Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (8 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

“You see, Margo, I’ve been confused recently. Just now, before coming on with you, I was meditating, trying to futurize. But I’ve been thinking of my father lately. It was on this day, ten years ago, that he died.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Margo.

Mark did not know the date of his father’s death, but it seemed to him perfectly plausible just then that it
the anniversary of his father’s death. And, though he hadn’t consciously thought of his father in weeks, when Mark heard Margo say the word
he knew she was for real, and he felt a stone of grief rise in his throat. “So I guess that’s what I’ve been going through. And it’s been making my practice more difficult. The very practice that I’m trying to teach to others…now I find that I don’t always have access to it.” The stone in his throat was melting away. But Margo was hanging on his words now. He could feel it: ten million people wanted him to cry.

So he thought of his little dog, from long ago. An off-brand terrier named Monopoly who used to poke through the tall grass and broken bottles with Mark endlessly in the long lot that gave way to scrubby pine woods behind the Gasso station. One night Monopoly puked grass and chicken bones on Mark’s new Star Wars bedspread; Mark was livid, chased the dog outside, roughly, and went to sleep without her. Two raccoons, hopped up on garbage, opened her up during the night, ripped apart her soft, low-slung belly with stinking teeth and sickle claws. Mark may have heard the attack, Monopoly’s yelps colored his dream and woke him briefly. But he didn’t go to his dog because he was a little boy and afraid of the night outside: the sodium lights and bashed trash dumpsters with drooling stains; the chill, wet ground and the warm tar streets. Maybe he made up the part about hearing Monopoly’s murder; he would never be sure. Nor would he ever tell any of this to anyone. And he never forgave the Star Wars tchotchke mill, or Luke Skywalker, the soiling of whose prissy image had caused him to betray his dearest friend.

Mark closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. “I must now seem an odd sort to be talking about how to achieve success and serenity, Margo.” He bit his lower lip with whitened teeth, Clintonishly. He remembered how Monopoly sat still beside him while he built elaborate marble slides around the kitchen with lengths of pine siding he found beneath the house. How, when she woke beside him in the morning and stretched, she seemed to rub her eyes with the backs of her sandy paws. A wave of pure grief climbed through his chest and throat and settled in his jaw, where the camera caught it quivering. Tears came to his eyes, and when he spoke next, his voice was thickened by the humidity in his head. “I’m sorry. I suppose I should have prepared better.” Margo’s studio audience was rapt, enraptured. Across America, women saw a strong man crying about something abstract.

“No, please, Mark. You’re doing us an honor,” said Margo. “This is part of the Thorough Honesty that you yourself say we need if we’re to reach our own consciousclusions.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” he said. “And you know, Margo, I just have to…no,
just have to…add this knowledge to our work together. This…this doubt, this fear, this insecurity—this is a consciousclusion also. We fold this in, and our Knowledge Blanket just becomes that much stronger.”

“Oh, the Knowledge Blanket! I love that concept, Mark. I pull mine out all the time.”

“As often as you can, Margo. As often as you can.”

“So what will you do with it?”

“With what?” Mark sniffled.

“With that consciousclusion? That we are brought back ceaselessly? That even you can be muddled by your dead father, by a man who—I hope you don’t mind me mentioning—left you and your mother when you were young.”

“Oh gosh, no, I don’t mind. Mention away,” said Mark, who had puffed and massaged his middle-class upbringing at the insistence of his editors. He’d punched up the red dustiness of his southern Louisiana birthplace; he’d menialized his mother’s jobs, exaggerated the number of times they’d moved, called financial aid a scholarship. He left out the two weeks every year that he and his mother took driving vacations, she with a checklist of cultural and natural attractions she thought her son should see. He left out the tennis camp and the orthodontia.

“I suppose I’ll need to learn how to honor the part of me that is still a sufferer and, yes, a blamer. I have to listen to that part. To say:
I believe you, sufferer, I hear you. But you can no longer hold me back.
” Mark seemed to brighten at the thought. “Because we all have our things, you know? And if you’re going to bring the inside out, you need to bring it all out; you need all the information. Once you’re free of secrets, you can be free of shame and certain that what you have is yours, that it’s not going to be taken away; certain that you deserve the success that lies within you, within all of us.”

