The Pentagon press guy emails us to show up at the Army base between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. His name is Greg. Greg’s email is confusing. Were we meant to show up no earlier than 4 a.m. and no later than 8 a.m.? Or were we meant to be present for the entire 4-8 a.m. window? I choose the latter. I choose wrong.
At 8 a.m. on the dot Greg pulls up in a white Ford F-150. “I don’t usually do the A-SIG route,” he says, by way, I suppose, of mildly apologizing for the fact I’ve been there for hours, in a pre-dawn mid-Atlantic semi-frost, for no particular reason. “I’m with SecDef.” I nod. “We’re currently game-planning a big trip through the North Eurasia Corridor.” I nod again.
I get in the truck and Greg drives us to a teeny airport terminal. Some people are in military dress, like Greg. But some look like they’re gangs of old pals hitting Barbados together. Greg is in the casual-khakis version of the Army uniform, with a little peaked sidecap folded in one hand. The Barbados set are wearing thick, decadent flip-flops. One woman has a large white cardboard box of Krispy Kreme. One man has a large white plastic bag of Barney Greengrass.
On the plane I meet Kurt, a reporter whom I’ve read a bunch of times. Kurt Oolhaus. He’s forty-something and writes for a specialty legal news site. We make small talk, and he rattles off all kinds of inanities that, although I try my best to not show it, are blowing my mind. I have consumed massive amounts of A-SIG content. And I’ve never heard this stuff.
Kurt tells me, with a well-worn yet still muted whimsy, that everything the A-SIG Four communicate is considered classified. But the A-SIG Four are also not allowed to know classified information. “So,” he says, “if John tells his lawyer that once, at some black site, he was hung from the rig, and then the lawyer wants to ask a follow-up question like, ‘Was it cold outside while they hung you for hours in the rig?’ then that lawyer would technically be sharing classified information.”
He pops a piece of Nicorette gum and chews heavily. “I’ve been going to A-SIG for a long time,” he says. “For a looooong time. But, you know. Not since the beginning.” In the beginning A-SIG was a constant national concern. Back then, with a few exceptions, it was only the major outlets that could get there. Kurt hadn’t been fancy enough to get on then. He had started going a few years back, which is to say a few years after the mania had died down.
Reporting on the place has never actually stopped. At the very least, those same major outlets are still doing their anniversary specials. “Eleven Years Since Contact,” “Twelve Years Since Contact.” Every year, as reliable as you like. But they’ve pulled back their full-time A-SIG correspondents. And to me, at least, the coverage that they do still do doesn’t feel the same. It’s not that it’s perfunctory—it’s more that it has an edge to it. It’s subdued, maybe, but I’m telling you, it’s there: a resentment. I think the media tasted blood all those years back, and I think they never truly got their fill.
So, anyway: Kurt knows more. More than me, of course, but more than Greg, too. He doesn’t make us feel bad about it, though, which I appreciate.
Greg sees us onto the plane and waves goodbye. I had imagined it as a proper military cargo plane. It turns out to be a chartered commercial flight. Before we take off, Kurt asks, “Do you have your BN-9?” This is official paperwork. I was meant to have filled it out. I feel a surge of panic and I start to explain that I certainly do not have my BN-9, but that it is not my fault, that fucking Greg never said anything about any BN-9, but the plane is taking off so it seems pointless to evade responsibility now. Kurt makes a grunt-noise that lands somewhere between curious and concerned. Then he locks eye contact and placates me: “Everything will probably be fine.”
I’m worried this is just his innate relaxed demeanor and that, in fact, once I get there they’ll put me up somewhere in some semi-official Army limbo, waiting for the return flight, which isn’t for two weeks. I think about my younger brother, with whom I’ve spent oodles of hours co-obsessing over A-SIG. He would surely suggest that would be a very “me” thing to do, getting as far as A-SIG but not actually getting into A-SIG.
I take turns sleeping and panicking, sleeping and panicking. We get some warmish soda (they’ve run out of ice, they tell us) and a baguette with ham (no cheese, but no indication whether they’ve run out of it or never intended to place it there in the first place). Twelve hours in, we’re over Turkmenistan. Sixteen hours in, we can see the desert. The Badain Jaran. Thirty minutes later we land directly onto the A-SIG airstrip. The pilot says, “Welcome to sunny Alpha Signatooooory!"
In the ’50s and ’60s, Mao’s China ran a brutal labor prison here named Jiabiangou. By the time the A-SIG Four showed up, Jiabiangou hadn’t been used in years. Families of Jiabiangou victims would file official applications to visit, to see the last known location of their lost family members, and they would be summarily rejected. The Chinese government had kept it off limits and, therefore, strangely, relatively pristine. They didn’t want it to become a shrine to its victims. Which is why Jiabiangou was just there, ready for renting, and for re-branding.
