Before Wesley Mantooth is lifted into the desert sky all he could think about was castles.
One day before going to law school he decided to go to Scotland to look at them.
“Come with me,” he said.
Wesley paid a local innkeeper to take us around to see if anything caught his eye.
“But I thought you wanted to build your own?” I asked, not yet comfortable with the idea of my best friend living in a castle all the way over in Islay.
Wesley snorted a bump off his fingernail, “I’ll need somewhere to stay while they’re building it won’t I?”
We spent the morning looking at castles. They were mostly gargantuan and slathered with peat. I touched them just to make sure, but they were real. For lunch we stopped at a tavern in Port Ellen. We had scotches and roast hen. I could smell gull shit and stale beer.
“Which one was your favorite?” asked Wesley, gnawing on a thighbone.
“I liked the one with the moat.”
“Yes,” said Wesley, “but I didn’t much care for their turrets.”
“Islay is the fifth largest Scottish island and the sixth largest island surrounding Britain,” said the innkeeper.
After lunch we went back to castle hunting. There was one very handsome model that was built in the sixteenth century. I went to the top of it alone and looked out on the countryside. There were cows and limestone churches warming themselves in the sun.
“This is nice,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” said Wesley.
The three of us made our way from castle to castle until sunset. The sunset was a soft orange glow obscured by massive gray columns of storm clouds.
“God is behind there,” said the innkeeper.
Wesley on my intercom, trying to coax me outside.
“What the hell?” Wesley says. “Enough of this Howard Hughes shit and come down here like a human being. Wait are you alone? What have they done to you? What have you done with MY FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE, you animals?”
“You’re coked to the brains,” I say. “Leave me alone.”
“If you don’t come down here in three minutes I’ll be forced to brutally rape the first person I see,” says Wesley.
“That’s very un-American of you,” says Wesley. “I wanted to buy you nine, or ten drinks of your preference. You leave me no choice but to call your mother and inform her I will be dropping by later for apple pie and senior citizen cunilingus.”
I sigh into the intercom.
“Alright, I warned you,” says Wesley. I hear a sharp snort followed by Wesley’s deranged attempts at girlish screams.
Once upon a time in the future when Wesley is already blown up in the desert, I will write the President of the United States.
“My best friend was recently blown up in Iraq,” I will write in the future to the future President. “Please explain.”
The President will not reply. On television I will see him playing golf with the British prime minister. They will seem refreshed, unworried. I will briefly consider going around the corner and buying a cleaver to assassinate said President, but then I will decide the President is too far away, so I watch television instead.
The death of my best friend will put me in a deep funk. For three weeks I will suckle at bottles of Alsatian Gewurztraminer. I will think of purchasing a Swiss cow online. I will write letters to each of the Cabinet members except for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development because I figure they have enough on their plate. In between letters I will often consider lighting myself on fire, or releasing a live mako on the Capitol steps. In the afternoons I will watch a program about wild horses in Montana. They are led by a big white one, possibly a Mecklenberger, or an Orlov Trotter. The horse’s name is Flower. It will be on every night at nine.
One afternoon I write a drunken email to Wesley telling him to quit and move with me to Mexico so that we can marry Catholic girls and go on adventures together.
Wesley writes back:
What was I thinking? They tricked me with all that money and those goddamned club ties! You know how I feel about traditional neckwear. At least the medical profession has sense enough to kiss off an afternoon for golf, or defile a nurse in the records room. The only sane thing I can say about these people is that they actually condone heavy drug use.
My phone rings at three o’clock in the morning. It’s Wesley.
“I’m dying,” he says.
“Iraq. They’re shipping me off tomorrow.”
“You sound strange.”
“Strange? Strange how?”
“You don’t sound like yourself.”
“And double Greyhounds.”
“Did they say why they’re sending you?”
“Moderately complex matters.”
“Are you going?”
“My division at the firm is government and infrastructure. In a nutshell.”
“What about your father?”
“He would cut me off.”
“That’s not more important than dying.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“You could kidnap me.”
“We could hide out at my father’s place in Zermatt. Go skiing until the war is over. They would think it was terrorists. Probably get a raise.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Well, what now?”
“If you want I can take you to the airport.”
“They have a car. It is coming for me.”
“Make sure to wear one of those things.”
