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Authors: Andrei Codrescu

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BOOK: Wakefield
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“Not just beautiful,” adds another guy. “A famous, rich woman.”

Obviously they are all in on it, it's a routine. The famous, rich woman took a fancy to Farkash, as it turned out, and asked him right there and then to have sex with her. Only, according to Paulee, she said, “Do you want to fuck?” and our shy genius nearly dropped his glass of ginger ale. But Farkash had a comeback line he must have gotten from a self-help book. “My place or yours?” he stammered, to which the woman replied, “If it's such a hassle, forget about it!”

Even Farkash laughs with the crowd at this oft-told anecdote.

“The funny thing is,” Paulee says seriously, “she called him later and invited him to lunch, and
we don't know what happened!

Everyone turns expectantly to Farkash, who, resuming his study of the menu says, “Do you think they have the lamb today?”

Two men arrive whom Wakefield recognizes as last night's bride and groom, now neatly dressed in business suits. He looks for signs of lingering mascara, but they are well scrubbed.

“Hey,” intones Paulee, “how is married life?”

“Fuck you,” says the bride, perfectly at ease.

The Indian meal is vegetarian, with the exception of the lamb for Farkash, which he eats with the avidity of a starving man. Wakefield drinks a huge bottle of Indian beer to wash down his spicy eggplant Vindaloo.

“We are the world,” Maggie whispers in his ear. Wakefield thinks of her farmer folk and ZOG and their fears of Jews. It wasn't that long ago.

“Does he engage in any philanthropy?” Wakefield whispers to Maggie, still fascinated by the Hungarian billionaire. “He could create a foundation, do something for Hungary.…”

“Farkash? I don't think he has the time. He's one of those guys who will die at his desk with his paychecks uncashed.”

A pity. Wakefield once asked his friend Ivan if he would ever go back to Russia. “No,” Zamyatin said. “Never.” When Wakefield asked why, Ivan confessed with unusual earnestness that he couldn't forgive his country for treating him so badly.

“It wasn't the country, per se,” Wakefield had argued, “it was your countrymen.”

“What's the difference? Country, countrymen, it's all the same.”

Wakefield suggested that since the fall of communism, many exiles felt that it was important to return, to help rebuild after decades of oppression, but Ivan didn't share that sentiment.

There was little else to say, because Zamyatin ordered another drink and started singing “America the Beautiful.” End of discussion.

Wakefield's ex-wife, Marianna, was even worse. During their marriage, if he mentioned Romania she'd turn up the music. If he persisted she cried. Her parents were dead, she was an orphan, she had a brother somewhere in Germany, she didn't want to talk about it. Wakefield even went so far as to buy airline tickets for a short visit, but Marianna tore them up with her hands—and teeth. One night when she was drunk she told him a version of her past that might have been true. She had been arrested as a prostitute, mistakenly, she said, and was sent to a reeducation camp. Her parents disowned her. Her brother, who was her best friend, had escaped to Germany by hiding on a ship leaving the Black Sea port of Constanta. She didn't know if he was dead or alive. He had never written, and many people who stowed away on ships died.

Sometimes she cried in her sleep, or shouted angrily in Romanian, but she wouldn't talk about her dreams in the morning. Wakefield tried to make friends with other émigrés, but she refused to socialize with them, and she wouldn't go to the Romanian Orthodox church for fear that she might run into someone she knew.

Wakefield is still very interested in the former Communist world and its emergence from total state control, fascinated by the relationship between secrecy and exposure, the crumbling of the walls that kept that world out, and the dramatic revelation of worlds hidden literally behind those walls.

Farkash gives him a sly look. He overheard Maggie saying he would die at his desk.

Wakefield decides to come clean. “I might as well ask you, I'm curious to know if you have any interest in Hungary. Are you helping there?”

Lips glistening with lamb fat, Farkash shrugs.

“I think he's comparing you with George Soros,” Maggie explains kindly. “It can't be helped, Farkash. People ask.”

This exchange doesn't go unnoticed, and other conversations at the table seem to stop.

“I'm sorry,” Wakefield says, “I don't mean to embarrass you.”