“But how are we supposed to do that?” asked Margo, now leaning in to him. “I wake and I read the paper and I feel overwhelmed. The environment. Global warming. Poverty.” Everyone listening to Margo remembered to be overwhelmed by these things also. “Think of the hardworking mother or father or struggling artist who wants to be a help and be a more actualized, more present person. What is he or she supposed to do? You’re someone who went from poverty to Harvard, and then from being a—what? You wrote test questions for a living, you worked demolition jobs, you used marijuana?”

“I did all those things.”

“Well, now you’re in demand wherever you go. To motivate people. To make companies and families and individuals work better. I hear that you’re life-coaching some very important Hollywood stars. And, I mean, you look great…doesn’t he, people?” Margo looked out at her audience. They whooped and hollered, because Mark did look great. “And I understand—and I want everyone to hear this, I want
to hear this, Mark, since you brought up the subject of money—that you’ve put most of the profits from the sale of your book into a foundation, the Bringing the Inside Out Foundation. Isn’t that right?”

Ah, yes. The Bringing the Inside Out Foundation.
of his profits? Well, it was a complex arrangement. The accounting people had explained this to him. Like a big sheltering stand of trees to keep the leaching wind of taxation away from the little berm of his money. “Well, yes, Margo, of course. I mean, I really am trying to teach something here. Though clearly”—he wiped the mist from the corners of his eyes one-handed, thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of his nose—“I have a lot to learn myself.

“Yes,” Mark continued, “the Bringing the Inside Out Foundation is dedicated to helping young people become informed digital citizens. There’s so much opportunity out there that they should know about, so many chances to connect. So we provide these kids with all the tools they need. Including these new devices from SineCo. Actually”—he held up the spire of his index finger—“I have one here.” Mark dug through the pockets of his bespoke corduroy jacket, elaborately. “It’s more than a phone, certainly, and, well, it seems to me that it’s more than a computer even. Jeez, where is it?” He pulled out his keys and plopped them on the table like any working stiff would. Then a Velcro wallet, which he stared at as if he’d never seen it before. He gave Margo a look like
Can you believe all this stuff that ends up in my pockets?
He pulled out two crumpled pads (“Two pads. Always got ’em. Could be brilliant stuff, you never know”); pens (“Pens. Too many is never enough. Why is that?”); a napkin (“Napkin. Maybe I got lucky.” Margo swayed back, laughing at the very idea); a breadstick (“Oh, look, a breadstick”); and, shit, his tiny stone pipe. (“Lucky stone.”) He switch-palmed the pipe to his left hand and quickly dropped it into the Slydini pocket he had had sewn into the lining of his jacket. Making a big production with his right hand, he dug in his inside breast pocket.

“Ah. Here it is.” He drew out the Node, SineCo’s newest gizmobauble, the perfect size, the perfect weight. No seam or tiny screws, no back to pop off, entirely sealed in the factory. Battery life of seventy-two hours. “Thing’s amazing. Cheap too. I mean, low-cost. I mean, relatively. So easy to use. Maybe I’ll ditch these notepads soon. And the kids, Margo. They can just run circles around me. They have rich online lives, interconnecting with each other and other kids all over the world. And making music and poetry. It’s just amazing.”

There was the cross-integration. He had rendered unto Straw what was Straw’s, and Straw would be pleased.

“That does sound amazing. Doesn’t that sound amazing, people?” she asked the audience.

The audience whooped and cheered, because it did sound amazing.

“Okay, so you do all this great work, is the point,” said Margo. “But how? Tell me, tell us, one thing that we can all do to become more goal-attaining, more solution-centered.”

“One thing?”

“One thing.”

He felt warm all over, disembodied, at home before these cameras. One thing? Before he said it, he knew it would be the title of his next book, a book that would take him beyond talk shows. He returned his gaze to Margo and seemed about to speak. But then he paused again. Gray Skirt, beside one of the camera operators, maybe rolled her eyes.

