By G.J. Reynolds
My agent called today, reaching me on my mobile while I was at the Shell station with my Citroën, vidange et lavage, complet. (This is not true; I don’t have an agent; but all of my stories are, if not built on, then reinforced with just this sort of lie, so bear with me here.) It costs about 8 dollars for a liter of motor oil, but hey, that’s progress.
My agent is in New York, where I am not. Even though he’s a New York agent, he speaks with a vaguely European accent. He is an immigrant, the best kind of American. And he is, as they say, a writer’s agent. He looks after his clients and doesn’t worry about getting rich. Editors hate him. That’s how I knew he was the right one for me. (Remember, none of this is true. That’s important.)
Anyway, so my agent calls me on my mobile and I’m having the oil changed in my little European car which I drive while I’m living in North Africa (the North Africa part is more or less true, but I’m not going to get into that), and he says that he’s got something worked out a house that might be interested in my book, which is a good thing, but it all hinges on the movie deal, which is in itself is also a good thing, except that in order to do the book deal, he needs a commitment from the producer, and in order to get anything from the producer he needs to know that there’s a publishing house seriously intending to back the book, and so on. Lots of possibilities, but basically I am fucked.
This is, more or less, the story of my life. Possibilities, potential, whoops!
Lucky for me I have my career as an international spy to fall back on. That is, my paycheck from the Defense Intelligence Initiative, one of the little doozeys they cooked up in Washington. I get a check—a nice one—to live among Arabs and pretend I know what’s going on. I write some reports, mention some interesting developments, things that might lead to something, that sort of business, then let it drop. Dead end, what can I say? I mean, I’m just a writer trying to get by.
Later, my girlfriend calls. Well, she’s not really my girlfriend (truth). But it’s not like she’s some kind of a whore either (lie). Her name is Saïda and she is beautiful. A brown-skinned Arab goddess with shiny dark hair that flows down her back, a beautiful smile, and nipples the color of... (hell, I don’t know. I never said I was a good writer.) Nipples like big chocolate sunspots (see what I mean) and when I latch on, and I do mean latch, I feel like a baby must feel, all warm and safe like time has stopped and if I close my eyes I can pretend just for a little while that the moment really will last forever. Anyway, so Saïda calls and she’s upset. Something is wrong but she’s speaking in Arabic and French, a kind of patois dialect they have here, left over from their days as a colony, and I don’t know what the problem is except that it has something to do with her clothes and she is very angry but also on the verge of tears, and quite possibly she will lapse into a state of defensive helplessness that only a promise of money and an extended shopping trip in Marseille will cure (not that it will ever happen, but it really is the thought that counts, the thought that someone cares enough to make up such an outrageous lie, and the only way I will get out of it is by buying her something relatively expensive, not jewelry—they have lots of that here—more like electronics, an MP3 player or a digital camcorder).
So after I get her calmed down she says that she needs to see me. Meaning that she’s hoping I need to see her, and of course she is quite lovely, so this need, while not foremost in my thoughts at that moment, is rather easy to manufacture. I agree to meet her later, at a nice restaurant, and then take her to the discotheque, all the time thinking that having a relationship that is so utterly transparent and contrived really suits me.
My mother called last night. She was unhappy about a story that I published in a well-known magazine whose name begins with “the.” Her problem was that I had used the word “fuck” in my story. “It would’ve been okay,” she said, “if you’d put it in dialogue or been writing in the first person; then people would think it was the character and not you.” Her real problem was that it was not with the word fuck or the point of view but that I had used the form “fucking” not as a swear word but to describe a sex act. As in, “George hated fucking his wife. It was one of the worst things he had to do. Twenty-seven years of marriage and the old ball and chain still wanted a good hard one at least twice a week.” Or, “Kathleen loved fucking more than anything else in the world. She liked the feel of a good hard cock sliding into her.” Neither of these was the actual sentence. I just made them up. There was no actual sentence. I have never published anything in my life. Still, it’s fun to dream...
What my mom really called about was to tell me that she and Dad had separated. They were getting divorced. It was all very amicable. One of those empty-nest things. Without the kids around, they finally realized they just didn’t like each other. That’s pretty hard to take, especially 6000 miles away. It’s like an indictment of your life choices; it’s like saying because you went away to another continent your parents’ marriage fell apart.
It isn’t just me of course. My sister lives in Mobile, Alabama. She is a social worker, works about 60 hours a week, and gets paid like 21,000 a year. My brother lives in Virginia, the D.C. area. He’s some kind of analyst or something for an insurance company. I don’t know anything more. Whenever he talks about it I get so fucking bored, I just tune out. We are not a healthy family. We don’t really have any love between us. More like we just tolerate each other for the sake of vague, genetic bond that none of us understands.
