Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (7 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
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The problem, he was now certain, was that everyone—no,
most
people; no, he,
Mark,
was operating under the mistaken belief that there was an autonomous self sitting in a little driver’s seat behind his eyes. And that everyone was—no, he was,
Mark
was, forever overestimating his own importance, his own agency, his own centrality.
Until I can live in the knowledge that the Self is more or less a happy accident, I will never be free.
Let the reader decide if that was the problem in his or her own case. Speak only for yourself. But also:
I am you and you are me. If you would prefer not to be me, tough. Those people who roll their suitcases
faster or slower than you in airport concourses? They are not just extras; they are the thrilling protagonists of their own stories. Those dullards in NFL-branded jackets who jaw loudly into their idiot phones on the T? They are you. They who jabber about their dead kin on CNN? They are you too. U2 is you too
…no, ex that out. Come back to earth. What was it he was trying to say? Was there any more alcohol around here?

  

“Will this do?” asked Gray Skirt.

There was that tone again. Was it mocking? He just couldn’t tell. She was standing at the open door of a small room, gesturing withinward. There was something curlicued about the flourish of her gesture, which finished palm up and elbow sharp, as if she were serving from an invisible tray. He realized she hadn’t squarely met his eye all morning. Mark quickly scanned the room. White file boxes were stacked tight as Legos against one wall. Four vacuum cleaners leaned like sentinels against another. Watercooler jugs lined a third. But there, on the fourth wall, was a window. High up, but a window, and he could tell that it would open.

“Yes, thank you very much. This should do just fine,” said Mark. “The natural light helps to clear my mind.”

“Of course.”

“Would you see that I’m left alone for, oh, ten minutes?”

Gray Skirt checked her BlackBerry. “You can have eight, I’m afraid. You’re needed in Makeup.”

“Right.” He was pretty sure by now that she was unimpressed by him. But that whole issue had receded in importance. What he needed to do now was smoke this joint in his pocket out that window there.

The door clicked behind Gray Skirt, and Mark assessed the window. Shit. It was, like, six feet up. Holding a water jug by its fat neck, he rolled it across the floor until it sat beneath the window. Balancing one-footed on the jug, he looked like a high-school trophy, though holding a joint instead of a volleyball. The window was an in-swing affair, and opening it with too much force, he lost his balance, fell backward, and landed hard on his wrist and ass.

Eyes on the prize, though. The joint was still in his hands. He righted his water jug and rolled a second one beside it, then stood on the two of them like a rodeo act on two horses’ backs. This was more like it. He thumbed his lighter, and the joint crackled in tiny fire. He craned his face out the window and smoked with intent. Inside of a minute, he felt the drug come on, covering his worries and drowning his doubt, just as the tide comes in to cover the jagged sticks and stones of the lapped shore. The bleat and rumble of midtown came up to him on a warm breeze. An air conditioner somewhere near ticked and whirred. He looked at people making money on telephones behind glass across the avenue. One man did jumping jacks before a huge TV. He saw a pigeon whorl and flap and hide its gray self against the grit of a roof.

But then flapping up beside the pigeon came the worry that maybe he was unprepared for this
Margo!
thing. He’d done a few TV spots already, but they were brief appearances, medium-market morning shows, for which he had to fill only a few minutes, the beaming hosts thick and flat with praise for Mark’s work. For the corporate retreats and seminars he led, he needed only platitudes. Substance is fine, but it’s presentation that hooks an audience, eye contact and lots of hands, a talent he’d inherited from his father.

Below him, a cop car was bellowing and whooping at the truck blocking it from the avenue; the truck crept into the stream, against the light, and the cop car sharked around, went hurtling uptown. Above, a jet escaping LaGuardia left a rumble in its dust—a tube of people, remember, being missiled around the globe. What fun, what a world. No, he wasn’t going to blow it. People hawked crappier stuff than his all the time. And he was no fraud, just a little tired of his own shtick. Wasn’t that evidence of his integrity? Here was his chance to step it up. His mother would be watching—she’d have the whole tire store watching, probably. She loved Margo. When he told her that he was going to be on the show, she’d actually dropped the phone—he’d heard the phone bounce on the floor and then heard the cat food scatter across the kitchen linoleum.

