'Out in the Cold'

T.R. Healy

Sidney Moss leaned back from his lopsided desk and once more went over in his mind what happened last night after he left the light rail station and walked to his car. Trailing some of the other commuters, he had almost reached the end of the block when one of the people ahead of him paused at the corner, and as he stepped toward him, the man held up a cigarette and gestured for a light. Nodding, he reached into his suit pocket for his lighter, and then, before he knew it, the man snatched the strap of his camera case from his shoulder and shoved him down and ran toward the parking lot.

The camera was worth several hundred dollars, certainly not something he could afford to lose, so as soon as he got to his feet he started after the thief. He pleaded for help, but the few people he passed looked away as if he had lost his mind, the thief having disappeared into the night. Suddenly he began to feel a little strange, as if he were running after his own shadow, and slowed down to a brisk walk when he reached the parking lot. He looked around but the thief was nowhere in sight so he proceeded down the first row of parked cars, deciding to check every row in the lot before he called the police.

Sighing, he stretched his arms above his head, still finding last night hard to comprehend, as if it had occurred to someone else he had read about in the newspaper. People are being assaulted all the time, he realized, but even so he never imagined anything like that could happen to him.

There was a knock on the door, and he looked up as his eminence, Alvin Bartley, entered his office. Clutching a long black furled umbrella, and smiling broadly, he had on a crimson stocking cap, sandals, and around his narrow shoulders a forest-green rain parka that hung to his heels. As he had for the past two semesters, he had agreed to portray a meddlesome cardinal for the Government Department's semi-annual simulation of an international political crisis.

“Good morning, Alvin.”

“Bless you, my son,” he replied as he dragged the rain parka through the doorway.

“You're looking very pious this morning.”

He squinted at his colleague. “Gracious, Sidney, who are you trying to represent today—the walking wounded? Your face looks like a tractor print. What in the world happened?”

As if recounting something that had occurred to someone else, he explained how his camera was taken from him shortly after he left the rail station last night. It happened so quickly, he emphasized, that it took him a few moments before he realized it was gone.

Alvin leaned his umbrella against the desk. “A couple of years ago, now, my wife had her purse snatched out of her hands by some guy while she was downtown doing some Christmas shopping. She had nearly two hundred dollars in it.”

“I don't suppose she ever got any of it back, did she?”

He shook his head. “She said the guy just disappeared into the crowd.”

“You never think something like that is ever going to happen to you until it does, and then it's too late to do anything about.”

“I gather, from the appearance of your face, you must have struggled some with the person who took your camera.”

His head lolled forward, as if he were about to fall asleep. “I caught up with him but he swung the camera and clipped me hand on the side of the head then took off running.”

“I'm sorry, Sidney. I really am.” He picked up his umbrella and started to leave, then paused in the doorway. “It's a shame that crises can't be as clean and organized as the one we'll be overseeing this afternoon, but that's the trouble with real life, isn't it? It's so capricious and uncertain, full of mischief and surprise. Poor, nasty, brutish, and short is how it is described, I believe in the Leviathan.”

“So I recall.”

Alvin steepled his fingers together and bowed, then left the office, gathering the tattered rain park behind him.

Sidney smiled at his colleague and consulted his watch. Nine minutes to go until the crisis commenced, until an imaginary part of the world threatened to dissolve into chaos and confusion, and then in a matter of hours all the obstacles to a settlement would be removed, with order and civility restored in the country as matter-of-factly as fitting together the pieces of a puzzle. He lit a clove cigarette, waiting for the outbreak of hostilities to begin.

That semester eight students were enrolled in the department's advanced international studies seminar, and all but one of them had agreed to participate in the simulated crisis that afternoon. Two of the students, representing the president and his chief of staff, were ensconced in the seminar room, while the others assembled in the classroom next door as members of the national security council. Despite their carefree mood, they all were well aware that the purpose of the exercise was to test their nerve, specifically to see how well they would react under the pressure of an unfolding crisis in a remote corner of the world.

