2020 Gets the Third Degree

A new work of fiction, written today. Happy New Year….

Cortez is the one who worries me. She sits over there in the corner, staring at her fingernails, staring at the ceiling, staring at me, smiling every now and then, saying nothing. Tall, fit, sepia toned, 30-something, well dressed. You get the feeling she knows something nobody else knows. Something I don’t know – but should.

The other detective, Burke, is straight out of central casting. He’s what you would imagine a detective looked like 40-odd years ago, when he probably graduated from the police academy. Weathered, rumpled, tired, sick of it all. In need of a shave and a comb, in need of a tailor who knows how to keep shirts tucked in and the trousers from drooping. I think I smell lunch on Burke. Coffee and some kind of cured meat, maybe salami, maybe prosciutto. He won’t shut up. He won’t stop pacing. He sweats a lot.

We’re in the interrogation room. I’m sitting on one side of a table. Burke’s on the other side, pacing back and forth. Cortez is over in the corner. The walls are bare except for a two-way mirror that shows your reflection if you ever get the urge to admire your pretty self. On the other side of the mirror is a window, for eavesdroppers.

It’s hot in here. Late December, freezing outside. But they cranked the heat up nice and high in this room.

Burke paces, stops, paces again, stops again. He looks at me.

“You sure you don’t want a coffee, something to drink?” he says.

I shake my head no.

“Hungry?” Burke says. “We got a snack room. Peanuts, crackers. Those dried fruit things I never touch.”

I shake my head no.

Burke sits down and plants his elbows on the table. He wipes his brow with his shirt sleeve. His tie is brown and yellow. I can’t stop staring at it. Even in a world lousy with ugly ties, this one stands out.

I eye Cortez in the corner. She’s staring at me, twinkle eyed, like I’m a fascinating lab rat. I think I might have a crush on her.

“See, here’s what I don’t understand,” Burke says. “We got the evidence. Tons of evidence. It’s bulletproof, as clear as day. Enough to convict you in about five minutes. Yet you still claim you didn’t do nothing wrong. I gotta say, that’s a real brain tickler.”

I keep quiet.

“So why not confess?” Burke says. “Pour it all out; get it off your chest. We’ll cut a deal. Save the taxpayers some money, save you some jail time. Nobody wants to see you suffer more than you should.”

I laugh. I can’t help it. It’s funny: Nobody wants to see you suffer more than you should.

“Something funny?” Burke says.

I glance at Cortez. Did she just smile when I laughed?

I look back at Burke and open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.

Maybe Burke is right. Maybe I should confess. Maybe the sky is green and the grass is blue. Maybe my name is not Two Thousand and Twenty – even though it is.

Most people know me as Twenty Twenty, or plain old 2020. I was born at midnight on January 1. I’m only 361 days old, but I’ve lived about 17,000 years in that time. Hard years, rough years. Nobody likes me. I understand. Really, I do. There’s been a lot of mayhem on my watch, lots of hurt, lots of agony and anger, death and destruction, pain and misery.

And you know what’s sad? Everybody had such high hopes for me. I mean, I’m the Year 2020, right? Do you know how often that combination comes along – two of the same numbers, back to back, representing a full year? Once a century, that’s how often. The last time it happened was 1919. The next time will be 2121. Most of you will be dead and gone by then. Nothing personal. Just fact.

And this: 20-20. As in 20-20 vision. Perfect vision. Able to see everything clearly.

Well, it didn’t work out so good, did it?

“No,” I finally tell Burke. “Nothing’s funny.”

“So why did you just laugh?” he says.

I had to think about it. There were a thousand answers to that question. You could look at it from a bunch of different angles.

First off, calendars come and go. The way we measure time comes and goes. It’s a fluke that I even exist in the first place. The modern system of counting days and years is a Christian creation. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t even introduced until 1582, by Pope Gregory XIII. Before that, Europe followed the Julian calendar. Julius Caesar adopted it in 46 B.C., but it didn’t get the solar year right. Julius Caesar didn’t get  a lot of things right.

The Chinese have a different way of counting time. So do the Hebrews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. So do indigenous peoples the world over. The Gregorian calendar only got adopted because Europe was kicking the world’s ass at the right time. You call me 2020, but that’s not my fault. I could be any year.

Then there’s this:

Yes, there’s been a lot of suffering this year. But did I cause it? Am I to blame? Did I create the conditions that led to a global pandemic, and then allowed it to spread like wildfire? Did I create the divisions of race, politics, class, economy, climate, science, culture? Did I manufacture the lying, cheating politicians who accuse everyone else of lying and cheating so nobody will notice their own lies and cheating?

