Read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Online

Authors: David Shafer

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (9 page)

BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


“Tell me about the people who you say were watching you,” said the doctor.

Oh, that
. “You mean the paranoia, right?”

“If I call it paranoia, you will think I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t.”

“You haven’t given me anything to believe or not believe.”

Fair enough. But Leo did not know whether the constellations of meaning he had picked out were to be believed, exactly. Now, remembering some of his theories, he could see that they were incredible. But this was neither here nor there—the beautiful and true is often incredible. What he felt most keenly was the sadness at the fact that he was no longer certain. He had no wish to convince anyone else—certainly not this doctor—that, for instance, his ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband worked for whatever part of the government was tasked with compiling dossiers on wayward members of the intellectual elite.

“You told your friends that you were being followed. Why did you say that?”

“Well. For a while there, I was being followed.”

A riffle of annoyance appeared on the doctor’s face. The doctor’s face. The face of the doctor. A face is just a skin mask with two black holes for seeing and a wet cave for eating and speaking. Leo looked away, not out of disgust, but because he was suddenly aware that this might not be a doctor after all.

Actually, Leo
been followed. He knew this in a way that he did not know other things—he did not
for instance, whether his ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband worked for the government. He could see now that the man was perhaps your more garden-variety jealous dick. She wasn’t even his girlfriend, really. She was Marilyn, the hot mom from Brand-New Day. They had tried a thing for a few weeks. It was mostly sex in the late afternoon and expensive dinners out, sometimes followed by drunken arguments on sidewalks or in her vast, sisal-carpeted apartment, usually about the morality of her profession—advertising—which Leo felt compelled to point out was a form of intellectual prostitution, but once about her very recently ex–husband. She claimed she didn’t really know what he did for a living.

“I don’t know. Consulting. He consults about stuff,” she had yelled at Leo as she stood naked in front of her refrigerator, digging in the back for more wine.


Now the doctor went deeper into his file. “And what about these?”

Oh crap,
thought Leo. Doc had printouts of his blog. How was that possible? He had erased all that. Leo wasn’t exactly tech-savvy (he mourned the passing of MacWrite), but he knew what a Delete All Files button was meant to do. Without leaning forward, he tried to look harder at the papers the doctor was fingering. They looked like screen-grabs, not downloads. Who could have given him those? Heather? One of Rosemary’s assistants? That was a bit much, didn’t they think? If they wanted to throw the blog in his face, they should have done it when they were in front of him.

The blog was even more embarrassing than the bookstore, though less financially ruinous.

After being fired from Brand-New Day, it was the children that he missed most. The not having anywhere to be at 7:45 a.m. was okay, actually. But the not seeing what Viola or Gus had chosen to wear that day (a tattered Disney dress; an adult swim cap and a Mylar cape); the not being someone whom tiny people trusted—that really sucked. The thing he missed second most, however, was being the publisher, editor, and staff of the daily journal sheets. So it wasn’t even a week after the dismissal that he started a blog, republishing the paper under its new banner,
I Have Shared a Document with You.

He considered going down to Brand-New Day so that he could keep reporting on the children’s lives. He reasoned that as long as he stayed out of the building and the outdoor play zone, Sharon couldn’t stop him. There was the First Amendment, after all. But when he ran this legal theory by his friend Louis, whose wife was a public defender, Louis said, “You go down there and lurk behind chain-link to report on children, Leo, and you will be screwed beyond what you really understand.”

And that sunk in, for some reason.

So what had been a take-home one-pager from a preschool was transformed into an online account constantly updated by its unemployed and oversynapsed and self-intrigued author. He was on the swoop of swoops, all the world’s connections laid plain before him. He wrote daily and linked to hundreds of articles, on solar panels and hydroponics and hieroglyphics.

But then the sad curve of his decline began to be plainly evident in that blog. When his creative imaginings started to turn paranoid and bossy and solipsistic, his friends grew concerned. Katharine, the public defender, tried to intervene.