“Wear what exactly?”
“That Kevlar, or whatever they call it.”
“I don’t know, but I’d wear it if I were you.”
“You concerned for my safety, old buddy?”
“No, I’m concerned about the Middle Eastern coke supply.”
“Funny. I should sleep now. Fuzzy sheep. Look out beloowwwww.”
“Take care of yourself.”
Wesley and I once had simultaneous panic attacks. We were on an airport shuttle outside Vail, Colorado. The night before we’d had too much cocaine and Wild Turkey at a friend’s wedding. Everyone else on the shuttle looked normal. I remember Wes sweating and pleading with the normal looking passengers to let him out because he was having acute kidney failure.
“Don’t you know I am the duke of Archibald?” he screamed at the driver.
I worry about Wesley. People blowing up every day. I watch terrorists on TV because it is the new national pastime. I am watching them now. They are mourning the loss of another terrorist. They are in some drab little neighborhood I will never see in my lifetime. How long would they mourn for, I wonder? I watch by myself on the couch. I have a Tom Collins. I know the President isn’t watching. He is golfing in Palm Springs, which has the least amount of terrorists per capita in the universe. I watch intently. One terrorist has on mirrored sunglasses. He is smoking a long-stemmed ivory pipe. He is in what looks like a circus tent surrounded by a buffet of dried fruits and various teas. I think he looks forlorn. Forlorn terrorists are the most dangerous, I think. The other terrorists smile sheepishly at the TV cameras and sometimes eat what look to be dates.
“These are terrorists of honor,” I say as I settle down with another Collins.
I point out Iraq on my desk globe. I touch it. It is beige colored. Some day, I think, I will get married near a lagoon, or somewhere equally romantic and Wesley and his wife will live nearby and all four of us will play cards and drink Vermentino. But not now. Now is not the time for Vermentino. Now is the time of terrorism, which is like the Stone Age, or something similar, but also different.
I am thinking about castles.
I walk to the fake castle in Central Park near Eightieth where they sometimes hold summer concerts. I imagine living inside as a fake lord or duke. A castle is a place for hunkering down for a long winter of ham-hocks and hay shortages. It looks cozy for a castle. I like cozy places. When I was younger I wanted to live under a tree like Mole in The Wind in the Willows. A crackling fire and cured sausages hanging with dry sherry in little green bottles and roots curving out like rafters.
You can’t live under a tree nowadays.
People would vote against it, or stick flame-throwers down the chimney.
I decide to go to Iraq and rescue Wesley.
Accomplishing such a feat will give me direction while simultaneously saving Wesley from all but certain dismemberment. I decide this is something I should have decided a long time ago. This decision makes me feel bold and unselfish for once in my life.
Why not, I think? Why don’t people just go over to a war unannounced and take away their loved ones en-masse? What is stopping them? I can see it now. Cameras following my every move through the war-torn countryside. The President wishing me luck from a verdant fairway in Palm Springs. I would find Wesley and we would steal away into the night. This would be followed by a week of hiking through the wilderness during which we would eat trout and drink chartreuse for sustenance. We would dream of Switzerland and talk about Cicero. Hot buttered rum and coked up countesses awaiting us on the winter slopes of Zermatt.
The other thing that could happen is that we could die.
The first leg of my trip is to Morocco via Paris. I do not like Paris, but I admire the airport bar. I drink down three French ales while pretending to watch soccer. The game is confusing, but the beer is good. Once in Morocco I find a hotel thrown together with white mud and whopping teak ceiling fans that chop at the north African heat in vain. I spend three days smoking hash and dreaming up daring escape scenarios. One night at a nearby café I meet two substitute schoolteachers from Florida. They are frightened of the locals and joke that they need an escort.
“We want to get drunk,” they tell me.
We go to slavery museums together and eat long spicy lunches in the old district. The old district is different from the new district in that it has fewer hotels and more murders per capita. One of the teachers is blonde. The other is a redhead. The blonde is named Sally. I can’t remember the redhead’s name, but she is afraid of snakes. During one of the snake charmer shows I pinch the redhead hard on the back of her overly freckled neck as if she were being bitten. She screams and runs off crying. Sally laughingly consoles her as I watch another cobra rise from the wicker. I think, what if we dropped a million laser-guided cobra baskets on Baghdad? Would they survive the impact? What exactly is the going rate for cobra labor these days?
