Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (6 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
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Behind the rage was another feeling: a keen pleasure at feeling enraged. He tried to hold on to the rage and the pleasure at the rage, because beyond these was a deep lake of sadness at the fact that he had just lost a job he loved, that he would not see these children again, that tomorrow the hours would yawn in front of him. Others would go to work and he’d have to pick his way across the moody rubble of the day. Plus, he didn’t have any breathing room in his budget. He spent every cent that came his way. And the last time his sisters had given him money, they’d made it pretty clear that they were tired of bailing him out.

He stood up too quickly, and the chair he had been sitting in tipped back and fell over. Sharon jumped in her seat. Leo enjoyed her discomfort. Was she actually afraid of him? Good. Let her be. Puffed with anger and gutted with grief, he opened Sharon’s office door to leave.

“I don’t want you upsetting the children, Leo,” Sharon said to his back. “You understand? I just want you to leave now. Don’t worry about the take-home notes. I can write those.”

Sharon
would write the daily journal sheets? She’d fuck up a shopping list. His hand found a beanbag frog. He turned and hucked it at her. The frog whizzed through the close air of the office. It thunked squarely into Sharon’s eye and landed flat on her desk.

They were both shocked. Only the thrown frog was unfazed. It was still smiling the way frogs certainly do not smile. Then that moment broke, and Leo, proud of the first violent act of his adult life, skedaddled.

“That’s assault! You assaulted me, you little prick,” Sharon yelled after him. She was picking up her phone.

But he was moving now. Toward the exit. He stopped to face the big room once. The grown-ups were brittle, the children oblivious. He raised a clenched fist high. “Give ’em hell,” he shouted.

At the far end of the room, Samuel raised his small fist in return.

R
ight this way, Mr. Deveraux.”

The assistant led Mark down low-ceilinged corridors to a greenroom and held the door open without entering himself. Mark peered in. Leather couches; an expansive array of granola bars and iced bottles of juice and water and bagels and tea bags in foil envelopes;
Margo!
magazines on a hyperabundance of end tables; an attractive man stirring coffee daintily and looking engrossed in the sheaf of papers before him. Mark didn’t enter the room either.

“Yeah, listen,” he said to the PA, “I believe that my representative told the person that she liaised with here that I would be needing a private room to prepare? With a window? For meditational purposes? Do you think you could see about that?”

The PA nodded slowly and blinked twice. He looked at his clipboard. “Ah, sure.” He exhaled. The microphone part of the headset he wore looked like a big fat fly hovering before his mouth. “Would you like to wait in there and I’ll see about that?”

“That’s okay. I’ll wait right here.” Mark watched the PA retreat and he considered the possibility that he would have to go on TV in his current too-sober state. Other than this potential crimp, though, everything was pretty much as he had hoped it would be: the black car sent for him; the attractive assistant who sat primly in the backseat with him (she wore a gray skirt and a pristine mountaineering parka that kept Mark from scoping her northern hemisphere, and she worked the thumb wheel on her BlackBerry as though it were a rosary); the way that, once he got to the studio, there was a sort of event horizon that preceded him by fifty yards within which everyone appeared to be aware of him and of who he was.

He realized that he recognized the good-looking man in the greenroom—a celebrity chef who claimed his name was Nicholas Rugby. Mark had received a copy of his book from three different people last Christmas. It was called
Eat for the Real You
and featured shallow-depth-of-field photography of noodles, and breezy instructions rich in kinetic verbs. He could go in there now and introduce himself and they’d probably both pretend to respect each other’s work and maybe become celebrity friends and Mark could have Nicholas to dinner and Nicholas could make his famous noodles, famously, in the open-plan kitchen Mark was going to install in the apartment he’d just bought in Brooklyn. But no—Mark was getting more nervous by the moment. Maybe after the taping there’d be time for that. He would wait in the hallway now, wait to be shown the private room that these days was his due.

In the year or so since he had begun his steep ascent through the strata of this particular type of fame, Mark had found that those charged with his comfort actually liked him to express specific wishes. A seat number less than ten and on the right side of the airplane. A lectern no taller than forty inches. Idiosyncrasies were also appreciated. He kept about ten pens on his person and had notepads jammed into every pocket. The jamming-in part was important. Mark pre-rumpled the notepads—bent the cardboard backing and curled the pages—so that when he pulled out a pad, it looked positively fizzling with ideas. Marjorie Blinc, his cunning consigliera, encouraged the behavior, especially the pre-appearance requests. “Don’t be a jerk about it, but be firm,” she said. “Let me be a jerk about it.” There were a few stipulations she had written into his standard contract that Mark had balked at: lemon rounds, not wedges; hypoallergenic makeup; fair-trade green tea. These, she explained, were gives—items that he was
not
to insist upon, which lack of insistence would make him seem like a much more reasonable person than his contract made him out to be.