“You have something to say,” he said aloud to himself, standing on his pedestal jugs. “You have something to offer.” And he turned his shut lids to the distant sun and let its rays soak his sight; sparkly amoebas swam in a pink sea. He took ten deep breaths.

Then his phone rang, and he startled, nearly fell from his jugs. He looked at the call to reject it. But the name displayed—though it caused him to wince on the inside—was the one name he could not reject. He stubbed his joint into the corner of the window frame and flicked it toughly into empty space. He pressed
ACCEPT
.

“Hello?”

“Mark. James Straw here.”

“Mr. Straw!” Mark exulted. He started loading his mouth with the little dissolving mint strips he used after smoking.

“Marjorie Blinc tells me you’re going on that woman’s show today.”

“Yes, sir. Margo. Backstage now, actually.”

“I told you, Mark. Don’t call me sir. I feel that we’ve become much closer than that.” Straw had said this a couple of times, but he had not yet said what form-of-address level they had reached.

“Indeed we have…Mr. Straw. Indeed we have.”

The dead air that followed was weird. Straw usually let you know quickly what it was he wanted. After a moment, Mark had to prompt him. “What did you want to speak about, Mr. Straw?”

“Calm down, boy,” said Straw cheerily. “I’m calling you to wish you good luck. Big day for you, I know. I want to help you get that laserlike clarity that you’ve given me so many times. Even I get some nerves before a board meeting, or with that nasty business with Congress last year.
You
taught me a way through all that.

“Now, I’ve heard that this Margo lady can be tough. One minute she’s saying,
That’s so sad, that’s so interesting,
and then,
wham,
she’s caught you in some lie.” Mark hadn’t even been considering that. “Well, I want you to know that I
know
you can shine on her show. And just to be safe, I’ve made it very clear to Margo’s organization that everyone at SineCo—and I, personally—have every faith in you and your work.”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Straw. That, um, that means a lot to me.”

Someone knocked at the door. “Mr. Deveraux. Two minutes.”

“They’re calling me now. I should go.”

“Of course. Of course. Listen, Mark?”

“Yes?”

“I probably don’t have to point out that today would be an excellent opportunity to engage in some of the cross-integration that we spoke of. That you agreed to.”

It was a moment before Mark understood. “Yes, of course. I’m excited about that part.” Shit. What exactly had he agreed to?

“Excellent. Excellent. Well. Look it in the eye, Mark. Look it in the eye!” This was one of the maxims in Mark’s philosophy: Whatever you want, you should
look it in the eye.

  

There were clipboards and headphones all around him as Mark was shepherded from Makeup to the little on-deck circle backstage. He heard Margo say his name and imagined his mother’s thrill and pride at hearing it also. The chief clipboard told him to go, and he went. Into the spotless pretend living room of the stage; into the one-way gaze of ten million people.

He gave Margo’s hand a squeeze, did the wave-into-the-lights thing, seated himself in the guest chair with slightly exaggerated settling-himself motions, and—this was the easy part—nodded bashful confirmation while Margo told the story of the sudden, stunning success of his book.

The way Margo made it sound, Mark might have found the cure to a terrible disease or brought clean water to Africa. She said he had changed millions of lives. Then she mentioned, as if it had just occurred to her, that she was an early promoter of
Bringing the Inside Out
.

“I’m not sure that had anything to do with its success,” Mark said, interrupting her, and he smiled, mid-sip, over the rim of the mug of fair-trade green tea that had been awaiting him on the little celebrity side table. Margo seemed caught short. Was he really saying this? Who would think it wise to cross her?

Then he winked at her. Mark had an excellent wink. There should be no cranial scrunch in a wink, no lip work. Too slow, and it’s silly; too fast, and it’s a tic. (Mark also had a great whistle; it could summon taxis from across the avenue.) Camera two caught Mark’s wink perfectly, and camera one recorded something like a blush rise on Margo’s face.

“Okay, you’re joking, I guess,” she said.

“Yes, Margo, I’m joking. You pretty much made me.”