I go through a small check-in area melodramatically labeled Checkpoint Columbus. It’s a security hut, really. The soldiers are young and polite and wildly disinterested; they scan my ID without a word about a BN-9. Everything, it appears, is in order without the BN-9. I wonder how much standards have slipped, at least as far as the BN-9 is concerned, in the years since contact.
The soldiers that pick us up are even younger than the ones at Checkpoint Columbus. I can’t tell exactly how young because fatigues kind of blur things like age. There is a young man named Lee and a young woman named Jamie. They’re polite, smiley, and professional; they have good posture and very-recent and nearly-matching haircuts. Lee offers us club soda. I momentarily entertain a heavy thought: Is accepting goodwill from the US government presence on A-SIG akin to complicity with the jailors? Then I let the thought crumble and accept the club soda. It is very hot and the club soda is very refreshing. It’s also cold. Apparently, at A-SIG, they do have ice.
We all pile onto a transport bus. A faded-yellow open-top double-decker. I go up top and take in the sun as the bus pushes lazily through an abandoned two-lane road. Kurt’s up here, too. He tells me more: about the military commission, about the defense lawyers, about some of the bonkers off-the-record stuff they’ve told him about over the years from working with the Four.
The A-SIG Four don’t actually speak, of course—not in the conventional sense of the word. They’d been taught American Sign Language early in their detention. Part of the comically thin trickle of information in the early days after contact had included that factoid. According to then-contemporaneous accounts, they had picked it up fairly easily. Looking at it rationally, teaching them sign language was a plainly necessary thing to do. Some sort of communication method needed to be established.
But even that bit of purely practical education was met with howls of opprobrium. A sizeable sector of the population believed the A-SIG Four should have been locked in a lightless hole forever. Naturally, while there had been chatter over the years about bringing in linguists and specialists to enhance the communication possibilities—to introduce some nuance, or perhaps even feeling, into these radical conversations—the political climate meant it had never happened. So ASL, selected arbitrarily in the fury of the early days, was it.
In some strange bit of irony, despite all that rage—then very much active, now dormant but still potent—their nicknames stuck, too. Outside of the heavy-duty newspapers, the A-SIG Four were never referred to by their proper Department of Homeland Security identity numbers. And it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that they were not actually male. (Again, in the conventional sense of the word.) (Not that much information was ever released as far as that went, either.) (And not that photos ever were, either: the only thing the world had ever seen after the initial capture shots were courtroom sketches.)
But the reality of the situation didn’t matter much, anyway. All it took was the one early press conference, when a DHS spokesperson referred to them, vaguely and ominously, as “the Four.” The tabloids, happily and cynically ginning up the mania, started calling them the Fab Four. And from there it was a quick and easy leap to John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
After twenty minutes, the yellow bus pulls onto a drop-off point. It’s a sprawling stretch of concrete. On one side is a decrepit airplane hangar. On the other are rows and rows of Army tents. And in the middle is the Potentiary Court, known to all as the Cathedral. This is the makeshift space where the A-SIG trial is happening. Well, allegedly happening. Where it has been allegedly happening for years. To accommodate the Four’s size, it was erected as a massive structure the height of, yes, an old European house of worship. But seeing it in person, I realize, that’s where the grandness ends. The Cathedral is truly an overly fanciful name for what’s little more than an unsettlingly large trailer.
The actual prisons are on the opposite, western, side of A-SIG. That’s where the Four are held. Every day of court they’re transported by hollowed-out buses to the Cathedral, and then back into their living tombs. That had been the setup when they first arrived and nothing much has changed. The US Army hadn’t actually built onto Jiabiangou, because they hadn’t actually expected to be here this long. This was always supposed to be temporary. So everything, aside from the weathered original Jiabiangou infrastructure, looks like it was pulled in on flatbeds and left here weeks ago, ready to be picked up.
Around the Cathedral are layers of fencing topped with barbed wire and covered with tattered black netting. Every few feet signs read “No Photography.” In orientation, Lee tells us, “You can’t photograph anything covered by the ‘No Photography’ sign.” Very reasonable, I think. Then he provides an unexpected twist: “The actual sign, though, you can photograph.”
I put my bags in our tent. They’re neatly spaced and spread out for hundreds of yards. This had all been arranged to meet the initial demand. But in our time here, only four or five will be occupied. Along with press, there are two other entities sparsely represented: the IHROs, the International Human Rights Observers, and the CCs, the Concerned Citizens.