“If it comes up, go ahead and say you had no idea that the agency wrote lemon rounds into your contract,” she told him, “and that you find such a requirement ridiculous.” At first, these machinations had embarrassed him. Then he saw how well they worked. And soon he ceased to think of them as machinations. The fact that he accepted, graciously, either a lemon wedge or a lemon round in his sparkling water he took as evidence of his own lack of attachment. He knew that there were people who actually did care about such things; he was not one of them.

But this need to be alone in a room with a window was not a give. In a few minutes he would be talking to ten million people. Come off well here, and his name and work would bloom like ink in water. There were people waiting around to see if the success of his book was repeatable, if his philosophy was scalable. Blinc’s agency had already gotten him more money than his mother had spent on his upbringing. But Mark was no fool. Someone else would come along with something new and knock the charm right off him. Before the magazine-reading classes tired of him, he needed to leverage his fluke fame into something more bankable. He needed to pluck from this tempest the idea he still believed in and carry it to safety. Do that, and he wouldn’t need Marjorie Blinc or her squads of editors and forecasters. He wouldn’t need the craven SineCo squillionaire James Straw, whose early devotion to Mark’s book—he’d decreed that it should serve as management doctrine for his tech empire and bought a copy for every one of his employees—was the reason that Mark now had an agent and publicists and an accountant and (ever since he’d begun to receive scrawl-penned letters from one particularly enthusiastic and unhinged fan) a security consultant.

Gray Skirt was coming toward him now at a brisk clip. Her boots made a
tack-tack
sound that preceded her.

“Is there a problem with the greenroom?” she asked, appearing to care.

“Oh, no. No problem. It’s just that I’ll need a few minutes of solitude before I go on. To meditate. To get centered. A room with a window, if at all possible.”

“I think we can accommodate you,” said Gray Skirt, smiling in a tight-lipped way.

Yes, I think you can too,
thought Mark, giddy with the sense, as he was so often these days, that the world would and could accommodate him. Was it zero-sum? A pretty girl was going to lead him to a private room in a TV studio; did that mean that someone else, somewhere else, was
not
receiving such treatment? He thought not. Although there were probably not enough private jets for everyone. Mark had now spent tens of hours aloft in a few of these—he had
slept on a couch
in a tube going five hundred miles an hour high above the blue earth. But for that matter, even being able to fly coach represents an unearned economic advantage, doesn’t it? Or, hell, just driving a car. Who among us deserves all he has? Mark recognized that there was hypocrisy at the center of his current life (“A young wise man without pretensions,”
Time
magazine had called him, although last week, he had been hunting wild boar, drunk, on Straw’s Carmel ranch), but he was doing nothing more than asking for the things he wanted. Which was what his book,
Bringing the Inside Out,
had turned out to be about. Still, when he remarked to Gray Skirt that the studio was a bit nippy, he did this by way of flirtation, not in anticipation of being handed a cashmere sweater from a closet stocked with them.

“Here, take a
Margo!
sweater, courtesy of Margo,” said Gray Skirt. “Margo keeps the studio at this temperature to boost alertness. It was one of many changes she made around here after she read your book.”

Was she fucking with him? Mark wondered. If not, then he was dealing with a real fawn, which was exciting. He scanned her again for any obvious defects that might have escaped his initial survey. Somewhere between black car and chill studio, she had swapped her extreme parka for a sort of power shawl, which was somewhat more revealing. She had pretty, coltish shoulders and thick black hair. But still. She might very well be fucking with him. There was a lack of feeling in the way she deferred to him, although that could have been due to the fact that she was Margo’s third—or maybe even second—lieutenant, and therefore more powerful and important than he was. If she was only chafing at the task assigned to her, that would be fine. He could probably win her over by acting as if he didn’t care that she outranked him. But he wished to eliminate the possibility that she was one of the—it must be many—people who believed that his book was totally fatuous. Did she know that he could not now recall how he had arrived at any of his so-called consciousclusions; had no idea, really, what the word was meant to mean? Ditto
flowtachment.
Did she know that, after he and his eight agency-supplied editors had been over the copy hundreds of times in the four weeks it took to produce the manuscript, Mark could not see in the book’s anodyne, aphoristic nonsense any of the ideas that had made “Motivation in an Unjust World” a good essay?