At night we eat cous cous and all manner of things that have been jerked, or steamed.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Sally asks.
“I’m breaking my friend out of the war,” I say.
“I don’t think they let you do that,” the redhead snaps, still a bit raw about the business with the snake.
“Why not?” I ask.
“It’s like taking your kids out of class before school’s out,” the redhead says. “It’s just not done.”
“Yeah,” Sally chimes. “You need a note from the principal to do that. So you would need a note from the President, I suppose, or at least some sort of general.”
“I’m going note-less,” I say.
“How are you going to do it?” Sally asks.
“I’m going to walk into Iraq and take him.”
“Take him where?” the redhead asks.
“That doesn’t sound very smart does it Sally?”
We get drunk and smoke hash back in my room. I don’t have sex with either of them as both are afflicted with unfortunate semi-mullets and an over-reliance on blue mascara. Early the next morning I slip out of the hotel before they wake up.
I take a taxi to the desert.
I start walking.
“Now I am really rescuing my friend,” I say to the desert.
I walk for a long time through the desert before I realize I have made a mistake. I turn around. I take a bus back to Morocco and buy a map. According to the map I am nearly a thousand miles from Baghdad. It is Wednesday. I ponder hopping a flight to Kuwait, or possibly Jordan. Then I get another hotel room in a different part of town. I call room service. I order a BLT and a French beer. All the beer here is French, or Belgian. I decide coming here was a stupid idea.
The telephone rings. It is Sally.
“Hey mister, we just saw you tearing through the lobby. What do you know, we’re staying at the same hotel!”
I hang up. I call down to the front desk. I ask for another room under the name Algernon Swinburne. I take a bath. Don’t think of Wesley dodging explosions. I drink French and Belgian beer in bed until I fall asleep. The next morning I get a flight back to New York.
A month later I learn of his death by phone.
“They blew him up,” weeps his father. “Can you believe they blew my boy up?”
His father says a stray mortar found him one afternoon minding his own business inside the Green Zone. One minute he was having a harmless turkey sandwich the next minute his arm came off at the shoulder followed by irreversible blood loss.
I hang up.
I look out the window.
The world is changing, but how?
I stay home.
I polish off my wine rack until the funeral, which is later that week.
It’s a small church on the Upper East Side. Wesley’s closed casket is there. It smells like shoe polish and candle wax. I take a seat near the back by myself. I try to listen to the priest, but my mind wanders. I am in Islay. I am on the slopes of Zermatt contemplating late-night hot tubbing with coked up countesses. My friend is not in that box with only one arm, I reason. My friend had two arms and liked to do lines while watching the Yankee game.
“All I want is to be left alone,” I tell people.
The first thing I do is to purchase a can of lighter fluid.
For two days I regard the lighter fluid gravely from a safe distance. Once I pull out a box of matches from under the sink, but that’s as far as it goes.
I go back to regarding it gravely from a safe distance.
The following nine days I refuse to leave my couch or watch TV or eat excessively or drink alcohol or sleep or deconstruct porno or do anything Wesley is now unable to enjoy being that he is no longer of this world.
I see this as level one on the grieving scale.
On day ten I reach level two. Level two includes one drink and one TV news program per day.
On day fifteen I reach level three. Level three includes two drinks one TV news program and one PG rated movie per day.
On day nineteen I reach level four. Level four includes three drinks three hours of TV and light masturbation.
On day twenty-one I discover a routine. Every morning I have a grilled cheese with Gewurztraminer. I broaden my horizons. I watch TV. People with mustaches appraise the Yankees’ underachieving bullpen. People with mustaches try to sell me a powerful rug cleaner. People with mustaches talk about extinction level meteors pulverizing the rings of Saturn. The rise in mustaches says something important about the inevitability of the universe’s collapse, I think.
“This is proof,” I say, smacking the top of the TV. “Proof that life is meaningless!”
At my kitchen table I decide to leave civilization. But everything is harder now. People used to live in saloons in the Yukon and eat hard tack and marry sensible women named Clara. Now you lie in bed on Monday afternoon. You think about what heart disease will feel like while criticizing teen nurse porn.