“Oh, I think your work made you, Mark. Wouldn’t you say so?”

“I have and do and will. But who would believe us if we pretended that I’ve earned all this?” He put down his tea and made a gentle gesture at the lights and cameras.

“Well, as you say in your book, you
futurized, committed, and strove
.” She paused, looked at Mark. He lifted his hands a little bit, turned his palms up and his gaze down, and raised his eyebrows: the picture of a man sincerely doubting what he has just heard. Margo took up his slim book with both hands. “You did those things”—here she read from the flyleaf—“and what you wanted flowed to you ‘like water down a mountain, like information out of a search engine.’ I think that many, many people have found those words inspiring. Don’t you?”

“Apparently, yes.” Mark leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees, and templed his long fingers. He drew in breath to speak, but then held it, creating the kind of pause that, on television, feels like weeks. “And I thank those people just for listening to me. It is such an honor to be listened to. You know that, Margo.” Another pause, and something like a tiny wince on his face. “But I need to come out right now and say that my success, the success of this book, is hard for me to credit. I am all the time full of doubt, and I’m uncomfortable being described as the man with the answers.”

“Mark Deveraux is all the time full of doubt?”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Mark, perking up.

“Doubt about what?”

“Doubt as to, you know, the general shape of the curve, the fairness of the judges, the notion that we can make ourselves better.”

“But you made yourself better. You say so in your book. You write that you were a, what, a…” And Margo started to flip through the pages.

“A ‘whining, blaming, suffering zero,’” Mark supplied.

“Yeah, that. It’s so cutting. And then you discovered consciousclusions,” she prompted. “You made yourself better.”

“Well, I
got
better. Did
I
do that? Who can say? And did I discover anything? Certainly, I gave voice to something. And it’s resonated. And, again, Margo, I’m so grateful to each and every person who read or listened to a single word of mine…It’s just that I need to be clear…”

“It sounds like you’re backing down from what you said in your book, that the power to change ourselves is in all of us.” Margo straightened her back and raised her chin.

Mark took in another one of those breaths. He leaned close to Margo so that his butt lifted off the cushion, his right hand sharp-angled to the little table between them. And then he tapped the table, hard, with an index finger. Four times:
tap-tap-tap-tap.

“I’m. Not. Backing. Down,” he said, one word for every tap. It was the strangest gesture that anyone had seen on the
Margo!
show since a chef had lit his sleeve on fire and then swatted it out with a duck breast. Mark’s arm retreated; his body settled back in the chair. “Look, Margo. We’re changing all the time. There is no stasis. But that’s incredibly good news. It means that we can always become better.”

“More successful.”

“Ahhhm, yes. More successful.” Mark had gotten a little lost. But now he saw a thread. “When I wrote what I wrote, I did so as a different person. I did it by faith. Do you remember, Margo, when you woke every day wondering whether you were on the right path?”

Margo actually nodded, involuntarily.

“Now I have this affirmation all around me,” Mark continued. “You know: the money, the people asking me what I think, what I want. And now I see that it was living in the doubt that gave my thoughts strength. It was having to place that bet on every day.”

“You know what, Mark?” said Margo. “I do remember those days. I once had to sell my piano to make a month’s rent.”

“Your piano? Oh, what a shame. Tell me about that piano.”

“It was a no-name upright that had spent forty years in a church basement. It had these beautiful flowers carved into the front of it and a sounding board that was too warped to stay in tune. But I loved it.” She smiled broadly, and was beautiful.

“I’ve read that you have twelve pianos now. Is that true?”

“Oh, Mark, I love music.”

“But what wouldn’t you give to have that first piano back, right? Well, get this: It’s not coming back. We’re all looking for our madeleine.”

“Yes. We’re all looking for someone, aren’t we,” agreed Margo.

“Of course we are. We are borne back ceaselessly.”

“That’s beautiful.”

“Thank you,” said Mark, graciously. “Yes, we are borne back ceaselessly. I suppose that’s how it will always be. My method for personal success requires that we futurize ourselves; that we see ourselves in the future being as we wish to be. But we can’t shut the door on our past. We have to be whole people.

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