My exit was no laughing matter, torn as I was from the shores of a superpower. When I was called to the Capital I knew I was headed for much smaller quarters than my Manhattan office, but I could never have imagined this stall, a room smack-dab in the middle of a massacre. Before I left, the butcher showed me how to make the best cut. I bought vitamins and a gun, said goodbye to my mother, consulted with my doctor, cheated on my wife and shot a small animal. I put it all in my report and prepared to meet the President. He informed me that my death would be trivial but necessary. My accountant assured me he would invest the proceeds. I changed all the dates, dug up my father’s bones and hid them in the attic. I was free.
When I got here George’s thunder rolled, the rich were leaving for France and the dead could speak. My advisor was a man at the disposal of the coalition except when he was transporting Afghan heroin up his ass. He told me that his eyes block the future and it is difficult to find a good firing squad in the middle of a morning milking. I didn’t understand a word he said and later I realised it just didn’t matter. Happily my bewilderment did not preclude us from becoming friends. His name was Aban. This country is my orchard, he said, if you put it in a box it will shrink every distance and Texas cannot adapt to small spaces. Sorry for the invasion, I said, the good news is we have no plan for the occupation. Our best estimate is just a few weeks. We do what we do, and then we discover the reason. It’s a blind man’s technique. We’ll leave after the contracts are signed.
It was in New York that I accepted my mission. Two Texas couriers walked past the cafe, a fruit stand, a tobacconist and dog people scattered to both sides of the boulevard. Up four floors of a brownstone to my office overlooking a courtyard with old trees where squirrels lived and birds came to visit. They were an odd pair, one small, a touch overweight and impeccably groomed, the other tall, slim and dishevelled. The tall man placed a briefcase on my desk, I already had the combination. The document began and ended with please advise as to your earliest departure. I placed a note in the case and scrambled the tumblers. The smaller man picked it up, we’ll see you there, he said … where, I said … that’s classified.
In the morning there was a car at my door. The driver handed me a plane ticket to the Nation’s Capital, executive class. There will be another car when you land, he said. The Capital was all fancy chocolates, the rustle of girls, skirts through a wheat field. One of them showed me a dictionary and pointed to the words that were missing. Only these are good for planting, she said. I wanted to disagree but she took my head in her hands which were clean as ivory. These are the hours we will teach you to forget, she said, now sleep while I read to you from the book of last things. This is what evenings are like in the Capital, tea and biscuits, the end elsewhere, a rumour from a faraway puddle.
I am a diplomat, a messenger in the mouth of what is already here, of what has already been said. Each morning I cut a deal with my reflection and then I watch as he picks up the razor. When I’m not travelling I live in New York. New York is in Texas. I speak many languages, perhaps all of them, and have access to vast lists and addresses. In Galilee I turned a carpenter into a king. I was there when the British and the French raided your village. In El Salvador I turned death squads into freedom fighters and farmers into rebels. In Iran I armed the government and the government in waiting. During negotiations I keep the car running with plenty of cash in the trunk. The Air Force will clarify what I can’t explain.
When I arrived at the Capital the President was in the library and a film crew was rolling up cables and carefully placing equipment into hard metal cases. They were preparing to leave. The Commander-in-Chief looked a little lost and felt compelled to explain the venue was the choice of his handlers. Hell, he said, everyone knows I’m not a scholar … yes sir, Mr. President. He was happy I’d come and told me I’d be going away to the war. I was to scrub the names and change the numbers, or the other way around, before they were sent back to Texas. Mr. President, I can do that from New York … we must find our reasons there and rattle them here … what are our reasons … whatever you say they are … yes of course.