I have two dreams.
One is about a beaver that makes a cozy fire inside his dam. In the dream the beaver sips expensive brandy by the fire and is happy about life in general. The other dream I have is about Wesley. He is outside my cabin door and asking me why I left him to die. I wake up feeling unsure about my decisions in life. I want to feel like the beaver. I want to tell the President how I feel, but the President is probably out on one of his midnight rounds of golf. I try to go back to sleep, but I can’t. I think about Wesley. One minute eating lunch, the next blood gushing from his bomb-eaten arm. I’ve eaten a thousand turkey sandwiches and I never got my arm blown off and died in the desert. If you think about your arm possibly getting blown off every time you eat a turkey sandwich you would get summarily fired, or divorced because no one would understand you and you would live under your bed fearfully eating turkey sandwiches, or under an old tree with some talking moles drinking sherry, or move to Islay or somewhere where turkey sandwiches haven’t been invented yet.
One night when I was younger the full moon was out and it made me feel sad and happy at the same time. It was big and white, but also sort of blue like a corpse. The moon is probably more powerful than we know, I thought. I probably thought this because I felt empty inside and was smoking cocaine. I wanted to make love under the volcanoes to German au pairs who would say things like, “Anflug das gemuts unt legen dein schneidel!”
Every Christmas I used to go to Wesley’s Christmas party at his parents’ apartment on Central Park West and surrounded by the jet set and original Picassos and Dalis and waiters carrying silver trays piled high with mini-lamb chops and hot buttered rum in pewter mugs I would think it was possible, it was possible in my own future to live like this, to be easy going and to know what chartreuse means and to say things like Cicero in the normal course of conversation. But then I would go to the bathroom. I would see an original Dali hanging over the toilet and I would feel sick because my toilet back home had some kind of stain running down the sides and an ironic beer calendar and maybe some kind of deodorizer that didn’t even work.
Often I walk to the fake castle in Central Park. Boulders and trees frost covered. For dinner I mostly eat frozen pizza, but once a week I copy a fancy recipe from the Sunday paper. I use cheaper, but similar ingredients to recreate it at home such as barley (instead of risotto) and melted mozzarella (instead of stravecchio) wrapped in steamed chard. With that I drink Jura, or pinot gris, or Polish vodka.
December. I receive an invitation to Wesley’s parents’ annual Christmas party. “Come celebrate the holidays New Orleans style,” it says. At first I don’t want to go. Then I decide I will go after all. To show solidarity in that I understand the level of pain Wesley’s parents are going through. Also I have a secret plan.
Wesley’s parents have one of those elevators that open right into their apartment. I shake hands with Wesley’s parents and give them a bottle of Jura.
“There you are,” Wesley’s dad says, squeezing my hand tightly.
“How are you doing, dear?” Wesley’s mom asks.
“I’m ok, how are you?” I ask.
She sighs. “Oh, as good as can be expected.”
“I hope you like the wine,” I say.
“Thank you, Hector,” Wesley’s dad says, looking at the wine, but also not really looking at it. “I’m sure we will.”
I go across the foyer to a silver tray. On the silver tray are mint juleps in pewter tumblers. I take one of the mint juleps and walk over to the living room. There is a four-piece New Orleans band playing New Orleans-style music. I can see the jet set gathering by the big windows facing the park. They are talking in low voices, but I don’t pay attention to them. I go to the fireplace. On the mantle is a vase. The vase is filled with Wesley’s ashes. My plan is to steal the vase and take it to the castles of Islay where they belong.
“There’s something wrong with these mint juleps,” one of the jet set says.
“Yeah, too much mint,” another one says.
The New Orleans band plays another New Orleans-sounding song.
I look out the window. The buildings around the park are lit up. They make me feel like I’m in an old movie, or on some kind of movie set.
A waiter comes by. I take another mint julep.
Some investment bankers come over to where I am standing. One of them grins. He asks me if I want any blowcaine. I laugh inadvertently and say no as if I just had maybe too much blowcaine already.
“Good band,” one investment banker says.
“Cheesy outfits, though,” another one says.
There are four investment bankers now. One of them says something about Tuscany and laughs. I drink more of my new mint julep. I pretend to be looking at an original Dali over the fireplace. Another investment banker says he wants some blowcaine, but he can’t because their babysitter has to go home early.
