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Authors: Andrei Codrescu

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BOOK: Wakefield
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“Shut up, you pompous ass!” someone with a British accent shouted from the darkness of the dormitory.

Judith laughed, and Wakefield left Padua the next day.

Before he had left college to travel, he got a failing grade on an essay he'd entitled “Buildings Should Earn Their Postmodernism!” in which he argued that playfully incorporating old styles in new buildings resulted in an “unearned postmodernism” that would eventually drive everyone living in these structures insane. He used as an example the Place of Italy, in New Orleans, an urban park and fountain.

The park itself was a forest of classical columns, some of traditional stone, others of aluminum or glass or cement. “Does anybody like it?” his essay asked rhetorically, Wakefield not having then (or ever) mastered proper academic tone. “The structure will fall apart in less than five years and weeds will start growing through the columns. Even the bums shun it, and bums are true specialists, because their lives are uncomfortable, open to the elements. In effect, bums are the great critics of urban spaces. The Place of Italy,” he concluded, “flunks the test. Bums refuse to socialize or sleep here. QED.” Wakefield's analysis of the homeless and urban sculpture raised the eyebrows of his professor (while possibly bringing a smile to his lips), and he shared the essay with two colleagues. They all came to the conclusion that this essay was not about architecture, and they told this to Wakefield.

“Well, what is it, then?” asked the outraged young scholar.

“It is sociology, psychology perhaps, colored by artistic considerations,” the professors pronounced. Being kindly men, they tried to convince Wakefield to change his major. They had a long conversation with him, after which Wakefield, half-convinced, ventured that he might consider specializing in “psychotecture,” which is the effect of structures on their inhabitants, a notion he invented just for the occasion. His professors said there was no such thing; the department produced architects, not psychos. So Wakefield said defiantly that he didn't want to build anything, that he was interested only in what had escaped the architects' intentions, those glitches and mistakes that dwell like small demons in even the most ambitious designs. The professors told him that his sensibility might be better served in a French university, where theory is often valued more than actual construction. Thus began Wakefield's European wanderings.

In Barcelona he found the ghosts more interesting than the ones he had encountered in Paris, but he made a much more important discovery: Love. He met Marianna, a Romanian émigré. She had managed to leave Romania by marrying a Spaniard, but as soon as they arrived in Spain she abandoned him. Now she was a waitress in Barcelona. Wakefield took her to a movie, to a restaurant, and to Gaudi's unfinished cathedral, and then he proposed.

Marianna was interested in Wakefield because he was American. She declared herself bored by Europe and spent most of the time, even when she was waiting tables, encased in a pair of headphones that filled her consciousness with American pop songs. She became animated when Wakefield talked about the U.S., but lapsed into weary inattention when he speculated about architecture, art, and Europe. Wakefield felt safe with Marianna. He could conduct his intellectual life without any fear of her disapproval. She simply didn't care.

Paradoxically, in Europe, thanks to his fiancée, Wakefield realized how American he was. He had expected Old World ghosts to revive him, but only Marianna's restlessness excited him. She was as restless as America. Europe was like an old woman endlessly sweeping her sidewalks and ironing her linens. One afternoon in Cádiz, drinking Jim Beam on the rocks—Marianna wouldn't have anything else—he was seized by nostalgia for his own, unapologetically unnostalgic country. They took the first available flight.

When we get home, he told himself, as Marianna chewed gum and tossed her hair around to the tune in her head, I will be the cartographer of hidden American spaces, the surveyor of our own
genii loci
. I will show Marianna the real America, not the one she knows from songs and movies.

He returned to school, where he was reluctantly readmitted, but his thesis on “American Buildings: Hiding in the Light” met with a cool reception. He retained from his European journey a fondness for the sharp contrasts of light and shadow near the sea, and the habit of an afternoon siesta, but he experienced none of the elation he had expected to bring to his studies. No one cared about his “unmapped architecture.” Eventually he quit school again, and to support himself and his new wife, who spent all her time shopping, he started writing for travel magazines, which paid well.

