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THE SANDBOX (Fiction) Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

 

            Now that I look back on what we did out in the desert, it may have been a mistake.  It was a test project.  Nothing more.

            Billy used to hang out on Main street by the L.A. Fitness.  The first time I saw him he was talking to himself.  There were a few like Billy in Alhambra.  But he was the most visible.  Always dressed in camouflage and carrying incoherent signs about war.  He obviously didn’t know how to spell and didn’t know better than to wear a field-jacket in Southern California during summer.

 

            His beard crawled down his shirt like dirty moss from a dying tree.  It was nasty brown with a red tint and looked more like something I'd clean my toilet with than have hanging off my face.  Every time my eyes landed on him, I wanted to scrub him a good one.  For heaven sakes, soap's not that expensive.  Water's pretty cheap too.

            "You got a quarter, sir?  Help out a Vet?" Billy asked.

            I've seen cleaner teeth on monkeys at the zoo.  His teeth had so much plaque, it's all I could see when he spoke.  And the smell!  It was something else.  Was this man gargling sewage or what?

            "Sorry, no change today," I said.  Billy's eyes darted down toward my Rockports.  He was probably thinking about taking them right off my feet.  I'm sure he'd already noticed my Rolex.  I put my new briefcase in my hand farthest from him in the event he wanted that too.

            "You need a job?" I asked.

            "Job, what kind of job?"

            "Sweeping?" I said.

            "Sweeping?" he laughed.  "No, I don't sweep very well," Billy said.  He rubbed the scar above his right eye.  I wondered what that had to do with sweeping, but let it go.

"By the way, what war were you in, soldier?"

            "Vietnam," Billy said.  He looked me in the eye and I began to feel out of place.

            "Vietnam?  What branch?" I asked.

            "Marines."

            "Where'd you serve?"

            "From Saigon to Hue.  Hamburger Hill," he said.

            Yes, in fact, this crack-pot was telling the truth.  I already knew his name, rank, branch of service, and places he'd served before I ever approached him that day.  Actually, I knew his social security number and his mother's maiden name, too.  And a lot more.  We did our research you know.

 

~~

 

            Details for the project had gotten started back under Reagan, although he knew nothing of it.  He never would have approved.  So, it began quietly with only the knowledge of a few.  But things didn't really get underway until the year 2000.  That's when we began taking the plan seriously.

            I can't remember exactly when we started referring to it as the Sandbox, but it was early on.  I played a key role, researching, scouting, and collecting for the project.  That's how I came to know Billy.  He was a drifter that finally stopped drifting in the Alhambra area.  He stayed on Main street a lot, but would be gone for several days at a time, wondering the back roads, sleeping in alleys.  I followed him for a while, tracking his patterns and friends.  After only a few weeks, I knew his favorite wine and the cheap taste it offered.

            Fredrick Staten was really the mastermind behind the plan.  I was one of three who reported directly to him. 

            Although Fredrick was the boss, he let me make many of the decisions. 

"Well, men, we're going to start our tracking in the next couple of days?  Any suggestions as to where?" asked Fredrick.

The four of us stared at each other for a few seconds.  I remember when Fredrick looked directly at me, narrowing his eyes a bit.  I recall thinking how big his nose was. 

"Alhambra would be as good a place as any," I suggested.

"Why is that Banks?" Fredrick asked.  He always called us by our last names.

"Well, we've got major freeway access close by, quite a few homeless, and it's fairly safe."

"Sounds fine with me, but we've gotta make sure we choose from more than one city, so that no one gets overly suspicious," Fredrick said.

Man, did Fredrick have a nose on him.  Maybe he'd been a boxer in his early years.

 "We can spread the project out to Monterrey Park and San Gabriel," I offered.

"I wonder though, maybe we should target Alhambra and a city farther out, like Riverside," said Jim McKenzie.  He knew the Inland Empire and I knew the San Gabriel Valley, so that's where we began.  Jim was the nicest guy you'd ever meet, but he drove me crazy the way he tapped his pen in meetings.

           

~~

 

            "What are you doing?  Get your hands off me you bastards," Billy screamed when the two guys jerked him from his sidewalk sleep and shoved him in the van.  I listened through the earphones and watched from my car one block away.  It was dark, but I still saw the scuffle as they pushed him in the black Dodge.

            It was a perfect extraction, no one around.  The van took off and I followed.

"What do you want?" I heard Billy ask.  "I don't have any money.  Who are you?"

            "We're going to give you a shot that will help you relax," one of the guys said.

            I heard some more commotion, probably Billy wrestling, and then silence.  Billy was sleeping.

            We were on the 10 and headed east in no time.  We drove at a normal speed, so as not to call attention to ourselves.  But then I saw them, the flashing red and blue lights.  I radioed for the other guys to keep going unless they were pursued.

            I remember almost swallowing my gum when I pulled over.  The wait between stopping my car and the officer's approach seemed longer than a funeral service when you've got diarrhea. 