Sidney, as the supervisor of the proceedings, devised the crisis that involved the imaginary country of Ebbets, situated somewhere in the Pacific near the Horn of Olinger. Smoothing out his necktie, the sleeves of his herringbone jacket, he strode into the seminar room then, as if reading from a cable just received from the American embassy in that impoverished country, he informed the president that the harassment of American relief workers monitored over the past two weeks had escalated and now one reportedly was shot and critically injured by security forces in the capital.

The students quickly conferred together, then the chief of staff went next door to report what had happened in Ebbets to the national security council. His arms folded, his ankles crossed, Sidney stood in the back of the room, listening as the young man urged the council to prepare a concise analysis of the situation. “Consider all the pros and cons,” he insisted. “But be sure the options you give to the president are realistic ones on how to cope with what's going on over there.”

The chief of staff turned and left, but Sidney stayed behind to observe the six students grapple with this crisis that potentially could require the deployment of American troops to Ebbets to stabilize the situation and evacuate the relief workers. They had approximately an hour to develop their policy recommendations.

Geoffrey, if not the brightest of the six students, certainly the most aggressive, spoke first, saying, “I'd recommend at once sending a stern warning to the leader of Ebbets, General Rickey, that the president will hold him personally responsible for any harm suffered by any American relief worker at the hands of his security forces.”

“A message expressing our concerns was sent to the general last week,” Sidney informed the council.

“I'd send another message,” Geoffrey declared, “making it clear that we mean business this time.”

Susan scowled. “What do you want us to do, Geoff, release bombs on the general's palace?”

“If that's what it requires.”

“Don't be ridiculous.”

“It was Talleyrand or someone like that,” Henry observed, “who cautioned that some deeds are worse than crimes. They're mistakes. We should remember that while we are trying to come up with proposals.”

“I don't mean to sound insensitive,” Neal chimed in, knowing that was exactly how he sounded, “but what precisely are our national interests in this region of the world?”

“To protect American lives,” Peggy snapped, scraping her long red fingernails through her tangled hair.

“Certainly I'm as concerned about the safety of the relief workers over there as anyone,” Susan insisted, “but let's not deceive ourselves, please. What goes on there really poses no threat to anyone here. It is no doubt a miserable place but the United States wasn't brought into being to deliver the world from misery.”

Sidney, glancing at the clock on the wall, estimated that Alvin shortly would be paying a visit to the president to implore him not to resort to force to resolve the situation in Ebbets. Smiling, he remembered that last summer, as his eminence, Alvin had urged the use of military force. He waited a couple of minutes then, abruptly, banged his clipboard against the legs of his chair until everyone around the table was quiet.

“I have just received a cable from our embassy in Ebbets,” he announced somberly, “and I regret to report that the wounded American relief worker has died.”

“Something concrete has to be done now by the administration,” Susan conceded. “Words alone will no longer suffice.”

Sidney tried to follow the discussion of the students as they considered various responses that could be pursued by the administration, but he was unable to concentrate, hearing their voices but scarcely making any sense of what they were saying. At first, he thought it might be because he was thinking about Peggy, an attractive single woman who was almost his age. Nearly three weeks ago, after having coffee with her one afternoon, he walked her to her car then, surprising himself, he held her face and kissed her on the mouth. Unlike many of his colleagues, he had never been close with any of his students, but for a moment that afternoon he wanted to accompany Peggy back to her apartment and go to bed with her. He resisted the temptation, however, and until now had managed to put her out of his thoughts. And even now he knew deep down that he was not really thinking about her, but rather about what happened to him last night, which he could not rid from his mind however hard he tried.  

After conferring with the president about the policy options presented by the security council, the chief of staff returned to the classroom, his eyes somber as plums. “We've just been informed that General Rickey is reported to have said over Ebbets national radio that he regards all the relief workers to be clandestine agents of the American government and therefore enemies of his country.”

“Typical,” Neal groaned. “The general sounds like every petty tyrant who does not know what he does not know.”

“I believe the general needs to see the red glare of some American rockets,” Geoffrey suggested with a wicked grin.

“Oh, right,” Susan snarled at him. “Make the country a desert and then call it peace. That makes a lot of sense.”

“The president needs to make a decision right away about whether or not he should send troops to Ebbets,” the chief advised the council members, “and he wants your views on the matter. So let's go around the room.”