The IHROs are still here as a nod to some understanding of the importance of due process; they’re a loose collection of folks from NGOs throughout the world that shuffle in and out to—ostensibly, at least—keep an eye on the legal proceedings. The CCs are international, too, but they have their roots in Altoona, Iowa. They sprung up soon after contact. Their role is to full-throatedly voice their displeasure that the A-SIG Four are being treated—again, ostensibly, at least—to a military tribunal at all. Over the years, representatives from the CCs and the IHROs have found themselves in tiffs waged in dueling op-eds and on talking-head TV panels. The IHROs fulfill clichés of those that at least aspire to unconditional love. The CCs love to point out the irrelevance of the “H” in IHRO.
The tent Kurt and I are assigned is at the corner of the lot, the last one before a loose scattering of plastic barriers laid over patchy concrete. It’s marked “Press (Male).” In it are four separate compartment-type rooms. They’re makeshift pods, each half-heartedly blocked off with raw wood barriers. Each pod has a bed and a dresser and potted plastic plant. The air conditioning is on full-tilt blast. It is preposterously, aggressively frigid. Another tent is labeled “Liaisons.” Another is labeled “Latrine.”
The only other reporter there other than me and Kurt is Ingrid, a fiftysomething newspaper veteran from the Des Moines Register. Ingrid Waller. Unlike Kurt, she actually has been coming to A-SIG since the beginning.
In the early days, when the competition for access was still fierce, the newspaper correspondents from the world’s major cities dominated. And yet Ingrid managed to become a regular, too. It wasn’t a simple thing, to lecture the Pentagon on the paramount importance of local reporting. But somehow, she managed it. She became an obsessive and the Des Moines Register, unlikely as it was, became the finest resource on the story in the world. And even as those big-name correspondents started fading away, even as A-SIG cooled into its current state—a story, impossible as it may have felt at first, circling insignificance—Ingrid never stopped coming. The masses had their own sources; the conspiracy theorists, of course, had theirs. But ask a hardcore, clear-minded A-SIG obsessive, and they’ve probably been reading Ingrid for years. I’ve been reading Ingrid for years. I in no way want to communicate this to her. But I am, like, a pretty big fan.
So I can’t help but feel intimidated by Ingrid. And Ingrid, to her credit, does nothing to make me feel otherwise.
Over the next few days, she and Kurt regularly fall into the patter of old buddies. Ingrid often talks as if I’m not present, as if it’s just her and Kurt making decisions about where to eat. I guess it pretty much is their decision. And it is nice enough they let me tag along. But I also think it wouldn’t be that hard to nominally include me in the decision-making process.
It’s a bummer that Ingrid seems to have a vague distaste for me, but I’m not confused as to why. I admitted to her early that, yes, I was here as press, but that my credentials were acquired through a website where I was a regular contributor but not quite a staff writer, and that in my opinion it was a pretty good website, scrappy and new, but yes most people had never heard of it, and that I had submitted my paperwork for the A-SIG press visit almost as a lark, and that I was honestly actually shocked that they accepted it, and yes, I’m here to write something but that I don’t actually know what that something is.
Basically, I was youngish, and I had vague ambitions. I thought A-SIG could be a route. I’d write something big, something heartfelt, something true. I wasn’t exactly cocky about it. I had just enough confidence to take a swing. In the real world, informally speaking, A-SIG was my thing. In bars, at dinners, in taxis — no one could touch me on A-SIG. As a dilettante, I was top notch. But at A-SIG, it is, understandably, different. And Ingrid knows I’m not a journalist. Not like her. And she knows I’m going to come just this once and leave and never come back.
During orientation, Ingrid leans back in her chair in the last row like the coolest kid in class. At one point she loudly interrupts the session with an anecdote about being stuck at A-SIG during the last Yom Kippur. She’d checked out some services, she shout-talks—ostensibly to Kurt, but we’re all listening—and they were, in her opinion, subpar. “The guy leading it was wearing a skullcap made of battle dress! They didn't have enough for a minyan!” I don’t know how many times she’s sat through this same stultifying orientation; it’s mandatory, she explains to us later, every time she comes.
On the first day of court I pop up at the sound of my first cell phone alarm, and, in the frigid air of my tent-pod, scramble out of my blanket and into slacks and a tucked-in dress shirt. Then I stumble outside and realize it’s really way too hot out for those kinds of clothes. Kurt wants to make sure we see the A-SIG Four. “Once they’re in the Cathedral they face the front of the courtroom,” Kurt says. “So your best chance of actually seeing seeing, like fully seeing them, is just as they come in.” He doesn’t need to work to convince me. Ingrid stays behind in the hangar, where our press room is, to watch the livestream. She’s done it all enough times before. And they don’t let you bring your phone into the Cathedral.