“Try again tomorrow,” Mark said.

eo Crane.”

The doctor spoke the name written inside the wings of a beige folder, open like a menu in his hands; he said the name like it was just words, which Leo supposed it was. The office was small. Leo was sitting on another piece of disempowering institutional furniture, a too-low, too-high-sided, tautly upholstered chair that encouraged surrender.

“So. How’re you doing?” said the doctor, looking at him now.

How’m I doing?
thought Leo, sarcastic within his still-aching head. Wasn’t that a dumb question? Isn’t it safe to say that a person being intake-interviewed at rehab would be mortified, crestfallen, and anxious? That’s how
was doing, anyway. He raised his arms a little and swiveled his gaze to take in the office: the large window, through which he could see the green swale of grounds outside; the doctor’s hulking computer monitor; a desk phone festooned with Post-it notes; a pen cup that said
. And was that a Viagra-branded tissue-box cover on the table in the corner? Holy shit, it
a Viagra-branded tissue-box cover. All this meant to Leo that he had lost. He had been fighting, and he had lost. Here he was, on the sidelines, a loser man-child in a cubular chair.

“Keith said you were reluctant to participate in Group today,” prompted the doctor. “Why is that, do you think?”

The doctor-type people here were always employing that fake-wonder-y voice. It was true that Leo had been as silent as a panther since his arrival, barely twenty-four hours ago. He just shrugged at the doctor’s question. How far back would he have to start? He was sober for the first time in weeks, but what had replaced the dark sloshing was a profound confusion about whom and what to trust. Best to keep his mouth shut. He found most questions unanswerable, or answerable in too many ways.

And something in the shell of his mind was saying,
Just because you’ve made a hash of your own life doesn’t mean someone else’s ideas are any better.
Especially not those of a man with a pen cup marked
Was this guy even a doctor? Leo looked around the little office for a diploma.

Hmm. Clinical psychologist. From an institution Leo had never heard of. Oh, and insult to injury:
Bringing the Inside Out
was prominently displayed on the doctor’s laminate bookshelf. Proof pretty much positive that this doctor was ill-equipped to dispense advice on any of the important questions.

Long ago, back in college and for some years thereafter, Leo had been best friends with the author of that fatuous work. But once Mark flukishly became famous, he dropped Leo, had some sort of
return Leo’s calls. The wild success of
Bringing the Inside Out
had bothered Leo deeply. Was that all you had to do to make it in this world? Sling shit while smiling? It was strange too; the Mark that Leo remembered would have eviscerated a book like that. Booklet, really. It was about one hundred pages, with wide margins. Presumably, he’d made a fortune from it, which was also deeply annoying.

Leo found his voice. “You a fan of Deveraux?” he asked the doctor. He raised his chin toward the bookshelf.

“I think there’s a lot in that little book, yes. Are you familiar with his work?”

“Very,” said Leo, the sixth word he’d spoken since his arrival.

He watched the doctor try to leverage this opening, his index finger running through the pages inside the folder again. Leo could guess what was in there—a grim précis of his last few months as reported by his sisters and whoever else had done advance work for the intervention.

Yesterday, when he’d answered the door and found his three sisters standing on his front porch, Leo had known straightaway. None of them lived in the state. And though the days of the week had lately come to mean little to him (just as seeing the clock-based time was inevitably a surprise), Leo did know that each of his sisters had a real job. Ten a.m. on a Thursday was not a drop-in hour, even in Portland.

Two of the sisters were busy tending to a family fortune built by their grandfather, the board-games magnate Lionel Crane. The company had been known as Crane and Herron until Lionel Crane and Nat Herron had come to a bitter falling-out, in 1975, over a golf score. Neither man had any idea what an apology was, so a disagreement (about whether a deep tractor wheel furrow on the twelfth hole of the Millbrook Golf Club constituted “ground under repair”) had bloomed and grown septic until the two men were unable to talk to each other in anything but Attorney. That had been a one-day news story in its time—the expensive sawing in twain of the company that made the classic game Board Room (in which players forged allegiances with one another to force others out). The two men fought especially over the rights to the company logo—a crane and a heron intimately entwined on a light blue field—and ended up having to sever the two birds, graphically. The resultant CraneCo (now signified by a winking crane in a top hat, a less compelling logo) went public ten years later and had grown steadily as a youth and family brand.