Wakefield is still in bed when Maggie arrives to take him to The Company's informal luncheon. When she calls from the front desk, he tells her to come right up. Elegantly accoutered in a fashionable business suit, she bursts cheerfully into his room. He is still in T-shirt and boxers.

While he shaves and brushes his teeth, she watches the news on TV and outlines his mission through the half-closed bathroom door. “These guys are supergeeks. All they know is software, that's why we thought it would be a good idea if you talked to them about art, maybe philanthropy. Look at that. Poor Monica. The government is spending six million dollars to force her to describe a blow job!”

“It's not as easy as all that,” quips Wakefield. He's feeling something generated by the stimulating expression “blow job.” It's dirty, it's shameless, nice work, Maggie.

“They wanted an inspirational speaker. We had a hard time finding someone who didn't juggle balls or do card tricks.”

Balls, tricks. Maggie is bad this morning. Wakefield nicks his chin. He watches the trickle of blood in the bathroom mirror, then blots it with toilet paper. Philanthropy, huh? His talk is about money and poetry (with a detour in art), not money
poetry (or art).

“So you're the guy,” she continues. “How did you get into art?”

“Couldn't juggle. I'm not sure I'm
art. I may be more into money.”

“By the way, I've gotten over your superficial appraisal of last night's wedding performance. I figured you're one of those art critics.”

Wakefield's razor stops midstroke. “I'm sorry, too. I travel so much I don't know where I am sometimes. It was callous of me to say anything before I learned more about this place.”

In the other room, Maggie smiles. “Well, don't beat yourself up too much. A gay wedding is a fairly unusual thing here. We didn't even have an Italian restaurant in Typical five years ago. That was considered exotic. We had to drive eight miles to the college town to go to Luigi's for spaghetti and meatballs. There was nothing but the tire plant and farms around here. Stingy German farmers … they didn't waste money going out. I know. My folks took me to a restaurant twice: on my thirteenth birthday and when I got accepted to college. Everything changed when The Company came. Now we have Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, Indian. There's even a Russian restaurant.”

Wakefield finishes his toilet and comes back into the room. He puts on his trousers and a clean shirt and watches Maggie watch him. When he misses a button, she rebuttons him. She stands so close he feels the whole warm animal wash over him. Her perfume is familiar and he fancies he knows what her skin feels like. Then she ties his tie. He's embarrassed.

“That's okay. Lots of men can't really tie a tie.”

“What happened to the tire plant? And the farmers?”

She sits back on the bed and crosses her legs. Shapely, notes Wakefield. Well-shaped hips in a nicely tailored skirt. A vooman, as Zamyatin might say.

“The factory closed in the seventies. Then my parents sold the farm and moved to a retirement community in Florida. My brother left for college, and my sisters and I went to New York City. I came back here to oversee the sale of the farm and ended up getting hired for public relations at The Company. Now I run Lectures and Events. That's about everything. You saw my kid last night, my darling, the apple of her mommy's eye.… And you? Married?”

“Was.” Wakefield doesn't want to get into it. He doesn't like the direction of the conversation; it will only lead to a bunch of platitudes, and he prefers going to bed with someone before this kind of questioning. It's purer that way.

“Florida. Are they happy there?”

“Who? My parents? No, not really. My father was a real farmer, man of few words, churchgoer, all that. Florida's his worst nightmare. He says it's full of Jews.”

Wakefield lifts an eyebrow.

Maggie shifts uncomfortably.

“Well, he's just one of those people. When the farm was going under, he joined some kind of church that thinks the end of the world is around the corner and that we all have to fight ZOG—the Zionist Occupation Government. My mother finally put an end to that. Now they're just Baptists. The paranoid right wing has gotten a lot quieter since The Company came. It's practically like Seattle here now.” Maggie hesitates, shifts gears. “What do you know about money? Are you some kind of investment counselor, too?”

“Oh, no,” Wakefield answers sincerely. “The only thing I know about money is that there seems to be a lot of it around these days. Do you own any stock?”

“Sure, I own Company stock, and I buy every new IPO. I buy and sell quickly, but I mostly buy. I invested my small share of the farm money in stuff that would kill my father if he knew about it.”

“Like what?”

