Chapter One: Homunculus Sum
All through college I had my head in the clouds, my nose in a book, and my thumb up my ass, so I graduated without ever learning that a degree is worth only so much, enough to get you into grad school but not enough, by itself, to get you a decent job. For that you needed to have done seventeen internships. So I went to grad school, but I’d also missed knowing that in order for a writer of fiction to publish a book one needs an MFA in creative writing, so, being a lover of literature and a loather of self-involved blowhards, I became that rarest of English birds, a literature student. Unqualified, through my dearth of internships, for full-time work, and shunted to the very outskirts of the writing world through my mere MA (never mind that an MA track is more rigorous), I became a professor of English composition. I am not allowed, actually, to use the noble title “professor,” but nothing stops me having my students call me master. I say it as a joke on the first day of class, but I secretly do want them to call me master.
I run with a little circle of unsatisfied adjunct instructors, bitter dreamers like me. At the end of one semester, faced with a heap of marginally comprehensible essays to be graded over the weekend, I met them at a little Latin American bar-and-diner near campus. We ate fried plantains and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon. Someone made a joke: “What’s the difference between a Wal-Mart worker and an adjunct?” He had us, we said. What? “Forty-thousand dollars in student loans.”
“Not funny,” one of us said. And the difference between an adjunct and an indentured servant, it turns out, is that an indentured servant can buy his freedom after seven years.
Many PBRs later, the conversation having turned to politics, I thrust myself forward with a joke of my own: “This might not be the most popular statement of the night, but I believe George W. Bush doesn’t get enough credit. I’m not trying to diminish Obama’s accomplishments, or the meaning that’s attached to his presidency, but I think there’s too much made of it. It’s great he’s opened the door for so many young African-American children to dream big. Now, a black child—admittedly probably only a straight male Christian black child, but still—can say he wants to grow up to be president and have a legitimate shot at being right. This is unequivocally wonderful, but in our rush to praise Obama and what he means for a whole generation of American children we too easily forget that Bush opened doors, too. Because of President Bush, and only because of President Bush, my new nephew can dream of being president, too.”
A crowd of strangers would not have gotten that joke, but my colleagues all knew that I had a brand-new nephew who has Down’s syndrome. He wasn’t brand new to the world, just to his father’s side of the family. My little brother had sired him five years earlier but only been told of his existence within the last year. This sort of thing is not that uncommon back home, Arkansas being the national leader in teenage pregnancy. I had promised myself never to give utterance to that Bush joke. I’d been sitting on it for months, reluctant to tell it out of guilt. I had worked during my undergrad years in Fayetteville with adults with developmental disabilities. (I recently heard the comedian Daniel Tosh make a similar but much toned-down joke.) It was the second year of Obama’s presidency. Nearly five months had passed since his deadline to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. There was no sign of its shutting, our obstructive leaders in Congress believing Americans too cowardly, our justice system too weak, our prisons too penetrable, to house the detainees, and no one was even talking about torture anymore, except a small group of low-wage educators in Hamilton Heights.
Since I was the strongest—in truth, the only physically sturdy one of us—in the group, it was my job to snatch him. I think I did a good job of it. (He was a wisp of a man, under-developed, so that helped.) The worst bit of it was the weather. We had thought we’d thought of everything, but we forgot to think of buying raincoats. I was sodden down to the street clothes I wore beneath my oversized Special Ops outfit: a ski mask, army sweater, cargo pants, combat boots, all cotton, all black. Water had even got under the latex gloves I wore beneath some cheap black cotton gloves. That’s how it is with people of my station: even when things go basically right, you still feel like it’s all going wrong and everything’s working against you. For the pessimistic optimist, every silver lining is stuck to the ass of an ominous, hail-filled storm cloud.
