ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Roman Arena", a chapter of an abandoned novel by R. Nirenberg

Bloodcurdling dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, monstrous sharks, appear on the horizon, grow closer and larger, open their mouths, bare a claw, flash cruel eyes, and without a sound spill out of the computer monitor and vanish into nearness.  Sue Torres-Gorham is sitting at her desk.  Without turning around, she pushes a switch on the intercom and says, "Gordon, get everything ready, we're flying to Chicago at three."
         "Okay, Ms Torres," comes the voice at the other end, and after a brief pause, "I didn't want to interrupt, but there are two – er – ladies here to see you."
         "Too busy.  Find out what they want.  Tell them to come back next week."  While saying this, she doesn't stop typing on the keyboard.  At last she leans back on her chair and takes stock.  The product is ready for marketing.  One month from conception to fully developed: a record, impossible to imagine before she took over the operation less than a year ago.  Next, a memo from herself, the boss, to the hundred and twenty employees who have worked on this project.  Dear colleagues.  Much to be proud of.  Creativity and team spirit, key words.  Professionalism and devotion.  Two ladies to see her?  Journalists, no doubt, for still another interview.  She has been written up in Modern Woman as "the Latina Powerhouse," and in Hispanic World as "a role model for the coming millennium."  Whether such accolades are good for her career she's not sure of, but is inclined to refuse any others for the time being, unless from a top paper like the New York Times or some prestigious TV personality.  Too much down-market exposure, she's afraid, might be counter-exposure.
         "Ms Torres," says Gordon through the intercom, "these two ladies say they're from a place – er – something like Santescura?  Or Santoscura?  Their English – er – I couldn't –"
         "Let them in."
         Sue Torres-Gorham came to this world in Santa Oscura del Huerto thirty-two years ago.  An insignificant village in the mountains of Honduras, of which she remembers very little.  The Reverend Gorham has never kept it secret that Sue was a foundling, a survivor from a massacre by the Honduran military in 1973, but he never encouraged the girl to go searching for time past.  She has been born twice, he used to say: once in Honduras' hell, then, ten years later, by the mercy of God and of Its worthy minister, in justice, democracy and the U.S.  Her given name, Suyapa, naturally turned into Sue.  That the first ten years of her life were almost erased from Sue's mind is not a void to be filled, but a blessing, in the view of Reverend Gorham.  All during her adolescence and her high-school years, however, the girl pored over maps, looking for the tiny spot with the mysterious name.  But as she grew up other things claimed her attention: friends, fashion, career, romance.  The forgotten past was turned into myth – Santa Oscura – something amusing, cool.  Until now, when the two women walk in.
         The old one is dressed in black except for a colorful scarf tied about her head.  Not able to stand by herself, a young girl, thin as a stick, is holding her.  Their ages are difficult to guess: even though the sick woman looks old, she might not be a day above forty; as for the girl, she could be anywhere between ten and twenty or even more; with Indian people it is hard to tell.  The girl speaks broken English.
         Fixing her gaze intently into Sue's face, half-closing her eyes, the old woman moves her head to look at Sue from different angles, as if trying to ascertain whether this is the person she has been looking for.  Then, with a tone of great authority, she says to the girl who is holding her, "déjame," joins her hands in prayer and falls to the ground, on her knees, next to Sue's desk.  Sue doesn't know enough Spanish to understand what the old woman is mumbling; it sounds like an incantation.  Again and again she hears her own name, Suyapa, the name that appears on her passport but which no one uses now.  Santa, Santa Suyapa.  That's what the old woman is mumbling: "Help me," "¡Ayúdame, Santa Suyapa!"  At the same time, and with great effort, she moves on her knees closer to Sue, who doesn't know what to do.
         "Want you touch her," says the thin girl.
         "Touch her?"
         "Breast.  There cancer."
         "In that case she ought to see a doctor," says Sue.  "Un doctor," she repeats in Spanish.
         The old woman shakes her head.
         "Doctor no good.  Want you touch her," says the girl.  "Here.  Breast."