Lee walks us to court. This is the first time I realize he has a drawl. Turns out he’s from Alabama. Turns out everyone in Lee and Jamie’s unit is from Alabama; they all came from Fort Rucker Army Base in Dale County, Alabama. I hadn’t picked up on that before. Lee is tall and broad and blond and he’s incredibly unabashed about finding practical lanes into small talk. The first thing he says to us this morning is, “Are y’all into sports at all?” Kurt and I both acknowledge that yeah, we are, more or less. The second thing he asks us is, “Which teams you like?” As we walk to court and single-file through security we start talking earnestly and eventually end up having a wholesome conversation about Al Horford.
In the back of the Cathedral, there is the viewing gallery. This is where the press and the IHROs and the CCs all sit. Then comes three feet of glass. Then comes the court itself.
It’s a long, wide, and high room. All-white. No wood or pews or any other decorous touches you might expect in a sui generis high court of justice. It’s bare-bones and functional and garishly fluorescently lit. There are long tables with binders stuffed with papers and chattering lawyers and ASL translators in dresses and suits and pantsuits and rows of stern mute soldiers, lining each wall, in fatigues.
They bring the detainees in one at a time. The first detainee in that morning is John. A back wall is yanked up by a pulley. The sunlight pours in, and, within it, he moves forward carefully. I’d prepped myself, but I still involuntarily gasp. Kurt, chewing a heavy wad of Nicorette, looks at me, and smiles with his mouth open.
The particulars of the A-SIG Four’s physiognomy have been picked apart to death and at this point, even without live and recent photos, their appearance is not a mystery to me. But two things still give me a heart attack.
First, it’s the size of him, of John, that astounds. In any context, seeing a figure this big and this dexterous would be remarkable. In this context—in this military courtroom, in a murder trial—it’s impossible. I have daydreamed about this moment. I have daydreamed about what it would be like to sit in the Cathedral and see John. But I had no context for it. I couldn’t guess what would get me. Now I know—it’s the size. It is a size that is not supposed to be here. It’s the size that sends ripples down my spine. Intensely pleasurable ASMR ripples. Ripples of which I do not want to let go.
Second, it’s this: it’s clear that he’s aging. I hadn’t expected that. Hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. It’s not gray hairs. Not exactly wrinkles. But I can see, now, that he has, slowly, slowly, been getting older.
Then come Paul, George, and Ringo. There they are: the historically portentous A-SIG Four. In the courtroom sketches they’ve always been, incongruously enough, in orange jumpsuits. Nothing has changed; their sail-like jumpsuits cover them fully. They seem, perhaps unsurprisingly after all these years, comfortable enough in them.
I am now one of a small number of people to have actually seen them in the flesh. And it’s because I filed an application in the proper manner.
Well, not quite the flesh. The thick glass is still here to provide the appropriate separation.
John has long been understood as the leader and so, naturally, as the most culpable for the murders. IHRO-types point out that understanding was almost entirely based on the fact that he was physically closest to the bodies when they were discovered.
Ringo is the most animated. He swivels to look at Paul and George and gestures constantly. His head juts as he makes his points. I can’t begin to guess what it is they’re talking about. They seem completely divorced from the case. Paul seems to answer, at least here and there; George seems sullen and lost in thought. John is seated farthest up in the room, with his back to the other three. There is the air of the taciturn boss to him. I know that I’m projecting my own understanding of interpersonal relationships onto these four. But I know that I can’t help it.
In court they don’t actually use their nicknames, of course, but their Homeland Security numbers. The numbers are said again and again. As are their crimes, as are the blunt facts of their torture.
A lawyer for Ringo asks for information about his detention. About his treatment in the black site in Stare Kiejkuty, in north Poland, before they were brought to A-SIG. She talks about the walls he was allegedly smashed into. She doesn’t go into detail here, but I know from reading the MondoLeaks A-SIG cables that at some of the black sites they were all snapped into harnesses in improvised, automated “security protocol rigs” and that at least a few of the more motivated interrogators took the opportunity to swing them into walls using those exact “security protocol rigs.”
She wants to know, “did these walls have any give?” She slaps her hands together on “give.” “The torture has damaged him in ways we cannot understand,” she says of Ringo, “and continues to damage him to this day.” He doesn’t react.
And then something is deemed potentially classified. The court gallery is cleared. Outside, we stand around as a junior lawyer for George’s defense punches numbers into the vending machine and cracks, to no one in particular, “These are classified Cheetos.” We watch a beefy desert lizard scurrying about. Out of nowhere, a soldier pipes up: “Here, it’s a ten thousand renminbi fine for killing one. In some places they’d pay you for it. Horned lizards get shish kebab’d in Puerto Rico.” He pauses, then answers the question everyone was thinking but no one had actually asked. “It’s chewier than you’d like, but it’s a very clean meat.”