“Some of it’s pretty good,” said Katharine. “But a lot of it is…well, it’s unpolished, and some of it’s just too weird.” They were standing on Leo’s sagging front porch. It was early morning. “It’s okay to have these patches, Leo. It’s common enough. You’ll get through it. But there’s no reason to put it all in hard copy, to make everyone watch.”

“Transparency is a virtue, Katharine,” said Leo, who had mostly heard the

” said Katharine. “One day you might feel differently about some of the stuff you’re putting out. Actually, you almost certainly will.”

Leo considered this. Maybe she had a point. But if embarrassment was due him later, it was due him later.
This here now is for this here now
. It is so easy to walk through the world when you ignore embarrassment and look people straight in the eye. Looking people straight in the eye also rattles them a bit.

“Well, aren’t you afraid of the secret world government that you say keeps track of everything we do online?” tried Katharine.

“I take precautions,” said Leo mysteriously.

take precautions?” said Katharine. “I downloaded Skype for you. You wrap your computer in tinfoil or something?”

Leo scanned the area. “My real name appears nowhere on the blog,” he said. It was true; Leo always signed his posts with made-up names.

Then Leo’s friends started making unannounced visits on flimsy pretexts. Then his pot dealer
cut him off
. Out of concern! Like pot dealers are bound by the Hippocratic oath. Probably it was one of those friends who’d called his sisters. People really
watching; even paranoids have enemies.

Katharine’s sarcastic crack about did he wrap his computer in tinfoil made Leo realize: the noms de blog were not cloak enough. The Internet was probably controlled by the other side—of course it was!—and they would shut him down, remove him from the equation somehow.
I Have Shared a Document with You
had to come offline; it could not be broadcast. It would have to be a
paper hard copy, a true dissident organ.

Around there, the pivot point came. A sudden change in lighting, perspective, tempo; a moment in time. He was in his attic reading his broadside, the first (and only) paper edition of
I Have Shared a Document with You
. He had fifty copies, printed on an artist friend’s ancient letterpress machine.

But then he glanced out the window and the sky looked bad, like menacing bad; a moving front, gray and striated, coming in hard over the West Hills. A darkness grew in Leo’s chest; a voice—the only floridly psychotic thing that had ever happened to Leo—said,
That’s right.
Kill yourself. Before you lose the nerve

It made sense, was the strange part. Leo could handle being a depressive. Possibly he had chosen it, in one way or another. And he would find a way to handle it for the rest of his life. But if he was a real nutter, he should find a way to kill himself; that was the deal he’d made with himself.

He climbed out onto his roof, a steeply pitched and many-angled place, and gorilla-walked to its apex, then stood tall like a weather vane. Yeah, that weather system was aimed at him. It was roiling and zombific and loaded with tons of very bad news about his future. He swayed forward a bit, imagined the tumble and empty air.

No, not enough empty air. He’d come out alive, with tib-fib fractures and a head injury; he’d be forever the unsuccessful suicide, the chickened-out.

So he scuttled back into his attic and lay on the floor. He
chicken; he didn’t want to die.

That’s the good news,
he told himself. And he remembered his mother telling him that he was not excused from the table. (He was a terrible eater.) Now he heard her voice. Not in the psychotic way, but in the keen-recall way, from heaven or space or the compost or whatever.
are not excused,
she said. She was tough; she had probably faced those flames bravely when they had come for her.

But if he was to live, how was he going to live with

He saw that the dissident broadsheet and the blog and all the stupid little fascinations were distractions; they were deeply beside the point. In back of all the wild imaginings, he had been taking shallow breaths and keeping one eye on the door.

In the newspaper—the real one—Leo read about outbound Africans who hid in the wheel wells of jumbo jets. He read about the ones who fell frozen onto Queens, their bid for freedom having far overshot the mark. But maybe some made it through; maybe they bounced off the awning of a Dunkin’ Donuts and found new lives as plasterers or lawn-mower men or newsagents, scarfed and hatted and peering at you from behind racks of gum. Panting and wading and grasping, the driven of the earth move across it in unflagging defense of their right to keep living. So what of people like Leo, adrift on privilege and spangled with choice, who let life’s flame gutter on its wick?