         "¡Santa Suyapa, escúchame, Santa Suyapa, te lo ruego!" the old woman beseeches, and, not knowing what else to do, Sue lifts her right hand.  The girl takes that hand gently, as if it had been a relic, and guides it to the older woman's breast.  Ecstatic happiness appears on the latter's face as soon a she is touched, banishing her intense suffering, like the sun grows in brightness at the edge of a passing haze.  For a while the three are motionless.  Then the old one says, "Gracias," the girl helps her up, and they both go out of the office with silent, reverent steps.
         Later, on the limousine going to the airport, and on the plane to Chicago, Sue tries to collect her thoughts and focus on the presentation of the new video product she is about to do, but images of the old woman held by the girl won't leave her, and, above all, the happiness that shone so brightly on the parched and wrinkled face.  Gordon, meanwhile, is leafing through a magazine and sipping champagne in the next seat.  As soon as they reach an altitude of 30,000 feet he says, "Ms Torres, you seem worried."
         "I'm trying to focus on the presentation, Gordon."
         "Oh, it'll be great.  I'm sure you'll have them all wrapped around your little finger, as you always do, Ms Torres."  And after a pause, "I know it's none of my business, Ms Torres, but I meant to ask you, what was those two women's business?"
         "Which women, Gordon?"
         "Those two – er – Hispanic women, Ms Torres, who came to see you at your office."
         "The old woman is sick.  I gave them some money so that she can go to a doctor.  That's all."
         "That was very generous on your part, Ms Torres."
         "Thank you, Gordon."
         They don't say another word until, at the lobby of the hotel, before they part to go to their rooms, Gordon says, "What we do is the hottest stuff.  You are the brightest star.  I wouldn't want to work for anybody else."  Sue is used to that sort of praise.  Praise keeps pouring on her from all quarters, but she likes the way Gordon said it, nothing sugary, but business-like, matter-of-factly, and right on time, just before they have to get ready for the presentation and the sale.  She beams at him her warmest smile.
         Gordon Henley comes from Texas white trash.  By dint of sacrifice, hard work, and smarts, he managed to graduate from Rice University in Houston at the top of his class.  His father is a drunkard and his mother a member of a Galveston charismatic church, a big woman of Welsh ancestry who goes into raptures, speaks in tongues, handles snakes.  She does also, on occasion, thrash her husband soundly to try to keep him on the wagon; once he actually complained to the police, but they refused to listen to him or to do anything, on the grounds that a man was supposed to thrash his wife, not the other way around.  The dogged determination to climb past such shabby family life is one reason Sue likes Gordon; another reason is that this young man of twenty-two, fresh out of college, has his whole future clearly chartered out in his own mind: he wants to move as an analyst over to Marketing in a year, become assistant VP after a couple of years, and associate VP after another two, so that by age thirty, as he puts it, "and with your help, I'll be a vice-president like you, Ms Torres."  The third reason Sue likes Gordon is that he does not mind at all, like so many other males, bright or dull, being directed and mentored by a woman: actually he seems to thrive under her supervision.  Before she gets into the hotel elevator, she reminds him, "Get all the stuff ready here by six sharp, the limo will be picking us up."  She fills the bathtub and makes herself a perfumed bath.  Covered with bubbles, head leaning on a foam rubber pad, she closes her eyes and smiles when she sees happiness shining on the old woman's face.


         "So, tell me, are you going to amaze me?  Am I going to like it?" says B. Bennett Caccace Jr., opening his arms wide and showing his teeth.  He's a short, stocky man in his fifties; atop his monogrammed silk shirt shine a thick bush of grey chest hair and several pounds of 18 kt. gold chain.  There is hair and gold all over him, except on top of his head.
         "I think so, B.B.C.," says Sue, while Gordon and another guy from the local company are busy setting up the computer and connecting the cables.  There are eight more people sitting in the room, facing the big monitor, all of whom work for B.B. Caccace, the kingpin of Video Entertainment Distributors, purveyors of electronic games to hundreds of thousands of arcades, casinos, public places and families.
"B.B.C. is not easily amazed, you know.  Very little he hasn't seen," rattles Andrea Weisel, Caccace's second-in-command, a tall woman with a long, mournful face and thick, red-impastoed lips.  But B.B.C. waves away her comment with a gesture and a "Bah, bull and clatter," as if rejecting the compliment out of modesty.