That night, Kurt and Ingrid decide we should go to The Windjammer for cheeseburgers. The staff of The Windjammer is entirely Han Chinese, from Gansu Province, the province within which Jiabiangou resides. They come in to work the facilities for A-SIG. The Army flies in enough Americans to run the place that you’d think a few more support staff wouldn’t be all that hard to manage, but I can also guess why the Army might want as few Americans here as possible. Ingrid tells us that near our tents there’s also a kind of secret all-night locals hangout club. “Foreigners almost never get in,” Ingrid says. She pauses, with calculated oomph. “Although I’ve been.” Another pause, quicker this time. “Wild times.”
I look at Kurt to see if Ingrid is bullshitting. If he knows the truth, he’s not giving it away. He stares straight ahead, with maybe a wisp of a raised eyebrow.
We get in the van and Lee and Jamie drive us to The Windjammer. On the way I ask Jamie what she was gonna get up to the rest of the week, just in the way of making pragmatic small talk, like Lee had shown us.
Jamie says, with a warm smile, “Well, uh, basically, anything you guys do, we do.”
For some reason I hadn’t actually thought that through—that Lee and Jamie’s jobs, like their full jobs, are to watch us and drive us around.
“So everything we do, you have to do?” I ask.
“Pretty much,” Jamie says.
“What if we get really drunk right now at The Windjammer? Would you have to do that too?”
“That’s like… we’re not really supposed to drink with you,” Jamie says.
I think about it for a second. That makes sense. And yet—
“But you’re not supposed to stop us from getting really drunk, either?”
“Um, no. We’re not, like, babysitters.”
I think about it some more.
“Okay. So if I get drunk and I start a bar fight—would you have to fight with me?”
Lee squints his eyes, doing me the privilege of letting me know he’s thinking about it.
“Well. Okay. We wouldn’t stop you from drinking, necessarily. But really the goal would be to prevent you from getting in a bar fight in the first place.”
“Okay, but, well, you’ve already acknowledged that you couldn’t or wouldn’t stop me from drinking...”
“Correct,” Lee acknowledges. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“And let’s be honest—someone gets drunk, they’re far from home, they don’t know anyone, they’re in a strange place. They’re liable to end up in a bar fight...”
“Um. I guess so?”
“So would you or would you not get in a bar fight with me?”
Lee thinks about it some more.
“I wouldn’t let you lose a bar fight.”
“That’s my guy right there!” I yell while slapping the back of his head rest. I look around the van at Ingrid, who is not amused, and Kurt, who is maybe a tiny bit amused. “For the record,” I tell them, “I’ve never actually been in a bar fight.” No one responds.
At The Windjammer a sign is posted on a bulletin board. It says Monday is no longer karaoke night. It says Wednesday is now karaoke night. One of the burgers is called the “A-SIG Burger.” Another is called “Our Famous A-SIG Smokehouse Burger.’” Another is just “Double Burger.” I get the “Our Famous A-SIG Smokehouse Burger.” It’s pretty good.
Once inside, Ingrid buys Kurt and me a round of Buds and shots of Jameson and proposes a toast: “To transparency at A-SIG!” This is the nicest she’s been to me all week. I can’t tell if it’s because she’s warming up to me or because she just wants to do shots.
By the time we got back to the tents I’m pretty drunk. I get a cigarette off Kurt—he’d chewed through his Nicorettes within days of us landing—and I wave him goodnight and I go around back of our tent and I smoke it while staring out towards nothing. Then I stamp it out and walk back in the tent. And I realize, with escalating horror, that nothing is in the right place. It’s pitch black in here, and someone has very slightly, very pointlessly scrambled the basic tenets of my reality. I can’t find my bed. I can’t find Kurt. I can’t find anything. I am in a hole? Of some kind? Suddenly, outside, shrieking, freakish sounds begin to whistle.
My heart pumps. My mind flashes to an image: a wounded desert beast, still-mobile, crooning in pain, coming for me. I am ready for instant death.
Then I remember: the dunes. The fucking dunes. They’ve started to sing.
Lee and Jamie had told us about it at orientation: “A natural phenomenon, known only to the Badain Jaran.” Jamie had rattled it off with a PowerPoint slide. I’d forgotten the specifics of the physics of the thing. It was the wind and the layering of the sand and the electrostatic charges emitted. All I really know is that this particular desert is the only desert in the world that has dunes that make noises. And here they are, right as I’ve entered this scrambled universe.
I do the only thing I can think of: I move forward into the blackness. I screw my eyes shut, since I can’t see anything anyway, and I push two palms flat in front of me, and I shriek along with the desert. All there is is my heavy breathing, and my shrieks. I pray that when I open my eyes next, there will be light. I bang into a dresser and knock something over. It sounds like the soft thud of a small plastic potted plant hitting dry wood planks.