            The officer's light invaded the back seat and then directly on my hands gripped around the wheel.  I tried not to look nervous, like when you ask a girl out.  Only, the sweat on my forehead might have suggested otherwise.

            "I'm going to need to see your license, insurance card, and title sir," she said, as the beam glared in my eyes.

What a pretty voice for a cop, I remember thinking.

            "You know you have a tail light out, sir?" she said.

"No officer, I wasn't aware of that."

            Only a tail-light!  I wiped my forehead.  Her perfume drifted in the window as she walked back behind my car to do whatever cops do when they take your license.

She seemed angry when she came back to my window, but she let me off on a warning.

Soon, I was back in radio contact with the van.  We were in the clear and on our way to the Sandbox to meet the rest of our testing pool.
 

~~

 

Not long after we'd officially opened the Sandbox, I was out meeting people in Riverside.

"Cliff, how long have you been on the street?" I asked.

"I guess about three years," he said as he scratched his neck. 

"How would you like a job?"

"A job, doing what?" Cliff asked.

"I know of a restaurant over on University that needs a dish washer.  You want to help out?  It pays $8.00 an hour, 25 hours a week," I explained.

"Dishwasher?" he asked, as he dropped his hand to his side.  "I might be interested.  When do I start?"

"As soon as I can get you into some better clothes.  Today if you like," I said.

"Peter, I appreciate it and all, but I think I need some time to think about it," he said.

"Any other kind of work I can help you find?" I offered.

"No, I think I'm good right now.  But keep me posted," he said, rubbing his neck again, his blood-shot eyes surrounded by his tar colored face. 

Cliff was my first prospect in Riverside.  I was becoming familiar with the area, as Jim drove me around to meet people.  We cruised University from Iowa Boulevard down to the Mission Inn looking for people.  Sometimes we made our rounds of the park to find new subjects.  Out of all the subjects that I offered jobs to, only one took me up on it.  And, she quit after two days.  None of them wanted to work.  They were making more begging than they could working.  They'd gotten used to the street, and couldn't imagine another way of life.

In fact, I remember going to Cliff again one week later, offering him another job, doing janitorial work.  He turned that down, too.

When we actually picked him up, it was about 2:00 a.m.  We caught him wondering down by White Park.  He'd been drinking, of course.  Again, I listened from nearby as the guys tossed him into the van. 

"Hey, fellas, where we going?" he asked, like a kid taking a field trip.

"We're just going to take a little ride.  You'll be fine, as long as you cooperate," said the grunt.

They gave him his shot, but he didn't put up much of a fight.  Cliff was a likable guy, even when he drank. 

 

~~

 

The cabins still smelled of fresh cedar.  Every cabin came with two big rooms that had ten beds in each.  There were two toilets, complete with showers separating the bedrooms.

"Billy, you're doing a good job on those rows you're hoeing," I encouraged.

"I think so too," he said.

He looked so different without his beard.  He was actually a decent worker once he got started. 

"Say, Peter, you have family?" he asked.

"Billy, my family isn't important here.  You're my family." 

He mumbled to himself and looked at the soil he was plowing.

Just as I turned to walk away, he did it.

"I'll kill you, you son of a ...."

I heard a thud and turned to see.  The guard had struck Billy before he could plant his hoe in the back of my head.  I guess Billy hadn't left his violence in Vietnam after all.

Cliff did a decent job keeping up with the trash patrol duty that we'd given him.  He stepped out of line every once in a while, but it was nothing that a good tazer gun wouldn't cure.  And, he kept right on scratching his neck day after day.  But, he worked, little by little.

Within three months of our grand opening we'd collected enough subjects from all over California to give us forty inmates-about 28 men and 12 women.  Which reminds me, Sally was about the funniest thing you'd ever laid eyes on.  When I first picked her up in Riverside, she was pushing a buggy with four dogs trailing after her.  And on her gray hair sat the biggest hat you've ever seen.  She always hung around Central Avenue and Magnolia, and she cussed liked you've never heard.  She sported a few yellow teeth and was a perfect example of white trash.  And, that's essentially what she collected in her cart, trash. 

In the camp, we spiffed her up and put her in charge of sowing seed.  She moaned and mumbled the whole time, but she did it anyway.

"Peter, you let me out of here now," she pointed.  "The world is coming to an end and you're Satan himself," she said, and then threw seed at me.  I gave her a little extra space, since those dark rings around her eyes gave her sort of a witchy look. 

"Calm down Sally.  Just do your job, and you might get another shot at the free world."

"A shot, I'll give you a shot right in your head, you damn bastard."

I saw the guard move toward her, but I made him stand down.  I tried to exercise patience with the subjects.

"Sally, you squandered away ten years living on the street, begging money," I said.  "Why should you mooch off hard-working citizens in the free world, when you can help others with your labor in here?"  I saw fire brewing in her eyes then.  She picked up a clog and threw it at my face.  That's when the guard put the butt of his gun in her stomach.  And rightfully so. 