         "Well, we'll see," says Sue, helping Caccace then Andrea Weisel with their video helmets.  "Now, a joy-stick in each hand, and down here, under your feet, the positing pad."
         "With the feet too, uh?" snorts Caccace.
         "I'll explain how to use it," says Sue.  Though well aware that ten million dollars for starters and ten percent of every sale are hanging on the success of her strategy, she speaks with supreme poise and confidence.  "The game is called `Roman Arena', and what we have here is a realistic simulation, down to the tiniest detail, of what the great Coliseum of Rome must have looked like at the time of the Caesars.  As you know, the ancient Romans were crazy for spectacles of violence and gory gladiatorial battles.  There's a good reason for this: through the ages, there has never been anything people found more fascinating than a good fight to the death.  You may lament the fact, you may find it cruel, but there's nothing we can do about it, for it's human nature.  But there are enormous profits to be made from human nature.  Fortunately, nowadays we don't need slaves or prisoners of war to perform as gladiators, and we don't have to import lions from Africa to confront them with ferocious beasts.  We are in the age of computers, and we can be as realistic as we want, without hurting anyone."
         She pauses, looks around.  "Sure beats kids killing each other with guns," says a V.E.D. official who is sitting in the second row.
         "Yeah, but the problem is, some idiots claim this kind of entertainment contributes to the violence.  They think kids play video games and then go out, pull a gun and kill real people," grumbles Weisel from under her video helmet.
         "That's precisely the point," says Sue; "that's the beauty of it.  There are no guns in this game, only swords and shields and ancient weapons.  No one can seriously claim this game encourages juvenile crime."
         "That's good," says Caccace.
         "Yeah, that's good," says Weisel.
         "So we'll select what you, B.B.C., want to be.  Here's the menu: 1. Thracian.  2. Murmillo.  3. Retiarius.  4. Chaser.  5. Christian Martyr.  Now you don't want to be a Christian martyr today, right?  May be some other time.  Let's just say 3, Retiarius.  That's a type of gladiator.  You'll be wielding a two-pronged pitch fork, which you control with this joystick, with your right hand.  And a net, like a fishing net, which you want to throw so as to immobilize your opponent, and which you control with this other joystick in your left.  Now with the footpad –"
         "Boy, this is complicated," interrupts Caccace.
         "You'll see it is not really.  You'll have time to get used to it at the beginning, before the real action starts.  Your footpad, what we call the positing pad, is for your moving around in the arena.  You can move in all directions, even up or down a flight of stairs.  Let's type in your name, B. Bennett Caccace, Jr..."
         "That necessary?" says B.B.C.
         "It's important, as you'll see," says Sue, and then, turning to Weisel, she goes on: "Now what will you want to be.  Menu: 1. Gladiator (T, M, R, or C).  2. Amazon.  3. Dwarf.  4. Lion.  Let's say 2, Amazon.  Now, Ms Weisel, you'll be wielding a powerful pair of scissors, controlled by this joystick here.  And with your other hand, you'll be holding and controlling a shield which terrifies everyone who looks at it.  Understood?  Under your feet, like B.B.C., you have your own positing pad.  Now, let's type your name... that's it.  Good!  Okay, ready to start?"  And Sue looks at Gordon, who stands ready, next to the big monitor.  "Alea jacta est!  Here we go!"
         B. Bennett Caccace, Jr. is in the dark.  When he sees light from torches hanging from the tufa stone walls, he finds himself before five steps.  "Go up those steps, B.B.C., with your foot pad," says Sue.  "Easy, good..."
         With some help from the software, Caccace finds going up those steps a surprisingly simple task, and in no time he emerges from the dark tunnel into a radiant midday sun.  Everybody, except for him and helmeted Andrea Weisel, are watching his progress on the monitor.  There he is, wearing cuirass, sandals, greaves, wrist straps and belt, all made of tough leather, his loins covered with a simple cloth.  His codpiece is made of the horn of a rhinoceros, a rare, unique piece, exquisitely carved.  The guy on the monitor, thanks to the skill of a team of programmers, looks remarkably like the real B.B.C., holding a pitchfork and an extra-fine mesh, top-rated nylon net.  Suddenly, from one side of the enormous amphitheater, a deafening roar: "Be-ne-dictus, Be-ne-dictus!"