I’ve noticed this is not at all like things in the Arab world. You hear about some girl strapping explosives to herself and going into a café and blowing everybody up and the reason given is that she’s upset that her brother was killed in the intifada and you think, how could anyone care that much about a family member? Why would you blow yourself up just for that? My brother dies... well, then he’s dead. Dead is dead, as they say. I’m not going to kill myself.
It’s not like I’m alone in this. Even people I know who actually like their families, who have healthy relationships and look forward to spending holidays together—even they wouldn’t blow themselves up. I knew a guy when I was in high school and his older brother was killed in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. He hated Arabs after that, and later joined the Marines himself, but he didn’t go out and strap on a C4 overcoat, pull up to a crowded mosque just after prayers and blow hell all out of himself and every person in range.
This is just the sort of thing westerners have trouble wrapping their minds around.
My friend Racky called. He wants me to meet him for coffee. He is a university teacher and also my handler for the D.I.I. I give him my reports and he tells me if there’s anything I need to do. There never is. Someday he will give me some sort of assignment and I faint dead away. Right now the whole thing seems to be an excuse to use up all the dollars our beloved president and congress keep pouring into defense. Billions upon billions. It all has to go somewhere. When I think about this too long I begin to feel a little like Carl Sagan contemplating an infinite universe where everything is possible no matter how odd, how strange, how far-fetched. The poles of the earth have shifted, the bizarre has become normal, and normalcy absurd.
Racky takes my latest report and slides it into a beaten leather briefcase of the sort they sell in the zone touristique for what amounts to 30 dollars, U.S., but which can be had in the medina for as little 5 bucks. They come already looking worn and old and you can almost imagine one being carried by a plain-clothes Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie. I don’t believe that Racky has ever read a single word of my reports. Which is okay. They’re mostly full of lies.
This one talks about my trip to Gabès and makes it sound like I made contact with some Libyans. Actually it was one Libyan, and he wasn’t even a real Libyan, just a louage driver who works the Libyan boarder. My contact consisted of arranging to buy a couple of mobiles. Many of the products in Libya are subsidized by the Libyan government by virtue of the country’s oil revenues. So Libyans buy the stuff at subsidized prices and then take it to the border and sell it, netting a fairly easy profit. Both are camera phones, very popular now, lots of commercials on French television featuring some actress with an utterly unmemorable name. I will then take the phones and sell one myself and give one to Saïda. She will be so happy she’ll blow me all night long.
Racky says that I’m going to be working independently for a while. I take this to mean I’m being laid off, put on hiatus, whatever. “It’s more like cooling off,” he says. “Do I still get paid?” “Not really.” So basically I’m fired. He may actually have been reading my reports after all.
The famous editor, L.L. Markham, called. We had a nice talk. Really, though, I’m worried about him. His smoking, it’s gotten to be too much. I said so, but he just laughed. He has a smoker’s laugh. He has a smoker’s everything. You could spot him in a crowd of five hundred people and go, hey, that’s guy’s a smoker. I suppose that’s good if you need a light. Me, I don’t smoke. I have asthma. I knew someone once who said he had asthma but that it went away when he started smoking. That guy was really full of shit. He also spent a lot of time complaining about how blacks and women were getting all of the jobs. Asshole.
Anyway, Mr Markham (I don’t call him L.L.; it just doesn’t seem right) had read some things I’d written in various magazines too numerous to mention here and he was thinking of offering me a contributing editorship, which is really cool, but of course it’s mostly an honorific. Looks good on the résumé, but I had to tell him that I was too busy, what with all the spying I’ve been doing. Ever since I got fired, I’ve been working hard to infiltrate various political groups, mostly underground, very clandestine sort of stuff, this being a de facto police state and all. I realized not long after my talk with Racky that of course being fired was just a ruse, a way to send me deeper undercover. That Racky, he’s a clever bastard.
So Mr Markham and I talked a little about politics. I explained that I was an American true blue, first generation and all, and so it means a lot to me to do what I can in the service of my country. He commended me by saying something along the lines of dissent in a free nation is the highest form of patriotism or whatever. I had trouble making it out. He was coughing you know and his voice, it’s not very clear sometimes, all those cigarettes.
He’s really a nice man. I enjoyed talking with him. He invited me up to his place in Connecticut if I’m ever back in the states. I said I’d definitely look him up. First thing. After that he asked me if I had any children. I said no and he said that was too bad. He said if I ever had kids he’d be glad to be their godfather. An honor he called it. Can you beat that? And we’ve never even met.