It was a pretty standard kidnapping, uninspired but economical. I waited patiently (two hours that felt like twelve) outside his house and followed him when he came out. I despised him, irrationally, thinking him a prissy little doll, for carrying an umbrella. Our rattling black van, which we acquired surreptitiously and disposed of likewise (it has long since been shredded and recycled in China), sidled alongside him and the door slid open. As he looked over at the van I rushed in from the right and pushed him inside, umbrella and all, though the cheap thing bent all out of shape and poked our captive in the eye. (He has a different explanation for the injury, which he offered in a really touching interview with Diane Sawyer: “I fought for my life with all my might, until they ripped my umbrella from my hands and assaulted me with it, nearly blinding me.”) Someone slipped a black Whole Foods bag, the kind that’s made from recycled plastic bags, over his head as the door closed and the van drove on, unnoticed, unpursued. He screamed at first and struggled, but the sack dampened the noise; he couldn’t have been heard anyway over the rain and traffic. We were armed only with a pellet gun, and someone stuck the muzzle against his head and threatened to shoot him if he moved again.
He went through the standard line of pleading. “Who are you? What do you want? I’ve got money. Please don’t kill me. Just tell me what you want.” And I couldn’t help feeling he was trying to play the role of kidnap victim he had seen in so many movies. At any rate, we didn’t want anything, at least anything material, but we didn’t tell him that. We just kept silent and let him squirm and cry. It grew unbearably hot and muggy in the van, for I had disrobed and placed as many items of clothes as possible on top or in front of the air vents, with the heat on full blast. I still shivered and felt like I had been dunked in a glacial pool, but the exhilaration warmed me up soon enough, in time to slide into my moist clothes and out of the van for the interrogation, which took place in a derelict Wal-Mart building in one of the less desirable municipalities of northern Virginia, about an hour’s driven from our victim’s swank Georgetown row house. Even though it’s clear that no American will ever be prosecuted for torture, I don’t want to use our names or provide our physical descriptions, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but we did adopt noms de guerre. El Scapegoat, so named to honor his Mexican heritage, succeeded wildly, beyond all our most unrealistic expectations, finding that empty building. Scapegoat sneaked in prior to our arrival and had the loading dock ready for us to cruise in undetected.
Spring semester. Thursday. Long weekend approaching—at least in academia; the coffee shop was beckoning, blistering six-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday. It had been weeks since I’d received an email. I check my rejection account four or five times a day, just frequently enough to respond in a timely manner to any interested agents, yet not so frequently as to be perceived as obsessed. I became so anxious and frazzled that I sent myself an email from a different account just to make sure my rejection email was working. “Is this thing even working?” I wrote. “Yes,” I wrote in reply. I grabbed hold of the desk and trembled violently. The relic on the desk tottered but did not tip, and the desk’s innards rattled, but nothing broke. This trembling was a technique I’d invented to relieve stress. Some people can relieve stress by taking deep breaths or listening to Billy Joel records; I need semi-violent outbursts. Smash a plate. Punch through drywall. Hurl a hammer through a TV screen. Attack a waterbed with a 12 gauge. But if I break one more thing in the apartment, even by accident, my wife will leave me. She made that announcement after I came home reeking, dripping garbage juice, having applied a frightening combination of mixed martial arts moves on a pile of sidewalk trash after a careless, malicious driver intentionally drove through an eddy of ice water by the gutter, splashing me with freezing slush. One of my co-conspirators peeked into my office and gave me the signal: “Do you still have my Cixous?”
I stared at him quizzically. “Why the fuck would I have your Cixous? I’m done. I graduated. I never have to read Cixous again.”
He rolled his eyes and repeated, deliberately, the way insensitive people talk to my nephew, “Do you still have my Cixous?”
“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s at home. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” This was our code: the mission was on. Time to head out.
A Paris regret. I’m walking home to my three-hundred-square-foot studio, after walking all day, wandering from landmark to landmark. Two girls walk down the Rue des Martyrs as I walk up, head down, dreaming, most likely, of a chance encounter with a beautiful French girl. The girl on the outside pushes the girl closest to me into me. They giggle, hesitate. I smile and keep walking. A life unlived.
I spent about six weeks and all my money in Paris, purportedly to work on my book and master French. For all I have to show for it I might as well have spent that time picking grapefruit in Texas. The book is trashed, long since abandoned, my French the same. I’d done nothing all day but was dog-tired. I probably walked twelve miles around the city, idled with a book in a park, went to Shakespeare and Company to ogle the English-speaking and for the most part very attractive help and buy a new book, ducked into the Louvre to faire mes besoins, took in a movie at Les Halles, Unfaithful, I think. I went to the movies almost every day—Killing Them Softly, Murder By Numbers, In the Bedroom, Hollywood Ending, all the big hits I’d never heard of—so it’s hard to be sure which film I saw that day. I told myself I needed the break from French, needed to surround myself in my glorious native tongue. I could have, if my French had been better or if it turned out les filles found my feebleness charming, taken them home, engaged in a ménage a trois, at least a ménage a deux, with a French girl, a very lovely French girl at that. The one who was bumped into me was brunette, well-dressed. I could have fallen in love, taken dual citizenship, or maybe contracted MV (maladie venerienne). My unnatural shyness, paired with my linguistic incompetence, robbed me of a potentially life-changing experience. My life seemed defined by the things I haven’t done.