“If we deploy American troops, we risk intervention from Ebbets' neighbors who will complain about gunboat diplomacy,” Henry predicted, clasping his hands behind his brick-pink neck. “Consequently I believe we should wait before we send in troops.”

Susan agreed. “I am afraid they will only exacerbate the situation.”

Sidney half listened to the recommendations offered by the students, knowing that in a quarter of an hour the exercise would be over and, despite what the students decided, the crisis resolved. Simple as that, he thought, just as it was every semester. He wished last night could have been settled as smoothly, his camera retrieved and the thief apprehended and put behind bars.

He was not the sort of person, he believed, who was willing to turn the other cheek and let someone get away with something they shouldn't if he could help it. Certainly he never had in the classroom, always ready to expose the flaws in the arguments of his students, even of some of his colleagues. So, although he was doubtful if he would be able to catch the thief, he was convinced that if he did, he would be able to corner him and recover his camera. As he started down one of the back rows of the parking lot, he spotted someone kneeling down beside a panel truck, rifling through what appeared to be a camera case. Angrily he screamed at him, demanding that he return his camera. He expected the thief to rise up and start running again, but he didn't make a move and stared at him defiantly. He hesitated, startled by his defiance. The man should be running away, he thought, he should be absolutely petrified of being caught, yet he did not budge a muscle.

“You got a problem, mister?” he cried after a long silence.

“You took my camera.”

“I didn't take nothing,” he snarled, adding, almost with a snicker, “but if I did, what are you going to do about it?”

He stared at the man in disbelief, his thick, loose skin quickly tightening as fear gripped his heart. He could hardly swallow, the fear rising from his heart to the back of his throat. The low, grumbling laughter that suddenly burst from the thief stung his ears, sharply, like a handful of gravel. Despite his anger, though, he edged back down the row, deciding a camera was not worth getting in a scuffle over and risking a serious injury. The man might be demented, might even be armed with a knife or something as dangerous, there were plenty of reasons for avoiding a confrontation, he rationalized, as he returned to his car. More reasons than he could count, certainly more than enough to justify what he did.

The security council, by a margin of one vote, recommended that the president mount a rescue operation and deploy American troops to Ebbets. He concurred and implemented the recommendation at once, but did not announce it to the nation until he was assured the operation was a complete success. By then, all the relief workers were on their way home, with only a few casualties sustained by the troops who conducted the evacuation.

When the exercise was completed everyone involved in it, including Sidney and Alvin, repaired to the seminar room where they reflected on their experience over paper cups of Mexican beer and cartons of potato chips and pretzels.

“You know, for a while there, I was sure the crisis was going to involve one of the relief workers being held hostage,” Peggy confessed to Sidney when she approached him in a corner of the cluttered little room.

“No,” he said, closely regarding her soft indigo eyes. “I can't say that was ever contemplated for this crisis.”

She smiled seductively. “Well, I thought from the look of your face that you were going to represent some poor relief worker who had been detained and roughed up by some of the people of General Rickey.”

Not in the mood to discuss what occurred last night, he dismissed her concern by saying that he slipped in the shower and banged his forehead against the nozzle.

“You should have been a hostage today,” she chided him, “because you sure look like you've been worked over by someone.”

“Maybe another time.”

“Maybe so.”

Later in his office, mulling over what Peggy said to him, Sidney wished he could have told her what really happened to him outside the rail station. But that was inconceivable, especially after the story he concocted for Alvin, because it would reveal how timid he had been, how craven and dishonest. Time and again, as he had during the simulated crisis today, he had encouraged his students and others not to back down but to stand up for their principles and do what they believed was right. Precisely what he didn't do last night, he thought, gazing out his office window at some students mingling in front of the enormous old brass fountain outside the library.

He felt like such an imbecile now, a fool really, hearing again the taunting laughter of the thief as he slinked away from him and climbed back into his car. He intended to drive to a telephone booth and report the theft of his camera to the police, but he was too embarrassed to admit that he let the thief get away without putting up any resistance so he decided not to report it. Instead, he slumped behind the steering wheel of his car, his head in his hands, and then suddenly, violently slammed his forehead against the hard black metal wheel until he began to look as if he had confronted the person who stole his expensive camera.