car.”
Under his breath, one of the two men in the van said to the other something I wasn’t intended to hear. “Could he be a psychotic?”
The other replied, also quietly, “Of course he is.”
“When we take a rest stop, we will give you some medication that we hope will make you feel better.”
My wrists hurt a lot from the wire wound around them, and my hands had gone numb from lack of blood circulation.
“Can you loosen these wires? My hands are going to fall off.”
“We’ll see to your needs when we stop for gas. That will be in another 50 miles.”
The van drove endlessly and I realized we were headed for the desert. I surmised grimly that I was to be put into the Homeless Reservation. I had never heard of anyone leaving there, either alive or deceased. It was a way that people essentially disappeared, never to be heard from again. Politicians had arrived at what they believed to be a final solution to the “problem” of homeless people.

Welcome to the Reservation

The van entered the front gate of the facility, and I saw barbed-wire fences stretching into the distance.
I mouthed an obscenity.
“Not another word from you.”
The van drove down a narrow strip of pavement flanked by flat, dry, barren ground. Not even an occasional tuft of grass was visible. We reached a giant complex of bungalows. Letters and numbers were visible on the buildings as the van drove through the middle of the complex.
The driver stopped and put the vehicle in park. He retrieved a cellphone from his waist, but first his hand hovered over the Taser weapon, as though he was tempted to use it again. He spoke into the phone.
“This is G. H. 37, and we have a customer, male, code one-nine-five. We are in the middle of the compound. Where should we bring the customer?”
The reply was audible to me. “We see you and will meet you at your current location.” The voice on the other end apparently chortled before hanging up.
Five uniformed men emerged from the passageways that ran between bungalows and stood adjacent to the van. Four of them were smiling, while the fifth had a blank expression on his face. The door to the van slid open.
“Step out.”
With difficulty due to my hands being tied, I stepped out of the van. My hands were killing me because of the wire around my wrists. I was incredibly thirsty, and my bladder was full to the point of being painful.

Society clamps down on anyone who even appears to be homeless, vagrant, or a wanderer. Art by Mike “Moby” Theobald
Society clamps down on anyone who even appears to be homeless, vagrant, or a wanderer. Art by Mike “Moby” Theobald

One of the men snipped the wire off my wrists.
“A bit tight, huh?” the man said. I nodded. He said, in an odd tone, “Don’t worry, it is not so bad here.”
The same man walked to the driver’s window of the van and handed the driver an envelope. The driver nodded, opened the envelope, and counted out a huge wad of cash. He smiled, started the ignition, and the van drove off in the direction from where we had come.
“Welcome to Fantasy Island.”
I was led to a portapotty where I peed endlessly. My hands throbbed from the reinstatement of blood circulation. I kneaded them and flexed them. I stepped out of the porta-potty.

Alone and Forsaken

The setting sun was unmitigated by even the smallest wisp of cloud, and the dry, flat dirt that was everywhere was featureless. However, I could see mountains at a great distance, almost invisible because of a layer of brownish haze. I felt utter despair, and it was all I could do not to cry.
“It is five o’clock, and you have time for two hours of work.”
I lay on my assigned bunk, and my mind was filled with thoughts of doom. Soon, others entered the room, took turns drinking tepid water from a water fountain, and got onto their bunks.
“New guy?”
“Yeah, this is a new one. He looks well-maintained.”
“That will change.”
“Don’t worry, sir. We’re nice here. We’re not mean and nasty like in a regular prison. What’s your name?”
I replied, “John. And I don’t belong here.”
“None of us does, Max.”
“I said my name is John.”
“I heard that. Now your name is Max. Like Mad Max because you’re mad.”
“Okay,” I replied, “you can call me Max.”
I made friends with several of the men. I was told there was a section for female detainees, but we would never be able to access that area. A man had pointed to an electrified fence on the south side of the grounds. “Damn,” he had said.

An Unexpected Friend

The days were full of pointless, backbreaking work that didn’t produce anything. The food was scant and barely edible. And there was no entertainment except for a couple of decks of cards that had been smuggled in. One morning I awoke with an idea…
I asked around about a cellphone it was rumored one of the men had. I didn’t make any progress for the next week, and didn’t want to push it for fear of the guards finding out. Then someone woke me at about three in the morning. He put a hand to my mouth and whispered to remain quiet. I realized this was one of the staff of the facility. It was the cook. All the men in the room were busily sleeping, and it would have taken a lot to awaken them.
He led me to the back of the main staff building, and I was terrified that it was some sort of trick that would lead to punishment. Between two of the bricks was a landline phone wire that clearly no one would ever notice. The cook retrieved a miniature phone from his pocket, connected it to the phone wire and handed it to me.
“You don’t owe me for this,” he said. “This is a friend’s gesture. You can talk as long as you want.”
I phoned the law office where I had worked up until being detained, and I left a detailed voicemail. I shook hands with the cook. “I do owe you,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. This should not be done to any human being.”

Back to ‘Civilization’

When I was taken back to civilization, I was treated almost as badly as when I had been detained. I was dropped off in front of the same supermarket where I had been detained six months previously.
The wires on my wrists were removed, and I stood there, a spectacle in the middle of Monday afternoon shoppers. My cellphone was given back to me. I looked around and saw that the same uniformed man who had arrested me months before stood in the same spot, and stared at me as if he was about to arrest me all over again.
I phoned a cousin who lived nearby. I couldn’t be caught loitering, and I realized I had the same 20 dollars in my pants pocket that I originally had. I went into Starbucks, ordered a drink, and waited to be picked up by my cousin. I wondered if I would ever feel safe again.