The next morning I took a helicopter to a military plane. Its cargo was soldiers inside the packs on their backs. I was in my briefcase. The soldiers had already been told what to do, I told them what not to say after they did it. On landing I met our partners from England and a few from Australia. The Swedes were not represented. A sergeant from Wyoming escorted me to a convoy of armoured vehicles waiting at the edge of the airstrip, engines running. On leaving I noticed the soldiers unpacking and repacking their gear, repeatedly to master a gesture that might soon be their last. Eventually the trucks came to take them to their final destination. The sergeant informed me that he had been charged with my safety. We have a situation, he said. He needed someone who spoke the resident language and would I be kind enough to lend my assistance … yes of course.
We drove a short distance to a two-room house on the periphery of a small cluster of similar dwellings. A well stood ten or so metres from the back door. An old man was sitting on the porch under a sheet-metal awning. What does he want to tell us, asked the sergeant. The man explained there was a dead soldier inside the well. How did he get there … he was shooting at everyone … that’s not good … that’s what I told him … how did he get inside the well … I shot him … that’s a problem … I know … how old are you … eighty-seven … why did you shoot the soldier … he killed my son. What did he say, asked the sergeant … he said one of your soldiers is dead inside the well … we know that, how did he get there … he doesn’t know … did he see anything … no … tell him someone will come to collect the body. The sergeant thanked him, hearts and minds, he said, with a grin. I told the old man never to repeat his story.
We left the old man standing in the doorway. Through the small windows of the armoured car I could see the city, shattered glass and fallen masonry. I was driven to a secure complex comprised of several square miles. It was the palace of the previous king and now a little piece of Texas organized in the spirit of a college campus – dormitories, bars and fast food chains. Post-adolescents on the up side of a high school touchdown and before their first blowjob are sent here to flicker and die. When they went to collect the soldier inside the well the old man was dead. A bullet through the right side of his skull to match the report. That’s how we knew it was suicide. Now he’s small talk, scuttlebutt working its way through the cafeteria. Eventually he’ll be a story in Wyoming.
I was assigned an office with a bedroom adjacent. There were televisions in both rooms to make sure we were all watching the same war. The floor and the walls were marble, the ceilings plaster. The echo was distracting and distorted the music that I had so carefully selected to get me through all of this. The soldier responsible for my comfort managed to find me a very fine stereo. I asked him for some carpeting to absorb the sound, anything will do, I said. The next day he delivered four large, fine Persian rugs. I only need two … I can’t take them back … I see, put one on the floor and hang one on the wall of each room … which walls … opposite the door … which rugs … you look like you have a flair for this … yes sir.
Bartok packed a lunch and a gramophone and set himself to wandering. He went digging for the old songs, the old stories. They were floating face down in the Danube a few steps ahead of the secret police. Now he holds the darker chords a little longer. He is his father, he is his father’s father and the toothless grin of the Huns. In Budapest they say he didn’t just lick it off the ground. I have yet to hear God speak – a little vibration in the larynx, thoughts lost to thoughts otherwise. On earth music trumps conversation. In the war to end all wars one thing led to another and then the corpses began to pile up. It is best to catalogue bodies before they are buried. Listen, if you will, to the music a man with a shovel makes.
Before leaving the Capital I was called to the office of the press secretary. His name was Scott, but the President, who was fond of nicknames, called him Fuckface. There was a television in his office too. On screen a journalist was interviewing another rugged and dusty general on the difficulties of a winning strategy. Scott pointed to the screen, that’s the war that matters, he said, the one we’re fighting. The war on the ground will take care of itself. He was short on detail and admitted that sometimes things change, a little. He made no apology for machines that rust in the desert, for compounds that poison the sea. He made no apology for the winning team.
The President is finding it hard to respect a man he calls Fuckface. The press secretary’s job is to deliver public opinion with an accomplished lack of interest. In his back pocket are several enormous and widespread academics. They won’t talk to each other but a brain cell will consult with its neighbour for a second opinion. What do you think … that depends, what do you think. The enemy, I heard Scott say, will be severely wanting in democracy and sanctions for oil. A healthy child death rate will be maintained by the purposeful contamination of water, without favouritism. Vaccines are weapons-grade biological agents and will not be distributed. Tried and proper instruments of state we will later deny.