The Secretary of State called the other day. Which I thought was really good of him, all things considered. He thanked me for everything I’ve done and for being a good American. The usual stuff. He was in a pretty light mood, which is rare these days. Apparently the Veep had gone to ground again and now he felt like he could breathe again.
After a bit he put the President’s National Security Advisor on. I guess they were off to Geneva on Air Force whatever-it-is they get to fly on. I could hear him in the background talking to somebody about having dinner with Mike. The P’s NSA was glad to know I was all right. She said when she got back to Washington she needed to get my input on a new policy paper she was putting together. I said, “Hey, no problem,” and she was very cool with that.
We talked a little about the old Soviet Bloc—that was her dissertation topic; she always likes it when you bring up something that really interests her—and I said I was thinking about writing a new novel based on the life of a Solzhenitsyn-like dissident/intellectual/literary figure and she said she’d send some things from her library through the diplomatic pouch so I could do a little background research before I decided to dive right in.
She seemed very at ease, more than I could recall from her past calls. I wondered if she had a touch of altitude sickness, a little light-headed, you know the drill. I heard ice in a glass and realized someone must be pouring her a drink. It’s important to get lots of fluids when you have altitude sickness. I was glad to know she was taking care of herself.
I asked about the President. “He’s fine,” she said. “Talking to [the Veep] on the Batphone,” I heard the Sec.-State say. They both laughed. We talked about what an intellectual the President is. How he doesn’t get enough credit for his vision thing and all his other great ideas. “Yes, that’s true,” the P’s NSA said. I told her how much I enjoyed my last conversation with the President, how he had enlightened me about the true spirit of world politics. By then there was some sort of emergency on the plane, I heard her talking to someone and then one of her people came on and said [the P’s NSA] had to go, etc., etc.
I said I hoped she was all right and that she felt better soon. “Altitude sickness can be rough,” I added. At that point the phone went dead, probably some sort of national security blackout.
The Pope called. This was very unusual. The Pope is very old and infirm and rarely speaks on the phone. He usually has one of his cardinals do it, or he sends a message through one of his bishops. He likes the immediacy of the personal emissary, and I can’t really blame him. He was in America to give one of those big outdoor masses. He was being driven in his Popemobile and I guess it gets kind of boring in there, so he decided to ring me up.
We talked a little about theology, the internal politics of the church, the Shroud of Turin. By then I was getting tired and he had some Pope stuff to do. I said I’d drop by the Vatican sometime and he said that sounded cool by him.
Kofi Annan called. I saw his number on my mobile and sent the call to my answering service. I didn’t feel like talking to him.
Nixon called from Hell this afternoon. It’s really funny trying to talk to him. He thinks all of the people down there hate him. I asked if he’d run into Kissinger. “He’s not dead yet,” he said. “Man, Dick,” I said, “that is so unfair.” He said it (Hell) wasn’t really as bad as everyone makes it out to be. If it weren’t for all the screaming and pain and the rest of that eternal damnation business, he might even get used to it. He said he had been asked to organize some sort of Lake of Fire outing. He wanted to know what I thought about the menu. Something about white hot nails and broken glass, and a choice of either flaming pitch or battery acid. I said I wasn’t sure about the glass and asked whether the nails were galvanized or not. I mentioned too that I usually make it a rule not to serve heavier drinks with the food. “I tend to see them as more suitable for aperitifs,” I said. For many diners, they can be problematic during dégustation.
God called. He was unhappy about my talk with Andy. I shouldn’t be giving those people down there advice, no matter how trivial. Yada, yada. You can never talk to Him. He’s one of those gods who has to be right all the time. Don’t even bring up how unfair it all is. The human condition, the state of the world, His distance from mankind. It’s all, “I am the Creator of Everything,” and “My Plan is not for Ye to know.” Whatever. I never was much for all that inscrutability business. I like my deities straight up.
We talked about a few revisions He wanted for the Bible. I said a couple of new books wouldn’t hurt. Ending it with Revelations was a bit of a downer anyway. I gave Him the name of my agent and we talked about who might be interested in the film rights. Scorsese was out, and He wasn’t all that thrilled with the whole Mel Gibson thing. He’s always been a fan of Merchant-Ivory, though he often gets them mixed up just like everybody else. A Room with a View is one of his favorites.
The last thing He said was that little Jesus had asked to come over and play some Yahtzee. I said, sure, no problem. I even promised to let him win. It’s good for his self-esteem. A real Son-of-the-Son-of-God complex if I’ve ever seen one.
“Bless America,” I said.
After that I turned off my phone and went back to bed. I had a big day planned and I needed to get the rest.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004