~~

 

I remember that night in September, it was just after midnight when the alarm sounded.  How Billy got out of his room is still a mystery.  But he was on the fence before the spotlight hit him.  Then he learned first-hand the surge of the electric fence.  He hollered like the Tasmanian Devil. 

"Billy, what are you doing out here?" I asked.

"What the hell does it look like?" he said.

"Well, unless you want a bullet in your back, I suggest you stop this non-sense.  You're never going to get out if you keep acting like this."

The guard wanted to beat Billy with a belt, but I didn't permit it.  These people were scum, but they were still people.

My saddest moment came about a month later, when production was at an all time high.

Cliff had decided to go on strike.  Well, actually, all of the workers had decided to strike, but Cliff was the ring leader.  I know that because we had an informant in the cabins.  Cliff convinced all the guys in his room that they were not going to work anymore.

After they sat down in the field, we dragged all the men into a special room we'd made for the uncooperative.  We showed them the benefits of working as opposed to protesting.  I remember the smell of blood on the concrete floor that day.  A guard hosed it down.  But Cliff just wouldn't comply.

"Cliff, don't be a fool.  You've got to work.  You're doing a good job," I said.

"No, I won't!  I won't be your slave anymore."
            "Cliff, if you cooperate and do a good job, then you can earn your freedom," I said.

"No, I don't believe you.  You're a liar, just like Hitler.  We're never going to walk out of here."  It was the first time I saw him cry.  I actually felt sorry for him.

"Cliff, you've got to work."
            But he wouldn't budge.  Blood poured from his back, and he wouldn't budge.  He just cried.  We did what we felt he'd pushed us to do.  I regret it, but it was his choice.

 

~~

 

Although Fredrick checked up on me occasionally, I ran the camp.  Jim and the other two guys also spent some time there during the day, but always left at night.  A whole year had passed since we first started the camp.

"Banks, you're work is stupendous here.  We've got some serious vegetables growing," Fredrick commented.  I almost asked about his nose.  "Not only are we able to feed the subjects with it, we're soon going to be able to give the rest away to orphanages in California," Fredrick said.  He patted me on the back, and again I stared at his nose.  It was the size of a small potato.

"Thanks Fred.  But I think we've got to stop the flow of new subjects right now," I said.  "People will get suspicious if too many of them disappear at once.  We've got to slow it down or we're going to get busted."

"Slow it down?  Banks, this is the greatest charity enterprise ever," he explained.  "We're not about to stop now, not when we're ready to do some serious output."

"But Fred, we don't have to stop, just slow it down...."

"Nonsense, we'll keep right on doing what we're doing," he said.  No one cares if these people disappear or not.  Regular folks have trained themselves to walk right past these vagabonds," Fredrick said, his big nose turning pink.

 

~~

 

It was the sound of a helicopter that woke me.  I looked out the window to see red and blue lights flashing everywhere.  I heard gunfire from the towers.

"Mr. Peter Banks, this is the FBI.  Please come out with your hands in the air."

I couldn't see the guard in the tower.  Maybe they'd shot him already.  I immediately thought of Waco and David Koresh.

I thought about Jim Jones and Hitler, too.  Was I really like those guys? 

I could hear CBs squawking.  The speakers to the cabins let me know that the subjects were celebrating.

"You're going to fry now, you dirty bastards," I heard Billy say into the mic. 

I looked at the loaded .45 Smith and Wesson I had in a holster by my bed.  I could go out cowboy style, like the men in a Young Guns movie.

I opened the trunk beside the bed and put on the belt that had grenades dangling from it.  I checked the chamber of the M-16 to make sure she was ready to dance.  Then I moved back over to the window.  I could see agents coming in through the gate, and snipers moving into place.  I thought I saw an ATF jacket.  I stroked the gun like a guitar player would his instrument.  I closed my eyes and prayed a short prayer.  Ironic I guess, but I said a quick prayer.  The CBs squealed again somewhere out by the fence.

~~

 

It's been about eight years since then, and I've never told my story.  We had a good plan.  We wanted to help our communities by making the bums pay their dues.  It wasn't a bad plan and possibly could have become part of legislative reform if we'd had more time. 

We weren't acting alone, either.  We had authorization from the higher-ups.  But, of course, none of them have to face the consequences.

I don't remember much of that night when the Feds disturbed my sleep.  It's a little smeared in my brain, like my reading glasses when I accidentally touch the lenses with my fingers.

All I know is, we had a plan.  Someone leaked the info, and now I'm the fall guy.  Fredrick hung himself, big nose and all.  Jim and the other two guys disappeared. 

I sleep seventeen hours a day in my cell and think about how our plan could've done some good. 

But sometimes I wonder about Billy.  Did he get a real job?  Or does he still bum money on Main street?

 
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