         "What are they shouting?" asks Caccace, nervously.
         "Why, that's your name, Bennett, in Latin," says Sue.
         "You mean you gotta know Latin to play this game?" he grumbles.
         "Of course not.  Realism, B.B.C., sheer realism: you'll get used to it."
         It's Weisel's turn.  She too ascends the steps, and emerges to the sunlight at the opposite end of the oval arena.  She appears as a towering figure in glittering cuirass, her wrought bronze helmet impossible to distinguish from her elaborate hairdo, snakes entwined on wrists and ankles and around the cones of her golden boob pieces.  Her round buckler bearing the awful Gorgon head, eyes bulging, tongue sticking out, is fearful to behold, and when she lifts high her razor-whetted pruning shears and they catch the sunlight, sending reflections far into the sky, one cannot but think of the Liberty of New York harbor illuminating the world.  The crowd chants, "An-dre-a!  An-dre-a!"
         As the monitor shows the public around, it becomes clear that the people who are shouting for Andrea are all women, and they occupy half of the amphitheater, the half on Andrea's side, while the other half are all men, and they are shouting, "Vade, vade, Benedictus!"  Two hiatuses, two no-one's-lands bristling with caltrop and concertina wire separate, at the far ends of the oval, the two opposing crowds.
         Sue signals for Gordon to turn down the public roar.  "Take your time," she tells the two players; "use your positing pad to get around the arena, move your joysticks so as to get a feeling for your weapons.  You have three minutes to practice.  In the meantime, remember this is definitely not just a game of manual or physical skill: it's strategy, mostly.  You can trick your opponent, you can insult him or her, that's why you got those mikes inside your helmets for.  You can throw at your opponent anything you have.  Remember, to throw your weapon you use the button located on top of your joystick.  Any questions?"
         Caccace and Weisel are intently and warily following each other's every move.  They don't have any questions.  Rumor has it that in real, business life, their relations are not harmonious.  A female employee Weisel hated, a protégée of Caccace who quarreled with her boss and was fired by him, proceeded to sue the company for harassment and discrimination and was awarded a million dollars in damages: Weisel is convinced it was Caccace's fault.  On the other hand, Weisel has strenuously opposed a move into the adult computer entertainment field, which, Caccace maintains, has cost the company far more.  Sue's strategy is simple but risky: to exploit that seething resentment for her own purposes, and get them both hooked to the "Roman Arena" concept.  Sell them the game.  She now signals Gordon to turn the sound up.  The roar of the crowds, a loud blare of trumpets calling the fighters to battle, and a ringing voice proclaiming, "On this side, ladies and gentlemen –"
         But something seems to go wrong with the sound system.  No: the ringing voice of the announcer has been drowned by disapproving hisses and other ugly noises.  After a moment he resumes, "Sorry, sorry.  On this side, males and females, we have Bennett with his infallible net, Bennett the testosterone-charged rhinoceros!"  Loud encouragement from one half of the public, boos and curses from the opposite half.  "And here, on this side, females and males, we have the famous Andrea, the androgynous snapper with the Gorgon head!"  Thus inspired, Andrea raises her scissors and makes them click in the air, at which the crowd roars, half in approval, half in rage.  Holding his pitchfork raised and ready, Bennett sallies forth.
         He moves slowly, carefully and counterclockwise along the fence, while Andrea moves equally slowly, carefully and clockwise, both trying to guess the opponent's intention.  Then he starts moving counterclockwise, she clockwise.  The dozen or so people in the room are holding their breath, sitting at the edge of their chairs.  Then, everybody hears a strange sound.  People look at each other: is it possible?  Yes, there can be no doubt, those were smacks: Bennett is sending dirty, wet smacking kisses to Andrea!  The female half of the arena roars with indignation; Andrea sharply snaps her shears; from the galleries comes the rhythmic shout, "Cut it off, cut it off, Andrea, and toss it to us!"