Farkash snorts. “Embarrass a rich man? Are you joking? I am not Soros. I know George. He is a big dreamer, but he wants to be a messiah, he loves risk and he is a gambler. He makes money, he loses money, some he give away. That's his work. I work in other areas.”

Paulee jumps in as devil's advocate. “Sure, Farkash, but even Einstein felt social responsibility, he warned Truman about the bomb. And he fucked Marilyn Monroe. Who have you fucked?”

This guy Paulee is a real asshole, thinks Wakefield. The point is that George Soros does more for his old country than all the governments of the West combined. And he doesn't just help his native Hungary, but the whole former Communist bloc, including Russia. During the Nazi occupation he and his whole family risked their lives arranging false documents for Jews about to be deported to death camps. What makes one person so concerned and another so indifferent? Wakefield wonders, aware, even as he thinks it, that such generalizations lead down a slippery slope.

“I don't do these things,” says Farkash, completely unfazed, “because I am now using all my time. Maybe next year I will concentrate on what you say, philanthropics, and even … that horrible word you use so much, Paulee … happiness. For twenty years I will study happiness and you will see results. I am systemic, not foolish gambler.”

“You mean ‘systematic,'” Paulee corrects him.

“Yes.” Farkash goes back to concentrating on the lamb.

Wakefield is impressed by the way frivolity and gravity mix in this high-tech world, and he has new respect for Maggie, whose job is to arrange entertainment for these highly educated, idiosyncratic workers stuck in the middle of nowhere. The ratio between frivolity and gravity is a serious issue in his own life, and the balance changes constantly. Between him and Zamyatin frivolity claims the greater percentage, but in all his other relationships, including the one between himself and his ex-wife and their daughter, seriousness dominates. With Zelda things seem to balance out. Nah, he corrects himself, Zelda is serious, even if she is flaky. It's Wakefield who's frivolous: most of the time he can't even take himself seriously. He's just a talker with wide but not terribly deep interests. He should have made an entirely different bargain with the Devil. Instead of asking for a year free to pursue alternatives to his life, he should have asked for an overwhelming interest in
something
. A science, a passion, a problem to absorb him
completely
.

The Devil, curled cozily inside the elephant's head, surveys the room through the beast's big eyes, through which the glimmer of his own yellow orbs flashes occasionally, noticed only by Paulee, who attributes the vision to last night's excess of Veuve Cliquot. The Devil follows the conversation with interest: Wakefield's probing on behalf of social responsibility worries him a little. Is there a Mother Theresa inside his client? That would certainly imperil his victory. The Devil's position on suffering is complex: he enjoys it in its pure state, he relishes anguish, profound despair, fury and anger at God. At the same time he hates social injustice. The unfair advantages of the rich and the equally arbitrary misery of the poor lessen his enjoyment of suffering in its purer form, unadulterated by circumstances that make it inevitable. The rich prepackage the misery of the poor. The taste of supermarket meat is abhorent to the hunter. What avails a devil prepackaged misery, flavorless, predetermined unhappiness? Suffering without grandeur is like polenta without salt. This is not an idle comparison: the Devil personally brought corn from the New World and prepared the first polenta in Europe. But that's another story, though a major triumph. He admires philanthropy's attempt to even the playing field. When the recipients of philanthropy begin to thrive and thus suffer in more bourgeois terms, they begin to be worth something to him. He closes his eyes, to Paulee's relief, and reviews a thousand years of great philanthropists parading wistfully to the cosmic barbeque pit, followed by a few of their successful beneficiaries. Ah. The Devil then reaches for a little jar of ointment in the pocket of his blue jeans. He unscrews the lid, dips his finger in it, and spreads the cream on his lips, pleasantly numbing them. Crème-de-philanthropist, an essence of the suffering rich, extracted from their fat.
Ah, quel élixir!
He briefly considers propelling one of the elephant's eyeballs to the middle of the table, right on top of the onion bread. What a shot! But would Wakefield recognize the ordnance of the starter pistol? Perhaps not; he seems more concerned at the moment with Maggie's upper thigh, on which he has lightly laid his hand. Let the children play. The Diablo has a soft spot for Eros: it leads to exquisite misery.

