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Authors: Andrei Codrescu

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BOOK: Wakefield
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“‘Ah, Sunflower, weary of time!'”

A few embarrassed voices mumble after him. It sounds like a single word: “AWSFLAWAME!” And again. Soon Wakefield has everyone repeating the lines, and people are laughing and shouting as if this is the funniest thing they've ever said out loud. Childishness breaks out. It's good. Maggie is smiling.

“IHSEENTAMATHODSCEEN!”

Wakefield lets the noise die down. They trust him. They think they know what this is about. Some of these people are from the West Coast: they have shared feelings, held hands, sat in hot tubs together, done art therapy, howled at the moon in expensive resorts. In their childhoods there were campfires and singalongs. This is America, a land of joy. This is
fun
. But Wakefield notes that there are also a number of sullen faces. Foreigners. Russians, who never smile. Indians, who smile, but not innocently. Pakistanis, whose mustaches are trembling angrily. Hungarians, smirking. To them, Wakefield now addresses a mournful addendum.

“Creative activity is full of abandoned original utterances and one-of-a-kind failed experiments. But how do the rich get rich and stay rich? Exactly like poets. The rich find something that works and they do it over and over until it stops paying off. How do scientists discover something? They repeat and repeat the experiment. Only their spouses know just how
much
they repeat themselves. You know that bored, desperate, neurotic, on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown look that the spouses of the wealthy have in soap operas? Well, the reason for this despondency is the unconscionable number of times they've heard their mates say the same thing over and over. It is the same with the spouses of scientists and poets. It is the same with all creative people.
Yes, honey, I know, you said that already.

Not as many guffaws as Wakefield would like. The reason might be that Company spouses also work for The Company and are equally repetitive.

“Only children are not bored by repetition: they are surprised by it. They anticipate it with delight. How is it possible for a marvelous thing to reappear in the exact same form only a second later? On the other hand—and I'm speaking for children here—how could things
fail
to repeat themselves? A tired parent who makes the mistake of shortening the bedtime story by leaving out a repetition or two is in for a tantrum. What happened to repetition number eight, Daddy? Those of you who repeat certain experiments over and over know what the children mean. You cannot leave out a DNA combination because it looks mind-numbingly similar to the one that came before. Happily, computers don't get bored, which is why they are saving our sorry sleepy ass over and over.”

The Devil, seated in the projection booth above the room, dressed in cap and knickers like a projectionist of silent movies, doesn't like the drift of Wakefield's talk. He suspects that his client is pursuing a deconstructive agenda that, after a few detours in art, will take him down to the elemental building blocks of matter, possibly, for the purpose of exposing
him
, the Great Malign One, hooves and all, before this conclave of geeks. The Devil hates to be seen. Or Wakefield may be after even bigger game; he may intend to shed his body and become pure talk, just a stream of words funneling like a twister out of a djinni bottle. In that case he might escape entirely, and the Devil would be left holding nothing but a wrinkled skin surrounded by a voice coming out of nowhere and everywhere. He may be wrong about this, but just in case, he lets his gaze drift over the heads of the assembled and shoots a quiverful of rays into the room, causing particular movies to unroll in each and every head. For good measure, he casts around a few itches as well.

Wakefield is saying, “Children know intuitively that we exist in a world that is born of and lives by repetition. Life itself proceeds by replication,” but the audience is seeing black-and-white film images of scenes from their lives. An artificial intelligence specialist sees his father kneeling beside a bed, slowly pulling up a woman's stocking as she holds her leg out to him. A marketing analyst squeezes in anger the teddy bear that his older brother has just made wet with some unspeakable substance. A virtual reality designer drops the chalice at her first communion and sees big drops of red wine stand in relief on her white patent-leather shoes. A Russian engineer watches a pancake being slowly rolled up by a mean boy from his school as his beloved Pioneer neckerchief disappears inside of it. At the same time, the marketing analyst experiences an unbearable itch between two toes on his left foot and has to scratch it or die. He takes off his shoe and scratches away. The AI specialist feels something lodged between two back teeth and cannot wait another moment to dislodge it, whatever it is. Meat? He'll never eat meat again. The virtual reality designer wishes now that she'd never gone home with that Russian guy from the disco: her crotch is burning but it's a different sort of itch. She slips her right hand between her legs as discreetly as she can. Farkash sinks lower in his seat: he sees himself perched on the steep-pitched red roof of his family house in the village; his mother is calling him in to wash before dinner. An insect is crawling in his armpit, making it tickle dreadfully; he can barely keep his balance. Farkash rakes at the offending pit.

