Case by Case.

by John Mucci

Copyright ©2001 John Mucci. All rights reserved.

The uniform isn't much: a jacket with an emblem on the shoulder, a pin with the American flag, a service stripe; eventually the rank chevron. But the designers missed their opportunity to make a more imposing statement: with a scarlet tunic, gold-wound frogs and splashes of brass, or even an enamel helmet-but that would probably be too ceremonial, like wearing a sword in a sash (which we could never hope for)!

While that may sound ridiculous, it isn't any more than the way our job is characterized by the crowd. In fact, it is my contention that if we could tie our presence to a stated ceremony or ritual, it would make everyone feel better about the aura of mystery and arbitrary actions that we generate like a cloud.

As they line up to pass before me, I look at them one by one. I admit, at first, it was as though they were farm animals, queuing before the stanchions, each examined for mange or hydrophobia. But now I can assess their character at a glance, and pay more attention to my screen, that hard glass square tube just above eye-level that displays their real lives to me. I control the belt on which their possessions pass by; I monitor their possessions, I draw conclusions from my acute senses. Early in the morning, the sad procession moves slowly, as though to a funeral. There are thousands of people. It isn't a virtue to speed the line up; in fact, there are times when retarding its single-file progress increases the ceremonial aspect. Each will be examined in turn.

As they approach me, my glance goes to their eyes, then hands. If either twitch, or worse, spread wider than normal, I look on my monitor's display a little differently. Some of the most innocuous things take on a sinister aspect when the owner's hands flutter.

I am privy to the shadowy outlines of the hidden world of these people. I am privileged to see the flattened, packed tumble of teddies and teddybears, jamjars, jewelry-hoops, souvenir mugs, dime rolls, film cassettes, bottles of Riesling, 8-track audio, fuzzy duckhead-slippers, licorice spirals. I even see items that confound others in my profession: cabinet handles, clarinet tops, lamp finials, distributor caps, oyster shuckers, boot jacks, K-Tel fishreels, Nantucket purses.

I can tell a Harry Potter book, and which volume, by its thickness alone; I am not thrown by TV remotes, boneshaped dogtags, sommelier cork-pullers, oven thermostats, or artificial larynxes. I have passed without qualm the most brazenly displayed prosthetic feet, nightlights, missile-shaped vibrators of the most extraordinary dimensions, and foil covered tablets innocently arranged, pharmaceutically in ranks, without worry of the larger question of whether the owners would use these drugs responsibly. But from that first glance at them, I know. I know their health, their habits, their hopes, their history.

My screen says nothing to me: I interpret it, like a scholar faced with an ancient and unclear tablet. The ambiguities of adumbration of shape-on-shapes poses no problem to me, and though I flash the various filters (I think of them as queries as to animal, vegetable, mineral) that show each item in a different colored light, I am confident that the organs of my eyes are perfect interpreters with their own natural filters.

Well aware of my gift, I do not use it idly or abuse its power. I know the woman's bag with the three identical cell phones and her husband's bag with its high-heel shoes bespeak the bitter nod of a false marriage, of deception and duplicity. The briefest exchange of looks between the husband and me - could possibly be measured in microns of crowsfeet wrinkling. The nanoseconds of direct eye-contact with me spoke of the sadness, the bad choices, the failed effort, the insistent victory of neurosis-and, I admit, my own complicity in the deception. I tell neither him about her, nor her about him. I am the apex of a floating triangle very often. You will not see—the eyes say before they move through the portal. You have seen—the soft look confirms afterward, and you will not betray me—they blink with gratitude, as they continue down the corridor with their eloquently mute luggage.

My capacity is limited, but large. Bag A237 may be innocuous, but contains a radio that appears to me over-wired: much more electronics in it than originally manufactured. But nothing is wrong with it, in and of itself. Even though I pass this bag through, with a niggling conscience, it isn't until I connect it in my mind, fourteen minutes later, with bag A243. Equally innocuous, a tin of what seems to be tollhouse cookies combines with the over-wired radio in my mind to concoct a hideous confection of incendiary proportions. I pause: I reflect with eyes on the screen, looking beyond the static display, with its humble belongings carelessly tossed together, the twist of socks, the zigzag of lingerie, and those damn cookies. Those wicked bites of fertilizer, or oil-soaked phosphate, spiked with-shrapnel? cleverly shaped into chocolate chunks. I want the owner to climb in and recline on the belt; I want my machine to scan him, I want to see his bones, the brain-pan, the liver-lobes and shoelace eyelets.

The breath of the hundreds in line behind him, hot and puffing, reaches me in a wave of impatience, but it doesn't ruffle my calm penetration of the truth.

The knot of men ready to enter the electric doorjamb shuffles listlessly, turn about on themselves like calves at their pen. But my eyes are steadfast. The potential of disaster unfolds before me, and my professional soul needs to acknowledge it. The iron door in my heart closes. I stop the line with a single gesture.

