The solemn silhouette of the Food Stamp Emporium loomed overhead as they piled out of Newman's truck and into the parking lot. "Food Is a Human Right" proclaimed the huge red lettering across the front, although already the paint was starting to chip.
"Are we going to have to go through security, Mr. Newman?" asked Darien as they lifted the folding table from the back.
"No, we're going to set up outside the gate," he said.
"That's good, because the last time I went through security they made me give up my pocket knife," said Skipper.
"They'd never let us through with this table," said Jared.
"They'd think it was a bomb," said Squirrel.
"They think everything's a bomb," said Darien.
"Alright, you guys, everybody lend a hand here. Have we got the flyers?" Newman tried to regain order.
"I have them, Mr. Newman," said Jose, ever the responsible one.
"Mr. Newman, did they have to go through security when you were a boy?" asked Tom Brown as they made their way across the parking lot.
"We didn't have places like this," said Newman, not paying much attention.
"Where did you buy your food?" asked Tom Brown.
"We had places called supermarkets," said Newman, finally starting to register.
"What's a supermarket?"
"Well, you remember that place Jose's parents have, where we got the sodas? It was like that."
"That was kind of small, wasn't it?" said Squirrel.
"Well, they were much bigger. Huge, in fact. But they weren't run by the government."
As they approached the gate, the TSA guards jumped out, ever wary of anything unusual. Since the coup attempt they weren't allowed to carry firearms but still patted their empty holsters out of pure habit.
"Anything we can do for you?" asked a beefy guard with a pockmarked face. His partner, equally suspicious, was a sullen Hispanic.
"We want to set up a table so people can sign petitions about not sending the Chinese girls back to China," said Newman, seeking a flash of recognition but finding none.
"You got a permit?" said the guard. He was chewing gum.
"I didn't know you needed one," said Newman apologetically.
"This is government property," said the guard, impassively. "You got to show you're not discriminating or doing anything to hurt the environment."
"Well, I hardly think we're going to do anything like that," said Newman, trying to find a way into this man's mind. "We're just trying to inform people of what's going on out in Hawaii."
The guard's jaw moved up and down, measuring the metronome of his thoughts. He looked questioningly at his companion. The Hispanic guard shrugged. "Alright, you can set up over by that renewable station," he said, indicating lamppost with a solar collector on top. "But don't bother anyone. If people complain, you'll have to go."
"We won't bother anybody," Newman said, grateful at last.
The renewable post was far off to the side so that people wouldn't pass it as they headed for the security gate. But it would have to do. "Alright, you guys, let's set up," said Newman and they began unfolding the table.
"Mr. Newman, you were telling us about where you used to buy food," said Darien, never one to lose the thread of a conversation. "What were they called again?"
"Supermarkets," said Newman.
"Did they collect food stamps?"
"Well, that was the problem," said Newman, warming to a history lesson. "When it started out, only a few people got food stamps. Then more and more got on and pretty soon everyone was getting them -- 80 percent I think it was. So the government got upset about giving all that money to the supermarkets. So they decided to start selling food themselves -- 'eliminate the middleman' they called it. So that's why we have these big emporiums now."
"It that why they have the TSA, so people won't steal from the government?" asked Darien.
"Something like that," said Newman.
"Well, that's not so bad, is it?" said Squirrel. "I mean, people have to eat."
"Well, they used to buy for themselves."
"But that wouldn't be fair, would it?" said Tom Brown. "Some people would get more than others."
"Yeah, some people couldn't afford anything, right?" added Squirrel.
"Well, they could usually afford something. The government was telling everyone they were too fat." Newman was at a loss. It was going to be difficult to teach this generation anything about
"Alright, let's get started," he said, changing the subject. "Each of you take a couple of flyers and a petition. Ask people to sign. Don't badger them, just ask politely. Remember what the guards said."
"Why do they call it 'badger'?" asked Squirrel, always looking for the oblique angle of things.
"Yeah, why don't they call it 'Squirrel'?" said Skipper sarcastically.
"Why don't they call you Squirrel?" said Squirrel.
"Cause he ain't crazy like a squirrel," giggled Tom Brown.
"Alright, come on you guys, stop arguing," said Newman.
People were beginning to wander into the parking lot, gathering up carts and emptying their pockets into them in order to pass through the security gate. An elderly woman approached and Jared ran up to her. "Would you sign our petition saying the girls don't have to go back to China?" he proclaimed loudly. Posse-like, the others gathered around her.
"The Chinese say they want all those Chinese girls back but we say they don't have to," recited Tom Brown.
"Yeah, one of them's in my class," volunteered Squirrel.
The woman read down the flyer and handed it back. "Well, I'll have to think about it," she said, moving on.
"Oh, please," shouted a chorus but she ignored them.
"Look," said Newman, coming over. "Didn't I tell you not to bunch up like that? It's intimidating to have a gang of boys shouting at you. Now spread out, just one at a time."
"Boy Scouts!" came a voice from directly behind them before the group could scatter. They turned and saw a red-faced man swaying towards them. "I used to be a Boy Scout," he proclaimed and raised his right hand, three fingers aloft. "On my honor, I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law. To help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
The man flushed with pride as he finished.