“Is she hot?” one of the investment bankers asks.
“Who, the babysitter?”
“No, she’s a dog,” says the investment banker, laughing. “My wife hired her.”
Someone on the other side of the room signals that he wants to speak by clinking his glass. He is an investment banker, who owns a Gulfstream 4. He points at Wesley’s parents and thanks them for the party and saying how we all understand how hard it’s been the last few months. After that he talks about the boarding school they all went to and tells an anecdote about the black janitor they used to make fun of. He says the janitor’s name was Ralph. One of the investment bankers wives laughs inadvertently. An investment banker passes a baggie of blowcaine behind his back to another investment banker. No one talks about Tuscany for a few minutes.
“America is fucked,” says one of the investment bankers, who is suddenly standing next to me.
“It’s the new frontier for investment banking,” he says, not looking at me, but at the painting. “If I had to live in America my whole life I’d probably kill myself.” He gulps down his mint julep and grabs another from a passing waiter.
“Our time is over,” he continues. “It’s the Southeast Asians’ time now just like it used to be the Japs and the British and the Dutch. I don’t know who before that. Maybe the Vikings, or the Visigoths. It doesn’t matter now because you can’t get away with anything because America is fucked. The pioneering spirit is dead. Look around. People are bored like they’re going through the motions except maybe in times of national tragedies they are alive. We need more national tragedies. Tragedy is relative to the time you live in. Gettysburg makes 9/11 look like people comparing the cleanliness of tap water to getting repeatedly stabbed in the face by your dead grandmother. Tragedy is what forces people to act human. You can see it on their faces. Overall people’s expectations have lowered. Why have people’s expectations lowered? The deterioration of the service industry for one, but that’s always the first to go. Ask anyone. Every morning our parents had milk delivered to their doorsteps. People pumped their gas while wearing uniforms and singing in unison. Does that mean we’re dying out as a culture? Probably. We cured polio. We can’t cure shit now. What I’m saying is this is a dying culture, but it’s probably not as bad as the French. The French are probably a lot worse. They’re irrelevant and secondly they smell. Who cares about wine and smoking at cafes? Nobody cares. Maybe a few people do, but they’re doing it ironically, or just pretending that they live in those times when those things meant something. My wife likes going to France for the holidays, but I don’t care. It’s a good country to play tennis in, but it’s a dead culture, like Italy or maybe Norway. I went fly-fishing in Norway once, but everyone looked depressed like they knew their time had passed. The whores I fucked were depressed and reluctant to think about the future. Do you know what I’m saying? We need to stop institutions from becoming fake ideas about life that are somehow widely accepted as true. People are dying as we speak. There’s only one time a century to be in the right place where things are going on and people are alive and that place right now is Southeast Asia. I don’t know. People that live here are idiots. I have a mansion picked out in Singapore with servants and a pool and satellite TV. I guess most people aren’t as adventurous as they think they are. Most investment bankers are pretty adventurous, though. Plus we work our tits off. That’s why I like it.” He pauses to drink more mint julep. “By the way, you try any of that Blowcaine?”
Another investment banker comes up to us. He puts his arm around the other investment banker.
“We’re going to that bar underneath the highway,” says the newly arrived investment banker.
As everyone goes to the foyer to say goodbye I take the vase off the mantle. I put it inside my coat and walk to the foyer. I try not to look at Wesley’s parents, but out of the corner of my eye I can see Wesley’s dad looking at my jacket because it’s bulging.
“Goodbye,” says Wesley’s mom.
“What’s that in your jacket?” says Wesley’s dad not sure whether to smile or be concerned.
“Nothing,” I say.
Wesley’s dad reaches his hand towards my jacket. “But there’s … well, there’s something right here.”
I see the elevator closing so I jump into the elevator with two investment bankers about to do Blowcaine. I can hear raised voices on the other side of the elevator.
“Why are they yelling?” one of the investment bankers asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“It sounds like they said stop,” the other investment banker says.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Weird,” the first investment banker says.
“Are you coming to the bar?” the other investment banker asks.
“Probably,” I say.
The investment bankers do some Blowcaine off their pinky nails while I think about the emerald pastures of Islay. We wait for the elevator to go “BING.”