When lunch breaks up, Wakefield asks Maggie to take him back to the hotel. She can see his mood has darkened and lets him be. Maybe I really could work for this Company, he thinks, toying with the idea. The stuff they make is new; even the word
software
is mysterious, like an artwork: it comes fresh into the world and starts invisibly connecting people. And Maggie has good instincts. If I got rich, I could help people.

After Maggie drops him off, he goes to the hotel spa and sits for a long time in the steam room with a couple of guys from the breast pump convention. Then he orders a special massage. Tightly bound in an herbal wrap, he is left to float alone inside a limestone cave dripping perfumed tears. But he's not at peace. Tonight he has to tell the people in this Company town something that he, and they, will believe.

“And now for ‘Money and Poetry (with a Detour in Art): A Speech.' Ladies and gentlemen of the Overworking Class: In my business, which is unlike any other business, maybe because it's not a business at all, in my business, you can say something off the cuff, spontaneously, and then spend years trying to figure out what you said. No inspirational speaker worthy of the title would want to know what he is going to say before he says it. That would be both cheating and boring. A speaker such as myself depends on revelation.”

Wakefield pauses here, a long, dramatic pause that gives the six hundred spectators in the comfortable seats of the airy amphitheater an opportunity to consider what might be revealed by someone who has no idea what he is going to say. How inefficient, quite the opposite of making a presentation for one's colleagues with PowerPoint and notes; but how very like those first moments on a blind date! They make themselves comfortable as Wakefield reads their minds. He turns his eyes heavenward, as if awaiting said revelation.

“Of course, there is an equivalent to revelation in your professions. When that apple fell on Newton's head, it set him off on a lifetime of trying to prove the truth of that boink. Whether apocryphal or not, that story's made many bright kids sit hopefully under trees of one sort or another waiting for a falling fruit. Not every fruit is Newton's apple. Some are just unripe figs or withered plums. I'm speaking metaphorically here, but I'll quit, I swear, as soon as I channel something real. All I know is that I'm constantly trying to figure out why I said what I said—and then when I figure it out, I forget about it and say something else that eventually needs explanation, and I'm not sure which one of those things is important, which one is an apple and which one a withered plum, a.k.a. prune. Of course, the apple doesn't matter. Apples fall on all kinds of heads that are not Newton's. What matters is that the apple fell on Newton's head, no one else's.”

He waits for members of the audience to consider whether they are Newton or not.

“I belong to a club dedicated to making apples fall on peoples' heads, The Apples On Heads Club. Some of the members are dead, like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Blake, Marcel Duchamp, Ted Berrigan, and Jack Kerouac, but others, like myself and my friend Ivan Zamyatin, a taxicab driver and poet, are alive. Death, by the way, is no impediment in this club. A few years ago, a literary journal commissioned a then living poet, James Merrill, to interview dead poets via the Ouija board. He discovered two clubs of dead poets in the Afterlife: the Straight Club, led by William Carlos Williams, and the Gay Club, led by Gertrude Stein. Merrill found the Gay Club a lot more fun than the Straight Club, but I'd like a second opinion on that. I think Merrill associated free verse with straight sex and gay sex with the bondage of form. There are, however, plenty of gay dead free-verse poets, Frank O'Hara, to mention just one, and really boring dead formal straight poets. And what about the bisexual club? Or the ascetic club? I know poets who are bisexual, and a couple who are ascetic.”

He glances at Maggie in the front row. She looks mortified. Why is he going on about the sex lives of poets? She wishes she'd hired the juggler. The room is full of people whose desks are humming at this very moment with the technical pressures of the electronic globe. They need inspiration, where is the inspiration? Wakefield continues, only slighty perturbed.

“I am a poet.”

Laughter in the audience.

“You laugh because you don't know what a poet is. A poet is the most creative being alive, a being who says things like ‘Ah, Sunflower, weary of time!' or ‘I have seen what other men have only
thought
they've seen.' And when they say such things, they keep saying them, repeating them over and over until they are filled by what they just said and until the whole world repeats after them, ‘Ah, Sunflower, weary of time! I have seen what other men have only
thought
they've seen.' Now repeat after me:

BOOK: Wakefield
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