"Did you used to be a Scout around here?" asked Jared gingerly.
"Troop 28," said the man proudly. "We used to go to spend every summer at Spanish Peaks. Ride horses, shoot bows and arrows. It was great."
"What rank did you make?" asked Darien politely.
"First class," said the man, a little embarrassed. "I never did get the hang of that merit badge stuff."
"You could come camping with us," said Squirrel. "We rescued a boy from a cliff. Want to see how?"
"Here, why don't you let me talk to this gentleman," said Newman, pushing to the front. "You guys get out there and gather some more signatures."
"Yeah, would you sign our petition about the Chinese girls going back to China?" said Darien, offering his clipboard.
"Yeah, it's terrible, isn't it? Those Chinese coming over here and taking out jobs. We ought to send them back, right?"
The boys looked puzzled.
"No, we want them to stay here," said Skipper finally. "The Chinese are the ones who want them to go back."
"Oh," said the man, looking at Newman in embarrassment. "Sure, give me that thing. I'll sign." He scrawled his signature, then handed it back
"Alright, you guys, now get out there," said Newman, shooing them away. The two men were left standing alone.
"This is a wonderful thing you're doing," said the man as they watched the troop scatter. "I should have gotten my boys into Scouts. They must be 16 by now. 16 and 15, I think."
"What happened?" said Newman, knowing he didn't have to ask.
"Ah, my old lady went on disability," he said. "She didn't like my drinking."
"Why didn't you stop drinking?" Newman asked. He knew he had broken the rules. Moral judgments weren't tolerated anymore. Yet he pressed forward anyway. It happened every time he spoke to another man these days -- that sense of mutual failure. Something had gone horribly wrong, something was lost -- that feeling among men of being bound up in some collective work, some common identity. You do your job, I'll do mine, and everything will be alright. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt that way with anybody.
"What do you think of this Hawaii thing?" he asked, trying for some common ground.
"I don't know," said the man. "Seems like we ought to give it up, don't you think? Nothing but a bunch of Chinks out there anyway."
"They're all Americans as far as I can see," said Newman, trying to keep his voice regular.
"Well, I suppose so," said the man.
The boys came running back brandishing a few more signatures and the conversation ended. "Well, good luck fellas," waved the drunk, assuring them that he still had command of his faculties.
"Was there something the matter with that guy?" asked Squirrel.
"He's a drunk," said Jared disparagingly.
"Isn't that amazing? He knew the Boy Scout oath," said Tom Brown.
"He's just a little down on his luck," said Newman, knowing he was treading a fine line. It was gratifying to find older men who had been Boy Scouts but terrifying to see them as role models. "Alright, you guys, let's get back to work."
"Mr. Newman, why don't we contact other Boy Scout troops and ask them to help?" said Darien.
"Yeah, we're supposed to get other boys involved, aren't we?" echoed Skipper.
"That's a good idea. Why don't you guys make a video and put it on the web. Maybe we can get some other troops involved."
"Maybe we can make it into a video game," said Squirrel boastfully.
"It'd be a lot better than this standing out in the cold," said Skipper, shivering for exaggeration.
"Now look, I want you guys to get out and meet people," said Newman. "Life isn't all video games."
"Excuse me," said a well-dressed woman standing next to the table. "Is this some kind of petition for peace?" She was strikingly attractive with nicely arched eyebrows and gold earrings hanging down to her sweater.
"This is about sending the Chinese girls back to China," said Tom Brown eagerly. "We want the President to say they don't have to go."
"Yeah, I have a Chinese girl at my school," added Squirrel. "She doesn't want to go,"
"Well, I think President Armageddon is doing a very good job," said the woman, cautiously fingering the petition. "We don't want to get the Chinese angry or anything. They're stronger than us, you know."
"Yeah, well that doesn't mean they should just barge into your house and take whatever they want," said Jared in a tone that made the woman look up sharply.
"Well, we don't want to fly off the handle, either," said the woman, taking in Newman for the first time. "Sometimes we have to learn to control our emotions. We don't want to start a war or anything."
"Yeah, well they shouldn't think they can come over here and take whatever they want," said Jared, warming to the confrontation.
"Well, good luck with whatever it is you're doing," said the woman, casting a withering glance at Newman and walking away. "Carry on."
"Geez," said Darien. "I'll bet she doesn't have a Chinese daughter."
"Mr. Newman, how come people don't care about these things?"
"I don't know, Jared. They're all wrapped up in their own concerns. I don't think this whole thing has quite sunk in with people yet."
"Excuse me," said another young woman approaching the table. "Is this something about the Boy Scouts?" She had hair cropped to within an inch of her head with a purple streak down the middle. At either side she held the hand of a Mexican boy, one a little older than the other. She was just of the age where women who eschewed childbirth started adopting, thought Newman. They were eligible for disability as well.
"Yes it is, ma'am," he responded. "We're asking people to sign petitions against sending the adopted girls back to China."
"But I thought the Boy Scouts were illegal," said the young woman.