I came home, finished school, drifted around, burned my Paris book and wrote a new one, The Oracle at Arkadelphi, about a group of “white racial realists and idealists seeking true diversity,” set in my home state of Arkansas. Even racists are politically correct now; I love this country. I tried to sell the new novel (I’m still trying to sell it, along with the three books I’ve written since), and in the meantime I got accepted to graduate school at Columbia and moved to New York. I realized I couldn’t afford Columbia so I went up the street to City College, comforting myself by recalling that Woody Allen had been kicked out of there and Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller had taught there for a while, and knowing I could go around quoting Wall Street: “Not bad for a City College man.”
I graduated in two years with a master’s degree in English. I thought I would get into publishing, but publishing thought differently. I stayed on at City College as an adjunct and found a part-time job as a barista at Coffee Anon down by the UN. Not bad for a City College man.
I was supposed to be a great baseball player. I dreamed of being the next George Brett, even though I could never bat left-handed and I was more natural in the outfield. But you don’t get much attention in Arkadelphia; plus I got hurt my senior year (hapless bystander, drive-by crossbow incident) and spent the majority of what should have been my glorious final, record-breaking season as cheerleader and third-base coach. Then college, then Paris, then grad school and indentured servitude.
I don’t really have the vigilante mindset. At any other time I would never have dreamed of participating in this “action.” I hate these political terms. But at the time what I wanted more than anything was some real action. I wanted to do something. I was, in addition to my part-time jobs as college instructor and coffee-spiller, a stay-at-home father to a two-year-old. I’d been in that role for twenty-two months, since the expiration of my higher-earning wife’s maternity leave. I loved it, but I had recently concluded that I would love being a stay-at-home dad even more if I had a go-to-school child. It’s true that educating the leaders (at my school, more likely, the workers, the peons, the dropouts) of tomorrow is doing something. Raising a responsible person who loves literature and nature and humanity, who is kind not just to animals and old people but to everyone, is doing something. But I wanted to do something in addition to my regular work. It is good work and honorable, but one chafes against a life of dirty diapers and mewling, jabbering, and screaming toddlers and college students.
It was not my idea, but I suppose I became the leader once we realized we were going to do it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because I was the strongest, or the one, at least to their perceptions, with the most free time. My Bush joke set us on the track of war and torture, two disappeared topics. Someone suggested it, that we should “disappear” someone, someone prominent from the pro-torture camp, and let them experience what torture is really like, not the simulation undertaken by the occasional brave journalist or politician or actor willing to be waterboarded for the experience, but the sheer terror of the thing that can only be experienced when you don’t really know your tormentors, to what lengths they will go, what they finally intend to do with you. I am almost certain it was a joke, but we agreed to it so swiftly and earnestly that it became impossible to laugh away.
I immediately hit upon a suitable target, Kevin Merkin, a prominent newspaper columnist who, in a well-received bit of logical long jumping, described his moral struggle in accepting, not torture (he used that word only once, to explain that what we do is separate from torture, because we do it), but “enhanced interrogation.” If there was ever a phrase that would have made Orwell homicidal, that was it. “Enhanced interrogation, while not pretty,” the columnist explained, “is a necessary and ultimately good thing, as a means to an end.” All the standard stuff was there, the ticking time bomb, the thousands of lives that would be saved, his wrestling with his conscience, and his faith in the goodness and good intentions of the men and women conducting the interrogations, the greater good, the necessities of war, the stuff they do and would do to us, to prisoners of war, kidnapped journalists, and so on. I was very familiar with the essay. It had been reprinted in the newest edition of the textbook I was required to use in my comp. I class, and I assigned it along with an essay on the religious case against torture. Overwhelmingly, my students were religious (mostly Christian) and pro-torture. The columnist lived in Washington, D.C., reasonably close, plausibly far enough away. We figured he would be about the best target since anyone in the government would be well-protected and anyone in the military would be, not that we weren’t keen for a fight, pretty tough to snatch, at least for our little ragtag group of overworked, underpaid, and underweight guerilla protestors.