         But Bennett's effrontery doesn't stop there.  Encouraged by the strong effect of his kisses, and judging that an opponent blinded by anger and contempt would be easier to conquer, he articulates, "Gor-geous!"  In doing this, he shakes his head and rolls up his eyes, which is almost his undoing, for Andrea, profiting from his moment of distraction, sees her opening, lunges forward and with a single snap cuts a piece of the net and even makes a dent on his loincloth, missing the intricately carved rhinoceros horn by just an inch.
         Bennett is quite taken aback and embarrassed by the jubilation on the female side, but the worst are the boos coming from the male half.  Unexpected, those hurt him more.  Andrea has retreated to her side, preparing for the counterattack which can't fail to follow.  But on a sudden inspiration, B. Bennett Caccace, Jr. turns toward the men's galleries and shouts with all the might of his tobacco-stained lungs, "What are you booing for, you cowards!  You're a bunch of rapists and child-molesters, that's what you are, all of you, yes, all of you, to a man!"
         Such a shameless appropriation of their own slogan succeeds in stunning the female public; their champion herself cannot believe her ears, which distracts her.  In the ensuing confusion, Bennett hurls the net at her with such true aim that, even though Andrea frenziedly wields the scissors, cutting here and there, snapping all over the place in a desperate attempt to get free from the nylon, she can't help it: the thing hangs from her head and falls down to the ground in many folds.
         "Wow!  Look at her!  Look at that bridal veil!" Bennett taunts, jubilant.  "Ah!  What a wonderful honeymoon we'll enjoy!"
         The male half screams hysterically, "To the altar, to the altar with her!"  From the female half of the galleries comes a deep, dejected groan.  Andrea the Androgynous Snapper turned into a bride, and veiled on top of it!  Now Bennett can take his time, his own sweet time to raise his weapon, plant his feet firmly on the ground, take aim, and threaten her, "I'll give you a bouquet, too, a lovely bridal bouquet of blood-red flowers."  The pitchfork perforates her womb and sinks into the pelvic bone.  Down she goes, and with a savage cry of triumph he moves in to strip her.
         She isn't even twitching.  Wishing to expose her naked body to the jeers and scorn of the male multitude, Bennett starts by removing the net.  But as soon as the Androgynous Snapper is free from the tangle, with a supreme effort and a savage scream she raises her shears and snap – there, on the ground, to the astonished horror of the male galleries, lies the richly inlaid rhinoceros horn, all gored.  Then she expires.  Incredulous, the net-man's eyes move from the bloody thing on the ground to the awful absence in his groins.
         "You should have disarmed her first, B.B.C.," laughs Sue, and signals Gordon to switch the game off.  "Like this, you see, with your joystick."
         But both B. Bennett Caccace and Andrea Weisel are too shaken to reply.  Sue hands each a glass of water.  "So, what do you think?"
         "Too much Latin," says B.B.C.
         "The trumpets, too loud," says Weisel.
         "Those are petty details, which can be programmed to suit," says Sue.  "In my opinion, it's a knockout game.  They're going to love it, out there.  No question they're going to love it."
         B.B.C. hesitates.  "It's a bit – how should I say – too – too violent..."
         Sue interrupts, "The fact is, as I'm sure you've noticed, there's a war going on.  I mean a war between the sexes.  Now, as in every war, a lot of people stand to lose, but a few stand to gain.  The question, quite frankly, is, do you want to be among those few who stand to gain?  Are you willing to cash in?  Look at it this way: neither your company nor mine is going to bring the two warring sides to the peace table; isn't it better, morally speaking, that at least some of us make a profit?"
         Caccace looks at Weisel, Weisel looks at Caccace.  Neither is willing to be responsible for missing out on the opportunity.  Caccace nods, Weisel nods after him.  "It's a deal," Caccace grumbles.


From the limo taking her and Gordon back to the hotel, Sue calls headquarters in New York City and says, "It's a sale."
         Gordon says, "You were superb, Ms Torres."
         "You too, Gordon.  You know, our whole team was superb, but you especially."
         They don't say anything further.  Sue leans back, closes her eyes, and tries to think of ten million plus royalties, but what comes to her mind is the face of the old woman, radiating happiness.

Ricardo Nirenberg is the publisher of Offcourse

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