“Genetic research. Well, come to think of it, he'd probably like that: better crops, fatter cows. An optic fiber manufacturer, an alternative energy consortium, a company researching youth drugs. Cutting-edge stuff.” Maggie's very proud of her foresight. “It's all about the future, right?”

“We will all be rich, rich,” Wakefield half-sings. “Doesn't it make you nervous?”

“Why should it? We're far from reaching the top of this market.”

“But art is the ultimate investment, trust me.”

“I prefer tech stocks,” she teases. “And it's time to go.”

Maggie takes a backward look at the bed. It's only slightly ruffled. Wakefield sleeps all curled up on one side, keeping the covers smooth. He likes to be invisible.

The Company's private club is called Finland, and it is not what Wakefield expects. From the outside, it still looks like the tire factory it once was, surrounded by snowy fields. It becomes evident, however, that only the shell of the factory has been preserved.

The entry hall is dominated by a Bengal tiger with bared teeth that looks so alive Wakefield draws back. Maggie laughs. Wakefield likes her laughter; it is musical and abrupt, knowing, not childish.

The lunch with the Company muckety-mucks is being held in the elephant room, so known because an African bull elephant with his trunk in the air dominates a long, low table surrounded by silver-embroidered Indian pillows.

“Is it real?” Wakefield inquires, slightly awed.

“Sure is, and so are the Bengal tiger, the polar bear, and the giant anaconda. If you're wondering how they ended up in Typical, one of these guys will tell you the story in suffocating detail.”

The room also houses part of The Company's corporate art collection. Wakefield is pleasantly surprised to see an early, medium-size Jackson Pollock painting and a Robert Motherwell sketch lurking behind the wildlife, along with a surrealist painting of tiny figures walking toward a vortex of light energy, signed V. Brauner. There are two wiry Giacomettis and a flying cow by Chagall, even a sketch of last night's lingerie model and a small-scale model of the notorious
Typical Family
sculpture sans man mounted on a stand under a glass bell.

The room is almost tropically warm. A few Company men are already there, dressed casually in safari-style khaki. Wakefield feels weirdly overdressed in his jacket and tie. He shakes a few hands and squats on an Indian pillow. Maggie sits next to him, her knee on his calf. As more people arrive, Maggie whispers their abbreviated histories into his ear.

“Mr. Farkash. Born in Hungary, billionaire.”

Mr. Farkash is one of several billionaires who work for The Company. The idea of a billionaire working at all doesn't seem right to Wakefield. A billion is enough for several generations to be idle, at least. Mr. Farkash doesn't look like a billionaire. His shirt is too tight, there is a button missing over a slight paunch that looks incongruous on so thin a man. His thick, steel-rimmed glasses are smudged.

A deeply tanned younger man in a very expensive suit makes a noisy entrance. Wakefield doesn't feel so overdressed anymore.

“Paulee,” whispers Maggie. “Flies airplanes. Ladies' man.”

Paulee notices Wakefield studying Farkash, who is nearsightedly inspecting the engraved menu.

“Farkash!” he shouts across the table. “Mr. Wakefield seems very interested in you. Farkash,” he says, turning to Wakefield, “emigrated to the U.S. in 1956. He's got one of those math brains that turn up in the tribe for some reason. Eddy Teller has one. Einstein had one. Farkash may even have two.” Farkash looks up from the menu, embarrassed, but his tormentor won't let up.

“I've tried to dress him. I flew him to London in my jet, took him to my tailor on Bond Street, even got him as far as the dressing room. He got away somehow. What happened, Farkash?”

“What happened,” Farkash says with a heavy accent, “is that the tailor knows our family from Budapest. He had a shop there and we all made credit. When I finish gymnasium, my father bring me to him for graduation suit, and he says no, first you pay me what you owe, so I never make graduation because he make no suit. That time in London I ordered fifteen suits, Paulee, and I paid for them. Only I don't like to wear them. Thank you very much.” Farkash burrows back into the menu and everyone laughs, but Paulee isn't finished.

“Let me tell you another story about Farkash. We were in New York at somebody's house, I won't say who because it would end up in the tabloids, and this beautiful woman comes on to Farkash.”

BOOK: Wakefield
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