And so on, until everyone in the room is caught in a silent film of embarrassment or in the throes of physical discomforts that call for instant remedy. The room shifts, sways, rustles. Good show, laughs El Diablo, I
should
be a filmmaker. Then he remembers. He is. Not just one filmmaker, but many. The movie guides list hundreds of his works.

Is Wakefield disturbed by all the fidgeting? Yes and no. You can't expect to make a deal with the Devil and not be interrupted. This may be His Interruptiousness's very nature. The long, uninterrupted peace of paradise was shattered for good by Lucifer. Nothing's been completed since. Not a thought, not a speech. Of course, Wakefield isn't aware that the Devil is actually in the room, but it's safe to attribute
all
fuckups to Satan. That way one has deniability. Wakefield is determined to ignore the distractions of his audience. He's inspired by the certainty that he really truly doesn't know where he's going, so why stop now? His listeners can fidget all they want and take from him what they will. Besides, being interrupted gives you a chance to think. He decides he likes being interrupted, he
needs
to be interrupted. He perseveres.

“So children, who are just discovering language, and poets, who can't get over it, have a marvelous tool for confounding themselves and others. My friend Ivan Zamyatin says that language is a splendid alien, shipwrecked on our planet, who was captured by apes and hacked to bits. The English bit is from its neck.”

Maggie imagines the shipwrecked alien, silicon-based perhaps, strewn about like a dismembered mannequin. Two Saxons and a Gaul break his neck into chunks like a loaf of bread and eat it. The English language is born. She can see that. She's a farm girl.

The Devil turns red: not fair. How did Zamyatin guess that? It was true, he had seen the shipwreck himself and had, proud to say, helped himself to a few alien crumbs. Right now, in his pocket, he carries seven or eight words that have never been spoken on earth, and never will be. He feels them there. Vowely. Long. Dark. Yum.

“Now let's examine the nature of success. A poet feels successful when he has written a great line. A software designer, when he clinches a patent. A rich man, when he's made another million. I know that most of you at The Company are techies, and some of you are rich, very rich.… It's said that The Company is bigger than the Catholic Church, so God pops up naturally here. When the Messiah returns, he won't be going to Jerusalem, he'll be coming here to the Midwest, to the headquarters of The Company.”

Scattered applause.

“But is being bigger than God a good thing? It doesn't mean you
are
God. John Lennon told a reporter that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. The fallout was definitely not good. It occurs to me that if the Messiah did show up in Typical, she might be put in the paper shredder before anyone could perceive her divine nature. Or, worse, divinity might interfere with the productive rhythms of the workday and disrupt the idyllic life that you lead here in the best-possible-workplace-on-Earth, and that won't do. Pity, for instance, the government that files suit against The Company! God, you'll remember, didn't want any competition from his creation, so he split up Adam and Eve in order that the separated halves might compete with each other, leaving Him the absolute boss. That was in biblical times. In capitalist society, the biblical God is just another product, the real divinity is the Economy, with a capital E, and the government is its visible mouthpiece. Heretics say that there are a lot of gods, but even if this is true, the underlying principle is the same, no matter what their names: if you get bigger than me I'll bust you up.”

Voice from the crowd: “What the hell are you talking about?”

My sentiments exactly, thinks the Devil. God? Has Wakefield gone bonkers? Is he making a pitch to the other side? Or what he
thinks
is the other side? The Devil laughs. He hasn't thought about God in a long time. It's like a former employer or an ex-wife, you rarely give them a thought if you can help it. Personally, he's always had the utmost respect for God, for not interfering. Admirable detachment. God is sleeping, let Him rest in peace.

Unfortunately, Wakefield seems to think that God is still paying attention. He can't be that stupid. You keep doing that, El Diablo silently admonishes, and you'll end up dead
and
sorry. God gave up on your kind a long time ago. When is the last time the likes of Wakefield had a sign from the Creator? As for the Messiah, the Devil begs to differ. The Messiah concept is the result of one of many deals his kingdom made with Yahweh before His big nap. Some of the terms are still secret, but it boils down to deterence: each side has a Messiah ready to go at any given time. If the powers of darkness launch their Messiah first, the other one will activate automatically, without disturbing God's sleep. It's mutual assured destruction, a MAD policy if you will, and it's worked fine so far. The Devil knows that Wakefield is only using
God
and
Messiah
metaphorically, but still, it's a serious issue; don't put your foot in it or you'll end up eating that foot, toes and all. Or maybe—the Devil pauses thoughtfully, biting his hoof—this Wakefield character is more clever than I think. Has he made another deal with one of my confederates? A chatty, indiscreet devil? Paranoia. Bad habit. But it's not unheard of for one devil to go behind another's back. You can never be too sure.