  

“Motivation in an Unjust World” was the essay Mark had written two years ago. The gist of it had been wrung from him in a single night, at his kitchen table, on an IBM Selectric, which hummed like a generator on a ship. Bombed on OxyContin and Pouilly-Fuissé chardonnay (and Riesling, when the chardonnay had gone), he had written ten pages without getting up. They were confused and chaotic, but there was a bright strand of logic running between the paragraphs, which drew a reader through the whole thing.

Or would, Mark felt sure the next morning, if he could just flatten out a few of the steeper arcs between ideas and find a way to avoid sounding so strident there at the end; in fact, do away with any whiff of strident and replace it with the detached tone he had somehow managed in the first third.

He set about the rewrite that day, after a cigarette and a walk around the block, and at the same kitchen table, stinging coffee and buttered toast in the a.m., slick Guinness and buttered toast in the p.m. By the next day he had ten thousand words on how a person—no, how Mark, how
he himself
should arrive at right decisions. Kant was in there. Elie Wiesel was in there, and Hannah Arendt and John Rawls. James Baldwin and Walker Percy were in there too. The trick was to stay hammered enough to write courageously but sober enough to see the screen and avoid porn. The trick was to write for an audience of one
. I will not be rewarded for acting honorably,
he stressed in the essay.
Rewards come from without, and what is given to me is never really mine. Even my breath is borrowed.

The points he made were like lily pads on the surface of a lake—the monstrous lily pads he had seen once in a Florida swamp. You wouldn’t want to get too comfortable on those, but you could maybe alight on one briefly and move on to the next.

It was pretty basic stuff about how you’re never going to be certain, and there are too many variables to control for, and that probably the work of life is all about balancing, which is a task that never really gets any easier, so the most you can ever hope to do is be kind and be careful, and trying to be those things actually, literally, turns out to
be
its own reward. But he managed to hit just the right notes. Nothing had ever come to him like this before. Writing it, he felt the weight of self lessen and saw the gates of truth swing open. Even the scrape of the chair legs across the vinyl floor told him to keep writing.

Or was that the crushed-up Ritalin? The slush of ethyl alcohol in the alleys and boulevards of his brain? His roommate had left for the summer; his girlfriend had left him two months ago. The people he knew were getting married, getting better jobs, getting out of the kind of housing you find by pulling tabs off signs in laundromats. He had few friends at work, because work was a biotech company for which he wrote press releases and annual-report copy, and it was made up mainly of hyperintelligent Indians and hypergreedy non-Indians, very few of whom wanted to start drinking directly after work in the Plough and Stars as Mark wanted to do, desperately and daily. So he was alone in those days and had no one to check his slide into the fog and no one, as it happened, to read what he wrote. When he pulled up at the close of a particularly breathless paragraph
(…because there
are
judges. Somewhere. In your particular heavens, in your beating heart. In the knife you drag across the toast, in the hands you lay on others. Judging and being judged at once, we cancel ourselves out, as in sleep, and in that hush is our salvation. At our best, we solve for x, and x = 0),
it occurred to him that he might be writing nonsense. So he took a walk around the jagged June of Somerville, past the Virgin Marys in their half-buried-upright-bathtub shrines, past the old Portuguese ladies who, scarved and scowling, pushed squeaky carts around the neighborhood. Another cigarette and then a cup of coffee squirted from the machine in the Kwik-Mart on the corner. And, for later, a couple of Budweiser tall boys and an ice cream bar from the cases beside the coffee-squirting machine, and then he waited at the counter behind the old man who fat-fingered quarters from his swollen palm for two scratch tickets and a pack of Old Golds. And then he went home, climbed the two flights of sagging wooden stairs, and played a CD too loud for two p.m. as he lay on his sprung couch, in and out of a reverie.

No. It was real.
This is real,
he thought. At least as real as the deft illusions his loser magician father had taught him before fucking off, when Mark was twelve, to drink himself into a soggy death in Berlin. Real like those illusions in that the effect was real, so who cared about the method?

But Mark plagiarized at school, lied to girlfriends, dodged his mother’s phone calls, pretended to knowledge he didn’t have, kept for himself a BlackBerry he found in the break room at work, cheated deftly at cards, put recycling in the trash, didn’t really care about Africa or children, forgot birthdays, and stepped over the indigent in the street. He was vain and bigoted and selfish and put the maintenance of his drug habits before his personal relationships. So how could he have gotten his hands on a complete moral code? The habits and attitudes that he had somehow managed to pin in paragraphs like iridescent flies on black foam board—they were thin on the ground in his own life.

Maybe he was turning over a new leaf. Maybe the power to change was being delivered to him, or he was finding it in himself. So he pounded a Budweiser and devoured the ice cream bar and went at it again.

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