Rosemary, the eldest of the Crane children, was the chairman of the board. She had never had any problems in the success department. And to Leo, she sometimes seemed more like a forbidding aunt than a big sister.

Heather, the youngest Crane daughter, had started at the company right out of college. It was she who had negotiated the purchase of a small computer-games company that brought onto the CraneCo platform surprise hits like Wackadoodle! and Catch the Bunny. People in the industry apparently thought she was some sort of games savant, like she could look at any collection of random objects and design a game around them. This was funny because Heather was crap at games and puzzles and the abstract figuring they required, always had been. When they all played games as children, Heather’s older sisters generally stomped her. She might sometimes win a game of Mastermind or Battleship—she was good at plodding through possibilities. And she could hold her own when it came to the character-based games like Masterpiece or Clue or, one of the siblings’ own, Rescue the Baby, which involved putting infant Leo in his crumby baby seat in some sort of perilous position (often it was quite perilous—on top of the fridge, or alone in the dumbwaiter) and then devising elaborate ways of saving him.

Daisy, the middle sister, was Leo’s favorite. As a child, she was earnest but had a very low tolerance for bullshit, and she’d always had a mouth on her. Once, she either ruined or saved a wedding documentary by looking right into the camcorder’s lens and, when prompted by the offscreen uncle videographer—
What do you think about this great wedding, Daze?—
I think this cake sucks. And that old preacher guy talked for like a fucking hour. That lady Uncle Farouk married is mean.
She could also lie, brazenly, and was always proposing theoretical scenarios of death, like, “But Daddy, what if you fell off the skimboard and hit your head but then you drowned but then the fish ate you but before you were all the way dead?”

In her way and in her twenties, Daisy had exhibited some of the same problems that Leo had grappled with, though she had gotten off the ride well before the point at which Leo now found himself, or she had devised better coping strategies, because she was a physician’s assistant and the mother of two; she lived in Austin, and generally seemed to have figured out how you become a levelheaded citizen and a reliable person. But she had always been the sister willing to cut Leo the most slack.

So she was the only one he made eye contact with when he saw them there, a sedge of Cranes on his porch. Presumably, shifts had been covered and child care arranged and plane tickets bought and cars rented.
he thought.
They must mean business

Of course it had come to this. In the months leading up to their appearance, he had already fielded quite a few calls from them, calls in which he’d had to deflect their love and concern, minimize the increasing oddness of his blog posts, and promise to show up for the appointments they’d made for him with various doctors and therapists. But he’d missed all those appointments and quit taking his sisters’ calls around the time that the mania had crested and the other thing had started to bite. Still, he had enough wit shreds about him that morning to at least try to mount a defense, or another deflection.

“Surprise party?” he’d asked them at the door, and he gave his mug a little shake, which he shouldn’t have done, because the ice cubes therein announced themselves with a cold rattle, and it was Daisy, closest to him, who bent over his mug, took a quick whiff.

“Is that gin?” she asked. “Gross, Leo.”


“Has this sort of thing happened to you before?” asked the doctor. “Have you ever gone up and down like this?”

“I’ve been up and down a few times,” he finally offered. He had, over and over. But never like this.

“You seem to have a hard time holding on to a job.”

“But I get by.”

“You mean you’re wealthy?”

“I mean I have a supplemental income.”

The doctor perused a page. “Your family makes toys?”

The CraneCo thing caused some to think that Leo had grown up like the kid on
Silver Spoons,
riding a little train through a mansion. In fact, all it meant was that he had about eighteen hundred a month, unearned. Plus what he got from the deeper-pocketed sisters, who loved him. The doctor couldn’t hide a tiny, smug smile—people always like to see a rich kid brought low.