In the weeks that followed, his thoughts became as dark and jangled as wire hangers at the back of the closet. Oh, how the monsters had come in to stomp around his head. The morning was bearable, the afternoon insufferable, and the evening a damp relief.

He bought his pot from a sketchy character who made you come to him. To his house over by the freeway, its windows blacked out, the fish tanks unclean.

Leo nailed a sheet over his front window. He stopped answering the phone and then the door. The world outside was full of antagonists. He stayed tethered to his bong.

The sisters had timed the intervention well. A week earlier, he might have stood his ground. In the event, he did try. He tried It’s None of Your Business, which they rejected out of hand. He tried I Might Still Be Able to See Myself Out of This, which did not convince them. It was clear that they weren’t going to leave until he agreed to something inpatient. Rosemary mentioned some very illustrious places back east. He actually thought about it.

But he didn’t want doctors poking around in his dome. He’d probably end up with electrodes on his forehead and no memory of the past few months, months that, though they had been a dense thicket and maybe full of figments, he didn’t want taken away. There was possibly some information there; maybe some of it wasn’t total nonsense. Besides, without that, all he had was this, which was shit.

So, in what had seemed at the time like a brilliant idea, Leo decided that he’d avoid the nuthouse by agreeing to rehab. The gin in the coffee mug was his opening. And in truth, he was sounding less crazy and more drunk than he had a few months ago. When Heather said, “What about all that stuff you wrote on your blog? About the shadow government, the plan to sneak tyranny into our lives through convenience, the massive plot to control all the information in the world?” Leo tried to make it sound like he had written all that
in the voice
of someone who thought like that. He said he was doing this because he was planning on writing a novel about that kind of thing. It even seemed to him like that was something he could have been doing.

It wasn’t too hard to get Rosemary and Heather behind the idea of a rehab instead of an asylum. Daisy sensed another deflection.

“You’re a bad drunk, brother,” she said, “but there’s something else going on here.”

Luckily, the recycling bins on Leo’s back porch spilled with empties that were incriminating in their type and number: jug-size cheapos of gin and rum, a platoon of dead soldiers, sake bottles and sherry bottles and peach brandy bottles.

That was enough for Daisy. “You the only one living in this sorority?” she asked him.


It was only when he was slipping up the pretty driveway in the white minivan that Leo started to have misgivings about his plan. There might be a slight frying pan / fire problem, he realized. Who knew what kind of recovery they dished out here?

“See, Leo,” said Heather from the front of the van, “it’s not a locked facility.”

This had been one of his conditions. And it was true that Quivering Pines appeared to be an expensive and orthodox, gender-segregated Twelve Step drug and alcohol rehab in a strip-mall hamlet a half hour south of the city. It looked like a community college with really good landscaping—there were cacti in large planter pots beside the driveway. Perhaps that was meant to give the facility a desert resonance; the desert was supposed to be so conducive to recovery and transformation.

The first night he was put in a sort of observation bed. A man who looked like an onion searched Leo’s bag for contraband, then gave him a Big Book, a slimmer volume on Twelve-Stepping in general, and a notebook, the kind without perforations, so that a torn-out sheet has raggedy edges.


The doctor was reading aloud from Leo’s blog now. Specifically, from “Another Unjust Dismissal,” Leo’s account of being fired from his friend Gabriel’s construction crew. Gabriel had hired Leo a few weeks after the Brand-New Day firing, a few days after Marilyn told him she never wanted to see him again. It wasn’t total charity—Leo knew his way around Skilsaws and speed squares. But the doctor had secondary sources. He picked a page from the folder and read its excerpts. Was that Gabriel’s account? Daisy’s account of Gabriel’s account?

“It seems that Gabriel had every reason to let you go,” said the doctor.

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