So then I get it. I’d walked into the wrong tent. After Kurt left, I had lost my bearings. This is the tent just one over from ours. I open my eyes, still in darkness. I reach out and grasp and miss a few times but then I finally connect with the tent flap. I pull it to the side, and a sliver of the moonlight comes in.
By the start of our second week I am in an A-SIG groove. Or a rut? It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re in a groove or a rut.
We go to court and watch the process grind forward. Some days all four of the Four are there; some days just one or two. The defense lawyers do their job by relitigating anything they can: for one, they want all pre-tribunal testimony invalidated. They try, constantly, to emphasize that nothing about this is normal. As such, they try to provide some semblance of normal jurisprudence. The government lawyers, for their part, press on for the “speedy” part of a “speedy and fair trial.” Everyone seems to have wordlessly agreed that the A-SIG Four are bound to die in US captivity. But the prevailing feeling day in, day out in court isn’t despair, or horror. It’s tedium.
Most nights we sit outside on metal picnic benches drinking Buds and Jameson and smoking cigarettes and swatting away flies and listening to the dunes. The A-SIG supermarket has all kinds of booze and beers but for some reason, Ingrid and Kurt gravitate to Buds, and so when it’s my turn to buy, I do the same. Ingrid shares stories about past times smoking and drinking—about other reporters, famous reporters, that had been here before and how wasted everyone got when they came. I laugh along and can’t help but feel like I’m letting her and Kurt down a little bit by not being a better drinker and not being more famous.
On an off day from court we go to the souvenir shop. It’s just a wide room tucked into a strip mall, but I could stay here for hours. The merch is bountiful and it is strange; there’s lots of stuff about “Desert Life” and “Desert Grit” and various other mottos suggesting that living in the desert makes you tougher and therefore better than other people. And whatever its symbolic significance, or lack thereof, seeing the words Alpha Signatory slapped on 100% cotton sweatpants is disconcerting. One mug is bright orange and has a desert oasis image and reads, “Relax! You’re on A-SIG time!” Ingrid takes photos of us shopping for her column for the Register. “I have to file something,” she huffs.
A few days later, maybe sensing a restlessness, Lee and Jamie suggest we do the border visit. I’m all for it. It turns out to be this whole properly organized thing: we meet early in the morning and get on another double-decker school bus. There’s a bunch of people there and I’m reminded of the folks in the flip-flops with the Krispy Kreme and of the fact that there are all kinds of jobs that get people to come to A-SIG.
We reach the border and see the fencing and guideposts and the various other accoutrements keeping this weird little slice of official America away from the Badain Jaran desert.
There’s a flagpole on the American side and a flagpole on the Chinese side. The guide says that local government officials—who’d had no say in the decision, made by Beijing, to rent Jiabiangou to the Americans—had carried out a small act of dissension by hoisting a massive Chinese flag. “Originally, we had the bigger flagpole,” the tour guide says, “and then the desert Chinese built the bigger one, and then it went like that for a while until it reached the current situation, which is a kind of tacit status quo where neither side exactly knows whose flagpole really is bigger.” Pause. “But we still say ours is bigger because that’s the way we are and we love America.”
The guy doing the tour is in uniform and has this extreme deadpan. I can’t tell if he’s doing it on purpose or not but I don’t care because it is immaculate.
Through the fence you can see a sign with, the tour guide says, Mandarin characters. He tells us it reads, “The free and eternal People’s Republic of China.”
The next day is our last court day before we fly back. I am here early again, to see the A-SIG Four brought in. This time I’m alone. I watch them come in again, the Four. Over the last two weeks, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen them. But I have that same ASMR feeling. I let it take over me.
And I let my mind wander. Since I’ve been here, I’ve emailed my brother a few times. He keeps asking long questions but I haven’t felt in a mood to answer. I’ve sent back filler about the weather and deflected by asking him a lot of questions back. I haven’t sent any photos. I haven’t said much of anything specifically. I wonder what our conversations will be like when I get back. I start piecing together anecdotes. I think of how they might all fit together. Then I think about how I have to file something to my editor, and I feel a panic surge. I let the panic rise. I try not to fight it. I try to let it come, and fall away again.
I come back to the room when I hear a government lawyer detailing the crime scene. Recalling the murders one more time.
“It was a regular fall evening in Altoona,” he says in a gravely, whispered, forced-gravitas monotone. “The weather had started to turn. The children on Mornington Terrace had ridden their bikes and scooters home. Most Altoonians were settling in for dinner, some conversation, some catch-up on the day. The first person to hear the noise was Julie Cavanaugh, the Randolphs’ 11-year-old next door neighbor. She heard what she’d later describe as a sawing—a low, incessant sawing. She went downstairs, where her mother, Joan Cavanaugh, was preparing roast chicken and potatoes, and told her about the noise. Joan could hear it too. Then, sharply, the sound blasted louder. Running next door, little Julie and her mother Joan were the first people on earth to see those killers.”