“Games. Not toys. It’s a public company,” Leo said.

“So you don’t need to work.”

Leo gripped the armrests of the stupid chair. “You’re right. I’m lazy and spoiled.”

“That’s not what I was saying,” countered the doctor. “But, I suppose, if you heard me saying that, it’s something we should talk about.”

“No need.”

think your life is easy? Do
think you’re lazy?” pressed the doctor.

Well, obviously, yes, my life is easy,
Leo thought. But only on one level. But that is probably the level at which ease has the most meaning, the most purchase. But lazy? No, probably not lazy. Lazy people, Leo figured, would presumably derive some benefit of leisure from their lack of industry. And since leisure was not a feeling he had ever really even approached—hounded as he was from crack of morning to lip of sleep by a pack of worries and their contingent sub- and meta-worries—Leo reasoned that he could not fairly be called lazy. His problem came from being unable to trace a straight line from present state to future goal.

For Leo, the single salient observable fact about the future was that it never turned out to be what you thought it would be. So different were the expected and actual futures that he found it hard to credit the idea that the Leo of two or five or nine years ago was even the same person as the Leo of today. Sadly, this meant that most information needed to be learned over and over again, that the same experiments needed to be run again and again, with different variables controlled for.

He had been unable, as yet, to put this highly nuanced information to any professional or artistic use. And for the past fifteen years, his life had consisted mainly of holding on while he rode the sine wave in his brain. But from a young age, he had received the impression that this moodiness was a womanly trait, and if a man admitted to it, he should do so only in a paragraph about how he had overcome it, or how he intended to overcome it.

There were hard-to-credit upward swoops in his outlook, brought on by love, wind, proteins, neuro-slurry, patented pharmaceuticals, the pH of the tap water, the buzz of sodium streetlights, or some deeper current. At these times he took risks and adopted a sort of shine and swagger.

The worst was that bookstore he bought. He was twenty-six, and he’d emptied his trust fund like a kid shaking a ceramic piggy bank (plus took on as much debt as the bank would let him). What a shitshow that turned out to be. He thought the bookstore would lead to a journal edited by himself. Writers would clamor to submit. He would know everybody. He moved into a room above the store and stayed one long cold winter, his room heated only by a leaky woodstove, his store patronized by kind locals who had loved the former owner’s freakish breadth of knowledge; weekend celebrities in thousand-dollar jeans; drowsy students looking for a two-dollar
morose and august humanists from the college.

But not enough of any of these.

After nine months, having grossed $6,700 in his career as a bookstore proprietor, the bloom way off the rose, Leo sold his entire stock to a dealer from Florida, who arrived in a Range Rover and paid by check. Rosemary bought the building from Leo and sold it quickly, at a loss.

After the bookstore flop, he’d worked at CraneCo, briefly. But the company couldn’t really find a place for him, and he was embarrassed every moment of every day. So, though it was his birthplace and motherland, his Fern Hill, and though the cool dank zephyr that preceded a subway’s arrival from the mouth of its tunnel comforted him, he fled Manhattan and moved to Portland. A place that was kinder to people like him.

He drove a wine-delivery truck, he drove a taxi; he was a mediocre waiter, a drunken barback. The periods of hope and courage came less frequently. And as his twenties became his thirties, the landscape came to feature swamps of gloom dotted with marshy hummocks of anxiety. He worked on getting better. He tried jogging; he limited his drinking; he sprinkled seeds into his yogurt. A girlfriend got him into yoga. He practiced having a good attitude. But it was trench warfare. He lost his yoga mat and had to buy another one. Then he lost that one and couldn’t see buying a third. He watched other people claim to enjoy drinking; they baffled him. The same people spoke of hangovers almost fondly, as evidence of their propensity to dissipation. His own hangovers were whole days mined with grim, churning thoughts. He saw therapists and psychiatrists; he tried Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Effexor, Celexa, Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Also meditation, core work, and juice fasts. He cut out meat. Kept a garden. Clawed through months of clean living, then fell back into blurred days like an acrobat into a net.

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