Father Zima was early for the summit. He had always shuddered to say the word, and referred to it instead as a meeting, which was more accurate than “summit” which meant a meeting of heads of state, which he was not. He felt uncomfortable. The hotel conference room felt damp maybe, but he was a little wet from the dash over from the bus stop. Maybe, he thought, there was the vague sense that it was unusually impersonal, more than the tan walls and damp-smelling carpet provided, as though someone had died and this was the bread-and-water reception for a mediocre man. This was the third time he had been called to a summit, and the second time for him that it had been held in a hotel. This time, like the other, he would be pardoning himself before the post-summit ribaldry began while attempting as best as he could to fit in. He took off his overcoat and folded it over his arm. The windows, although foggy, almost rimy, had drawn at least four of the invited guests, who talked quietly or stood with their hands in their pockets as they looked out over the airport in the distance, the freeway interchange like a glowing concrete pretzel. Other representatives of various levels of government, education and industry milled around, stirring their coffee, browsing the typical hotel fare—cinnamon donuts cut into quarters, hoagies and pierogis, rice crispy squares. It was time to be the man of cloth, thought Father Zima, and headed to the craft table where he poured himself a cup of coffee from the large steel urn.
People smiled politely at him, almost sympathetically, were conscious of the silver band on his finger, which wasn’t a wedding band but could be construed perhaps as a sad kind of substitute. They were all married. All had wedding rings, firm, complete demeanours, many had bald heads, bulging middles, glasses, gave the sense, naturally, without anybody saying it that they had spent countless hours working—patient, principled and determined—until they could reach the place where they would be the uninstructed egos of middle-aged (suit and tie and spectacles) machines, giving their opinions for money. Zima hoped he would have something to say in the discussion period that always preceded the main affair, the vote, but knew it probably didn’t matter in the end—divergent viewpoints always sunk to the bottom. He was there to even things out on paper. He felt dejected but kept smiling, taking a seat he felt was modestly placed near the bathroom entrance, near the last and smallest window. The flag waved in the chill wind, two of them either side of the platform erected on the old theatre opposite the hotel. As the dignitaries trickled in and filled the room the music began to play, first softly, then stridently, soulfully, and the familiar sense of self-importance began to move in on Zima. Resisting, and resisting the knowing, confident looks of the others, who winked without winking, raising their cups, leaning back in their seats, he focussed on his prayers. Down below the men and children gathered, passersby gathered, people coming in from their afternoon break with umbrellas and plastic tarps, looking up to the platform, looking up to them—waving and smiling.
The summit leader arrived, attended by his aid, and the conversation stopped. All in the room assumed their seats, filled with rice treats, fruit, sausages and coffee, and now expectant, hungry for something else entirely. The summit leader spoke in his usual low, beguiling yet direct and fatherly way, passing his right thumb over his left over and over, a meditative habit political cartoonists and comedians sometimes included in their depictions of him. He welcomed them all, further gave an air of officialdom to the event and after some mutual, uncontroversial discussion, ordered the distribution of the profiles. All at the table without further ado opened the manilla envelopes, one after the other, thinking over the faces they saw inside, registering their votes. Once they had been submitted the men all gradually rose, talking and jostling amiably, and gathered in a row at the window. Zima was thankful for his bent and huddled position in his modest corner, where he had better control over the faces he could and couldn’t see down below, where he could angle here or there to occult his view, or even be completely absent behind the blinds. The speaker, also the poet laureate and a highly regarded university professor, attempted to smooth back his slick grey hair in the wind and ascended to the podium.
From where he stood Zima could see faintly the creases forming on his brow—determined to read correctly what appeared before him on the screen.
“Gus Dominick Conway,” he said, and the name, the first of over a dozen to come, rung and echoed through the streets. “Gus Dominick Conway,” he repeated, “Unit eight, twenty-three Maldova Way, Greenlake.” Already down below people were turning their cars around, jogging to catch busses heading to the enemy of decency’s lair, sharpening axes in their minds, yipping and careening headlong into the wonder and fantasy of being the frontline arbiters in the bloody, point-blank pursuit of utopia.