"The ACLU had the Boy Scouts labeled a hate group in 2055," Newman began the ritual explanation. "They have since been subsumed under the Mormon Church and are protected by freedom of religion. We engage in traditional activities and are open to boys of all races, creeds and colors."
The woman looked concerned. "Wasn't there a Mormon who ran for President once?"
"That was many years ago," said Newman. "He didn't win."
"Well, what do you do with these boys," she asked, feeling her way into unknown territory.
"We meet every Friday in the Mormon Temple. We go on hikes. We go camping. We visit museums and historic places. And we do community service projects like this one."
Jose had edged toward the front and whispered something in Spanish to the two boys. The one on the left snapped something back at him. Newman looked over and the boy glared at him with unremitted hostility. He had never seen such a baleful look in anyone so young.
"There's just one thing I want to know," said the woman, fingering a gold stud protruding from her left cheek. "You don't make them do anything"… she reached for a word… "patriotic, do you?"
Newman was stunned. "No ma'am," he said, his voice laden with irony she probably wouldn't comprehend. "We wouldn't make them do anything like that."
"Alright, I'll have to see," she said, gathering up her two charges. As they walked across the parking lot, the two boys turned and stared daggers at the rest of the troop.
No one said anything for a moment. The weather was turning colder and the wind was whipping down from the mountains. It felt as if it might rain.
"What did you say to them, Jose?" Newman asked finally.
"I asked them if they wanted to be Boy Scouts," the boy replied innocently.
"What did they say to you?"
"It wasn't very nice, Mr. Newman," said Jose apologetically. "I don't think I want to say it."
"Alright, look, let's get out there and gather a few more signatures," said Newman. "Then we'll call it a day."
The boys didn't need any prompting. "Save the Chinese orphans!" they started shouting, waving their clipboards as they scattering toward the growing band of shoppers pushing their carts across the lot. "Don't send them back to China."
Their cries immediately caught the attention of an Asian woman in a red dress clicking across the pavement in high heels. Newman watched as Jared stopped her and pantomimed an explanation. She quickly took the clipboard and signed, as Newman somehow knew she would. Then she asked him something and Jared turned and pointed toward Newman at the table. The woman caught his eye and started over.
"Have you been doing this for long?" she called out. She was probably 35, graceful in her gait, with raven black hair. "I'm so glad you're doing this," she said, arriving at his side. She came up to about his shoulder. "Are you getting much response? No one seems very concerned about this."
"People are very passive these days," said Newman, trying to suppress the frog in his throat. He felt ridiculously exposed in his Boy Scout uniform, but she didn't seem to notice. "I'm of Chinese heritage myself, as you can see, but I'm not adopted. My family has been here 115 years but still has ties over there. I want to start an organization for these girls. A lot of them are very conflicted about their heritage, do you know what I mean?" She looked up at him with a smile that would melt a glacier. "This whole invasion has been a big trauma for them."
"Yes, I – I – I work with these boys and a lot of them feel conflicted, too," he stammered. "I mean about families and stuff. Most of them have never met their father."
"It's a lost generation, isn't it?" she said, casting her eyes about. "And the next one's going to be worse. I admire anyone who works with children these days, although I admit, I don't have any myself. Listen, can I leave you my number," she said, pulling out her iWorld and offering to mate.
"I – I guess I didn't bring mine," said Newman, helplessly patting his pockets. "I must have left it in my other shirt."
"You mean you don't wear that uniform all the time?" she said slyly.
"Just for occasions like this," he admitted.
"Well, I think it looks very becoming. Here, just punch in your number and I'll send you a text."
Newman's fingers quavered as he touched the screen. He realized he had forgotten his own phone number.
"Listen, do you now anywhere else where I could buy a bag of groceries without going through…?" She nodded forebodingly toward the security gate. "I only have to pick up a few things."
"There's nothing much left," said Newman. "There's a couple of little bodegas in the Mexican part of town. One of our boys' parents owns one."
"It's so ridiculous, isn't it?" she said, eyeing the monolith. "Have you seen those new guides they have in there now, telling people what to buy? 'Don't take this, don't eat that. It's not good for you.' Do they think we're a bunch of children?" Newman had never heard anyone talk this way.
"I have a tough time convincing these guys there was a time you could shop without explaining everything to the TSA," said Newman. She flashed him a significant look.
"Well, listen, I have to run," she said, stuffing her iWorld back in her purse. "But do get in touch. I'm serious about forming this new group. Somebody has better do something. Have you heard this story about how they're going to start asking Chinese orphans to register with the government? They say it's just to show the Chinese there aren't that many of them, but you know where that's going to lead."
She suddenly turned apologetically. "Oh, I almost forgot. My name's Marilyn Hu," she said, offering her hand. "We've got so many addresses these days we forget to use first and last names."
"I'm Newman. Ed Newman," he managed to say.
"Very nice to meet you, Ed. Do get in touch." And she scurried off.
Newman watched her trot toward the gate. Then he turned to assemble the boys. A light rain had begun to fall and it was time to go. Already he was starting to miss her.