At this, the lawyer points at the Four: John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Four don’t acknowledge the gesture in any way. The lawyer keeps talking. I know the rest well enough by heart. Julie and Joan Cavanaugh came across the A-SIG Four standing stock still in front of the Randolphs’ home. The house itself showed no signs of commotion. There was no indication that the Four had entered, or that they could even physically enter a house that size. And yet laid neatly in front of the Four were the bodies of Lori Randolph, 37 years old; her husband Tim Randolph, 39 years old; Peter, their 13-year-old son, known as “Pete”; Alicia, their 9-year-old daughter, known as “Buzz”; and Charles, their 7-year-old son, known as “Charlie.”
After court, we go to the official press conference. It’s a regular occurrence after two weeks of hearings: the CCs speak to the press. I’d read quotes from this same press conference in past years, and had pictured rowdy rooms, hands outstretched, shouts. But today Ingrid, Kurt, and I are all the press there is.
A woman in a black pantsuit is first. She says, “I’m a proud fourth-generation Altoonian and my message is to the defense lawyers. I know you are doing your job but I need you to know that your job is betrayal.”
A twenty-something man, in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, tells us he grew up across the street from the Randolphs. He says he was best friends with Pete. He would have been 13 or 14 himself when it happened. He says, “Every day I think about what Pete would be like now. Every day I want to call him.”
On our last night in A-SIG, Ingrid, Kurt, and I end up going to the IHROs’ tent, something a little different than drinking on the benches and swatting away flies. No one actually says it out loud, but I guess maybe we’d actually grown to like each other enough to want a proper send-off. And no one had actually said this part out loud either, as far as I recall, but it seemed to be an established fact: the IHROs like to party.
They’ve been around all week, with us in the back of the courtrooms and at The Windjammer and stuff, but we hadn’t really talked to them much. Now a hardcore contingent is left and they are completely, admirably wasted. Their tent is bigger than ours, and much better lit, and has proper benches for an indoor camp-site feel. They’re drinking whiskey in plastic cups. There’s no ice left, but there is still a lot of whiskey, which they happily share, which is nice. Five girls, one dude, and one minder: Boon, a Navy Airman, a tall broad man who is joyously deleterious in his duties.
The dynamics make themselves clear pretty quickly. Nobody likes the one IHRO dude: he is priggish and self-serious, if harmless enough. The IHRO dude doesn’t like anyone else, either: he considers them non-serious. Also, Boon and one of the girls are maintaining a flirtation. It is mostly unspoken although they do pubescently smack each other’s butts a few times. The non-dude IHROs all act like best friends, but it turns out they’d all only met at the same time I’d met Kurt and Ingrid, when we all got to A-SIG.
Ingrid manages to hold court, but for a while Kurt and I can’t really get into the flow of conversation. When it’s not Ingrid talking it’s the IHROs, and they’re all either doing bits we aren’t familiar with or bickering with the priggish dude. When I can get in, it’s just to talk to the dude and while I don’t think he’s all that bad, the natural pull of the summer-camp-esque group dynamics make me want to be a part of the central action, not the pitiable side action.
Then Boon’s buddy Bill shows up. He’s a veteran Army guy, in the sense that he’s been in the Army a very long time, not that he’s been in some wars. He’s a little bit older and he starts telling us insane stories about his family in the farm country of Indiana, namely his three little boys, and all the various things they blow up. Apparently Bill likes explosives and apparently Bill has shared that passion with his kids.
“Exploded an Oldsmobile once,” he tells us. “Stuffed it full of pumpkins and then stuffed the pumpkins themselves full of moldable PE-4, and we triggered that PE-4 by retreating about 20 feet back in the clearing of the woods behind my home and letting go with .22s in the manner of a classic firing squad.”
Pretty soon after Bill arrives, the stiff social dynamics dissolve. Now it’s like Kurt and Ingrid and I had been in the summer camp with the IHROS all this time, too. One of the IHROs tells us about how her husband had just, like, a week ago revealed to her that he’d been maintaining a highly emotional, highly romantic secret correspondence with a woman from his bowling team. I tell everyone about this time when I was a kid and I watched a squirrel in our backyard suddenly seize up and die; when my dad came home we buried it. That makes it sound like I lived in some rural backcountry but really it was the suburbs of Hartford. Still, we were all bonding for sure.