Did these things suddenly appear on my watch? Were they not here last year, and the year before that, and the 5,000 years before that?

“Actually, I could use a cup of coffee,” I tell Burke. “Just a little cream, no sugar.”

He shrugs and leaves the room. Now It’s just me and Cortez. I look at her. She looks at me. I look at the mirror. I’m sweating. She’s still looking at me.

“You don’t say much,” I finally tell her.

“Guess not,” she says.

“So, what’s the story with you?” I say. “Are you the good cop or the bad cop?”

She shrugs.

“You think I’m the villain everyone thinks I am?” I say.

She doesn’t answer. She takes off her jacket and walks to another corner of the room. She hangs her jacket on a gadget bolted to the ceiling. I hadn’t even noticed it. It must be a camera. She walks back to the table and reaches under it. She seems to press something. I look at her.

“The microphone,” she says. “Now nobody can hear us.”

She steps to the door and opens it. She says a few words to whoever is positioned outside, then closes the door behind her. I hear footsteps fading into the distance. Cortez walks to a chair on the other side of the table and sits down.

“Now we’re all alone,” she says. “Just us wee tykes.”

“Okay,” I say.

She looks at me for a moment, two moments, five, twelve. Time ticks. 2020 ticks on.

“So, are you a fan of rock music?” she asks.

“Me? Not hardly,” I say. “Who listens to rock music in 2020? Anyway, why is that important?”

“But you’re heard of the Beatles?”

“Them, yes.”

“You heard of Yoko Ono?”

“No.”

Cortez pauses for a second. “She was a girlfriend of one of the Beatles. John Lennon. Later, his wife. She was blamed for breaking up the Beatles. I only know this because my Mom was a hippie. At least until she married my Dad, who was Dominican and only listened to Spanish music.”

Now I pause. “Why are we talking about this?”

“Because Yoko Ono was portrayed as a pariah who broke up the most successful rock group of all time.”

“So?”

“So the thing is, she wasn’t any of that. The Beatles were going to break up anyway. They were all headed in different directions, except for Ringo. All he wanted to do was play drums and have a blast. Yoko was just a handy excuse for the others who didn’t get along.”

“Again,” I say. “Why are we talking about this?”

“Because everyone needs a villain, a scapegoat,” Cortez says. “They need someone or something to blame. Someone they can pin their own failings on. Someone like Yoko Ono. Fifty years later, she’s still a scapegoat. Poor thing. But people need that, right? A convenient scapegoat.”

She leans back in her chair.

“Someone like you,” she says.

“Like me?”

“Yes, like you. People are going to blame you for everything that went wrong this year. They’re going to say, Hey it’s just a blip, a temporary moment of insanity. It’s all 2020’s fault, a weird aligning of the stars. We’re not to blame. We’re good people, caught up in a terrible time. Next year the stars will align again. But they’re wrong. They’re to blame. They brought it all on themselves. But never mind that. The point is, they need to feel like it’s someone else’s fault. That’s where you come in. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re never going to get exonerated. Like Burke said, you’ll be convicted inside of five minutes. Any other verdict would require people to look in the mirror, like that mirror on the wall there. But they’re not going to do that. So you’re guilty, my friend. Maybe not from a strict technical standpoint. But in the eyes of the masses, you are guilty as sin. And those are the only eyes that matter.”

I look at her and breathe deep, very deep.

“This some kind of mind trick?” I say. “Trying to get me to confess?”

Cortez smiles, again. “It doesn’t matter whether you confess or not. The evidence is there. You’ll be found guilty anyway. That’s just fact. Confessing will only lighten your sentence. But believe me when I tell you this: You are going down. So why not do yourself a favor and reduce the sentence? And at the same time, give the people their moment in the sun? Let them believe it’s not their fault. Forgive them of their many and mighty sins. Let them make a fresh start in 2021, free of the shackles.”

I’m getting ready to answer when Burke walks back inside the interrogation room. He has a cup of coffee in his hand.

“A little cream, no sugar,” he says. “Just like you said.”

He puts it in front of me. I blow on it, take a sip. Police station coffee. The worst of the worst. But at least they got the recipe right.

“You two have a nice chat?” Burke says.

I look at him. I look at Cortez. I look at my reflection in the mirror. I’ve aged. Man, how I have aged. Seventeen thousand years in 361 days.

“Hand me the confession,” I say. “Let’s sign it and get this bullshit over with.”

“Oh,” I add. “And Happy New Year.”

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