Three of my assistants seize the bag-an odd colored one, I now notice, with non-standard clasps. They bring it quickly to the examination block and open it. I have the option of granting the queue the right to resume, but keep staring at the freezeframe of the bag now being opened. The real bag is laid out on the table, but the bag's real soul is captured on my screen, and to hell with their champing, their stamping, their grumbling-cooing. All else is wiped aside-whole armies could crumble to the abyss with the stay of my palm-they will wait.

I think of nothing but that earlier radio-Bag A237, now rolled down to the gate, and keeping cookie-Bag A243 safely on ice, as they open the flap, the cookie tin springing up as though by its own accord, buoyed by brassieres. I motion for them to place the tin back on the belt. I move it back and forth with the luxury of precision no one can argue with at such a moment of intense focus. Four layers of four stacked shadow-cookies. Rich, dark chunks stand up atop each one. All of them seen at once, with a sweeping glance. But I was looking through the monitor screen, beyond the gray tube, straight at the perpetrator.

I see the man in gray and brown. His eyebrows are uneven, his shoes worn unevenly. Red silk tie, but stained lightly on the center. Ridiculous pattern. The knot not Windsor nor four-in-hand, but a clumsy combination, and not well done at that. Hose unelasticized. Belt too thin for the loops; hair well cut but poorly gelled. Cufflinks, old-fashioned but gaudy, butterscotch-colored, with a naval whiff to them. The shirt, striped blue, buttoned down. Bearing common, gait cramped. Arms underdeveloped, chest expansive, but not impressive. Angle of the right elbow assertive, but that of the left with a neutralizing effect. I see through every fold and seam and pleat and coolly assess his being, down to the nimbus of his meager violet aura, and his stubborn consciousness. The integrity of his being, made of dust and blood, captures my imagination by its compact economy. Every synapse, spark of intelligence, cell-rubbing, knee-knocking, back-waxing stands out to me like a raw torch in the darkness. His presence, meeting my scrutiny in this place, at this time, is providential: if he is guilty, I'll know it now: but the detection of innocence will take time. The cookie tin is opened before his eyes, and they look at me for the next step in the process. "Request ingestion," I say, softly, with authority.

They turn toward him and as simple as a weekly rite, ask: "Eat one." His brow furrows, his knee inclines, but after a beat, he puts his hand into the tin and without reflecting on its position in the array, takes a bite. I can see his teeth sink in, his mandibles crush the friable meal, and no trace of apprehension crosses his face. Returning to my post, I release the stalled queue, and like a thaw in an ice dam in Spring, they advance, somewhat shakily. The cookie tin and its stacked content still fill my screen. It flashes across my mind, now firm with conviction, that were we to be responsible-truly responsible we would test every cookie, hunt down the now-departed bag A237, examine all the combinations between the two once-separated bags, and use our considered ingenuity to outwit the wiliest lunatic mind-those who have nothing to do but sit in dreary rented rooms, making the most commonplace things instruments of horror. Damn them.

Damn them, I cannot hold all these reins, I cannot keep so many threads clear, nor sense the warp in the limitless weft of this endless procession. I clear the screen of the cookie tin. The next bag rolls through. Burpee seed packets. Leather-fringe and rhinestone gloves. Two chromatic harmonicas. Every day, I am aware of an accretion of my special gift. Cork horses. Plaster puttis, the green, the orange the violet tints from the filters, scattered over a Pyramides cigar. A pepper mill. A folding book light. But it does not end. They look at me with scorn: they see a Pakistani woman holding back their progress, grinding their self-important line to a halt. Their cell-phones inanely spout mosquito melodies torn from Beethoven, Bizet, Bach, and Mel Brooks. Their messages pass through their heads like bags by my scanner.

But they shed the meaning of those calls, as easily as shaking snow from a hat. While I absorb their images, their secret images that coat my memory like a milk of magnesia, I see them to a depth that they do not suspect. And while they weave their own lives, spreading across this continent in a Diaspora of fine mist, the day they pass through my scrutiny they are admitted to the registry of my Will; and later, out in the light and the air, I see them all. I see through you and everyone. I see into your purses, and hatbands, fannypacks and Gucci billfolds, your pockets and sporrans; I see your white wrist bones and tibia and even-numbered phalanges and all the perfect assemblages of meat and offal that make you up and keep you apart. I see through you all. You are all walking shadows separated from each other by the cobwebs of opinion and the onionskins of perception. And if I were given the freedom to design my uniform, those on the street would know that I, the Reserve Bank of their secret sorry shadow lives, keep safe our single-file encounter, absorb without judgment, the private terror of your lives, and send you off refreshed to meet your destinies, as roots, as blooms, desperate or happy, all scanned and rifled, frisked and scoped, cleared of suspicion, prepared for anything life can dole, in all its meaningless, impenetrable opacity.


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