Boon doesn’t really say much but he cackles a lot. He starts a story then breaks up before it gets any forward momentum. He also shares a lot of eye contact with his would-be paramour. I wonder what’s keeping them apart, other than propriety. Also, Boon maybe has a girlfriend? It’s unclear, in the haze of drunken laughter.
After a while the whiskey runs out and Bill says “follow me” and “I got something to show y’all.” Bill has by far had the best stories so far so there’s no reason not to trust him. We move, single-file for some reason, through the dark. There are no dunes whistling tonight but, after a while, there is a sound. It’s a song I know. An old one. One from when I was a kid. What the fuck is it? It comes to me: it’s Keith Ape. A rapper from South Korea. He had a moment of internet fame. He had a banger. It’s… it’s… it’s “It G, Ma”! Wow. Hmm. Okay.
As we walk through the tents we hear it louder and louder, and then really loud, because suddenly, after one last particularly little shoved-together cluster of tents, we push through until we get to a bar. Behind the tents, like a ghostly apparition, in the dark of the night, there is a bar.
The secret locals hangout. We made it to the secret fucking locals hangout.
“I built it for the crew here,” Bill says. “Zhang, he tapped me do it.”
“Bill,” I ask, with patience and genuine awe, “who is Zhang?”
“You don’t know Zhang? Zhang runs the A-SIG labor union. He’s the boss around here, man. You don’t know shit!”
Apparently there is not just a secret locals hangout on A-SIG but an A-SIG labor union, too. And here as well, in front of us, is an array of picnic tables full of locals fully enjoying the fruits of their labors. There is also a ping pong table.
I make Bill explain it to me. “Zhang gave me a construction budget and offered compensation on top for my troubles. I tell you, it was a hearty sum. I said what the hell—I’ll build the thing for free. I mean, I’ll get to party here too, right?” I didn’t know what the Army was paying Bill but it was definitely too much.
I see that it’s kind of an informal situation as far as pouring drinks goes—you just go back behind the bar and see about it yourself. So I do that. I also pretend to know how to do Cocktail-esque flair bartending. I feel for sure we are in a mirage—that if I come back here tomorrow morning there’ll be nothing but tents, and then when I kick around some dirt I’ll see, you know, a little bit of the paper from Kurt’s soft pack of Camels.
Kurt and Ingrid are sitting in front of me. My loyal customers. I take a cig out of Kurt’s pack and light it and hand it to Ingrid, hoping she’ll accept. She does. Then I light one for myself.
“Have you ever actually been here before?” I ask her.
She doesn’t make eye contact, but smiles. “Of course.” Then she looks at me. “I’m pretty sure, at least.”
“Do you think we’ll ever find out anything more about the Four?”
“Why do you keep coming?”
“I don’t know. Why’d you come?”
“I don’t know. Do you like it here?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, in a way.”
“What do you like about it?”
She doesn’t answer.
“What should I write?”
“I don’t care. I mean, no one really gives a fuck.” She takes a sip. “That’s not … I don’t mean to be a bummer. I mean, you know. Don’t ask me that. It’s good you came. Just don’t ask me what to write, for fuck’s sake.”
“Do you respect me?”
She laughs. “Nah.”
“Do you think you’ll ever stop coming?”
Ingrid takes a deep drag, a performatively cinematic drag, then exhales and gets the smoke in her eyes and too far down her lungs, so she’s flapping her hand in front of her brow and coughing at the same time. Then she calms down enough to answer.
After a while Kurt gets really squinty and smiley and no one wants to see my fake bottle-flipping tricks anymore. I stand off to the side with a washcloth fake-wiping down glasses with the one IHRO whose husband had the emotional affair.
“What should I do?” she asks, sounding like she does actually want some answer.
“You can leave him,” I tell her, with confidence, and she nods. They don’t have any kids. Why stay if she doesn’t want to? But truly, truly, I think, what the fuck do I know?
The next morning, we get back in the van with Lee and Jamie so they can drive us across that patch of concrete and to the double-decker bus that will take us into the terminal where we’ll get on another sixteen-hour flight and head back to America. Ingrid, true to type, had managed to get on a flight before us, somehow. She left a note on the whiteboard in our press room: “See you in the real world.”
Kurt and I are hungover in the back of the van and keep exchanging looks and smiles like, “Bro are you hungover, yeah me too.”
I say, to Lee and Jamie, “Did you know there’s…”
What I’m going to say is, “Did you know there’s a secret locals bar back there?” but I cut myself off because I don’t even know if it’s legal and despite Bill’s various intransigencia I don’t want to get him in any trouble. They look at me and I say, “Uh, never mind,” and it’s awkward but what do they care. Instead, we all talk for a bit about how we’ll miss each other, which feels genuine and true, although we don’t actually exchange contact information. Then the van bumps along some more and everyone’s eyes wander out the window and everyone gets quiet.