“What are you talking about?” insists the heckler, a bit more exasperated now.

You go, girl, the Devil urges.

“I'll know soon enough,” says Wakefield, and somehow he does. “Robert Frost wrote, ‘Something there is that doesn't love a wall,' and Ted Berrigan answered, ‘I
am
that Something.' Well, I know something that's worth a lot of money. If I tell it to you—not the whole thing, of course, just a teaser—you'll
want
to give me as much money as I can carry to hear the rest of it. And I might or might not tell you everything. I don't really
need
any money, I just think that it might be fun to play with yours.”

Voice: “Isn't
that
a classic hustle?” Wakefield loves it: hecklers are the spice in a great what-will-he-say-next presentation.

“Well, here it is. Please pay close attention because I will be as surprised as you are by what I'm about to say.”

He pauses, scanning the faces in the audience. They would
like
to pay attention, but things itch.

“The currency of the future is poetry.

“I will repeat this, following the poetic-scientific formula I outlined earlier.

“The currency of the future is poetry.

“The currency of the future is poetry.

“Say it with me, folks!

“THECURRENCYOFTHEFUTUREISPOETRY.”

Only Maggie joins in; there is some hissing in the upper tiers of the theater. Someone up in the projection booth shouts, “Viva prose!” It doesn't phase Wakefield. Bring on the philistines.

“In the future, money as we know it now will be useless—it already is. Instead of using these particular abstract units we call currency, we will use poetry to conduct our transactions. Poetry is the highest expression of any language. Money is also a language: you may think that the words of this language belong to you, but they are being spoken at this very moment by a multitude. It's eleven
A.M.
Central Standard Time; do you know where your money is? It may be in a shipment of rifles headed for Colombia or it may be stuck in a computer in Hong Kong. You may be speaking its name or in its name, but the actual money is as fluid as language, it flows, it's everywhere and nowhere at once, and anyone can speak in this language, not a word of it is copyrighted. When Richard Nixon took America off the gold standard, he put money firmly in the province of the imaginary; money became something that has to be taken on faith. In the realm of the abstract, currency will not rule,
creation
will. Take a million dollars, which isn't much, you can spend that for lunch in some places—a million dollars takes up a lot of space if you're going to use greenbacks. You can't transport it very easily. But if you exchange that dough for a work of art, let's say one of the cheaper paintings of Robert Motherwell, you can roll it up inside a hollow cane and limp across the border with it.”

Wakefield is thinking that if he could only get his hands on a few of the canvases he saw at the Company mess hall, he'd roll them up inside a cane and limp back home and he'd never have to take another job like this again.

The Devil loves the bit about the cane. Canes have been part of his wardrobe since time immemorial. His first cane was a branch he tore off a tree after his fiery fall from Paradise to a mountainside in Thrace. He'd twisted his ankle on landing, and he limped about leaning on that flowering branch until he found a cave, his first cave. He killed a mountain goat with his cane and made a flute from a leg bone, a hat from the horns, a shirt from the fur, and a knife from a rib. One night he played his flute and fell asleep with his horns on. When he woke up there were three nymphs in the cave, as smooth and naked as Eve. They gave themselves to him night after night when he played the flute. They disappeared whenever he took off his horns, so he took the horns off when he was tired of nymphs. Alone, he used the bone knife to fashion canes. When he felt lonely he played the flute and the nymphs reappeared, sometimes the original three, sometimes others. Bored after a long time, he began to wander, killing new animals, changing his appearance, carving new canes from wood and bone, but always keeping his first flute, cane, and horns nearby. Over time, his flute and his first cane acquired all sorts of powers. They could draw to them creatures of every sort who listened raptly to his music, or they could lift him through the air to cavort with birds. In later ages, his various canes were made of rare woods and precious metals, encrusted with stones. He'd collected sword canes with deadly blades belonging to princes whose souls he gathered. He'd transported magic scrolls, money, and yes, even pictures by famous artists, in hollowed-out canes. Some artists he had never been able to persuade to give him a work, like the Master Theodoricus, a Bohemian monk so horrified that one of his devotional works might end up in Satan's collection, he had himself crucified. The fool, Beelzebub snarls, remembering Theodoricus, you thought you were painting for God, inspired by angels, but you would have been part of the greatest gallery in the world. He really should revisit his treasures, stored in his innumerable caves, and have some of them framed. As for Wakefield, his boy is on the right track now. Nothing wrong with envy and a little greed.

BOOK: Wakefield
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