And anyway, here was a man, a respected and purportedly thoughtful newspaper columnist, a religious man, a lover of Jesus, and by extension a lover of love and peace, who has to struggle, publicly, to decide whether he approves of torture, the infliction of cruelty, pain, sleep deprivation, electrical junk shocks, and so on. He judges the godless on the planet, the miniscule percentage of atheists, who are powerless and who, for what should be self-evident reasons, are mostly opposed to things like torture, capital punishment, and similar barbarisms. He had the gall to call himself a moralist. Worse, others had the gall to call him that. But I am getting high and mighty. Something Orwell wrote, in Homage to Catalonia, had always stuck with me: “Perhaps when the next great war comes we will see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.” We were not prepared to go so far. We’d agreed from the start not to use any real guns. Still, it takes no courage to clamor for war when you know you don’t have to fight, and about the same amount to “make the case” for torture when you know you’ll never be tortured and you’ll never have to torture someone else. It’s easy to support something when the dirty reality of the act is far removed and purely imaginary.
I am all for imagination, but I hate to see it abused. Imagine, writes Judith Jarvis Thomson, that without your knowledge and consent a famous violinist is attached to you by the kidneys, and if you unplug yourself you’ll kill him. You are not morally bound to him. It’s nice of you to let him live, but he has no real claim on you, no reasonable expectation to use your body to stay alive. And this imaginary, impossible scenario is supposed to correlate to a defense of abortion. And imagine, one of my students writes, in a solid D essay, we had not executed Timothy McVeigh. How many people might he have influenced in prison? “Imagine,” writes the newspaper columnist, “that there is a literally ticking time bomb in the White House and only one man knows how to stop it. Fortunately, he is in our custody. To not use every possible technique within our means would be tantamount to assassinating the president.” (I am compelled to admit that I resent his job; he is paid, handsomely, to write this codswallop.) I read the quote to him. “Now you can stop imagining,” I then said, “and experience it for yourself.” For background, I had read Christopher Hitchens’s (clearly, I am a Strunk and White man) account of being voluntarily waterboarded.
“Here’s the unvarnished, unpopular truth,” Merkin wrote in that op-ed for The New York Times that was reprinted in my textbook. “It may not palatable to the squishy Left, but they can’t hear it anyway over their constant drone of Kumbaya. A terrorist is a terrorist. Anyone we call a terrorist is a terrorist. There are no innocent terrorists, no one being held in detention in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Egypt, or Timbuktu for that matter, who doesn’t belong right where he is. But suppose for a minute that a detainee was brought to Guantanamo mistakenly, that he had no affiliation with Al Qaeda or any terrorist group. As the Left frequently screamingly admits, enhanced interrogation techniques have the potential to radicalize individuals. Even if this hypothetical detainee was not a terrorist at the beginning of the interrogation, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that he’ll be one at the end. Ergo, we have every reason to view this detainee as a terrorist, an enemy combatant, and every right to interrogate him with the gloves completely off. It’s simple logic that can’t be grasped, unfortunately, by simple minds. Thankfully, the good guys, the big kids, are running the show. While hemophilic-hearted Leftists cry about the rights of terrorists, the grownups are doing the hard but necessary work that keeps this country—including the ungrateful backward-thinking ninnies—safe.”
We left him in the van, guarded by an idealist with an air rifle, while we constructed a little chaise longue out of stacked pallets. (I could just picture it on our concrete patio in Arkadelphia.) We ordered him out of the van and marched him, at riflepoint, to the improvised recliner. He climbed aboard with some assistance, and we tied him down with his head at the bottom of the slope so that his head would be below his rotten heart. Our female combatant, who had chosen the name Boudica, after the Icenian queen who led a revolt against the Roman occupiers who, after her husband’s death, flogged her, raped her daughters, and claimed her kingdom, cuffed his hands together behind his head. “I usually use these for good rather than evil,” she said.
I felt sick. I had never done anything that normal people regard as evil. I drink alcohol, I have lied, I had premarital sex, there was that nocturnal emission, freshman year, during Midnight Mass, I once, not out of contempt for Islam but support for free speech and solidarity with the victims of violence in the name of Islam, drew a stick figure of Mohammed, which was not a satirical volley, just a function of my retarded drawing skills—all things that only religious fundamentalists deemed evil. (There are people in this world, in this country, who would happily judge me for my smattering of premarital sexual adventures but who don’t have anything negative or critical to say about torture. These are the people who make me pray that hell is real.) True, my tax money supported torture for years, but it was a practice I abhorred, and because I don’t get paid well I didn’t contribute much anyway. I protested, wrote letters, even thought about not paying taxes at all, so even though I was as enmeshed in the practice as any average American, I could see myself as apart from it. Probably to my great financial misfortune, I am no philosophical contortionist. There is no angle or twisted position from which I can view torture as anything less than evil. Yet here I was. The only sounds throughout the process were the shuffling of our feet, the banging of the boards, and his soft whimpers. He had it easier than some torture victims, who are subjected to irritating music and loud verbal badgering. (Having grown up in a trailer park, I am a lifelong Metallica fan, yet even I would go crazy if I were forced to listen to “Enter Sandman” on a seemingly endless loop, as was the case with many detainees.) And he was fully clothed; he faced no sexual intimidation. Someone handed me a two-liter jug of water. Someone else held his head, covered now by some cheesecloth, in place. All this time, I had never seen his face, had to look him in the eye. You might think this would make my task easier. I walked toward him. There was a rumbling, a heaving. I whipped off my ski mask and ran to a nearby trashcan. It felt like I filled the thing, but when it was all over my pool of vomit was only two or three inches deep. (We would take the can with us, so as not to leave any DNA.) It was clear I would not be the one to pour the water, and clear that no one else would replace me. In this fight there are no good guys and bad guys, only guys and bad guys, and we were only guys. We had no taste for torture, even if it was for a good cause.
Two or three times a year I will dream about shooting people, only the bullets always veer away from their targets or slow down, à la The Matrix, and bounce off. Only once did I actually shoot and kill someone in a dream, a nightmare from which I awoke shivering and sweating, on the verge of tears. I’m not sure what these dreams reveal about me. I suppose there are people out there who will say these dreams show that I’m a pussy; others will say they show I am a human being. Your response will probably say more about your own humanity than my dreams do about mine. Anyway, we were like my dream bullets. All started well, but as the time for actual torture neared, we slowed down, veered away.
While I heaved and spit in the corner, my colleagues released him from the pallets and tied him to a chair. When the columnist realized we were not going to torture him, he found strength and courage in the entitlement and outrage that are natural to the affluent and powerful. (He had $400 in his wallet, about five times the amount I had in my checking account. I was only curious about how much he had on him; we did not steal his money.) He was the type of man who knows the job of the police is to protect him. He said he would remember my face, our voices, he would see us in jail by the end of the day, he hoped we’d all be tortured and hanged. So I thought I’d reason with him. I explained our position: we despised religious fundamentalism as much as anyone, probably more since we were all agnostic, atheist, or just vaguely spiritual. We hated torture, not because we loved terrorists but because we loved democracy, we loved our country, which was built on reason and justice and philosophy, all the best things about humanity. It doesn’t matter what they would do to us if they had the chance. This isn’t about what kind of people they are; it’s about what kind of people we are. We don’t get to torture people and then turn around and call ourselves the good guys. If you want to be the good guy you’ve got to fucking be the good guy. No matter what some violent religious fanatic does, he can’t take away our humanity or our values. Only we can do that, by stooping to their level, by torturing our enemies (not to mention people who aren’t actually our enemies but who were just picked up by accident or because a vindictive neighbor turned them in). Torture is wrong because it’s wrong, it’s immoral, it goes against all our values, both legal and moral, but it’s also impractical. There’s no guarantee you’ll get good information. It’s also great propaganda for Al Qaeda and other fanatical murder clubs. More important, it subverts the American justice system. Once you torture someone, you assure you can never prosecute him, even if he admits to being a child-murdering terrorist, because all the evidence you’ve gathered against him will be thrown out because of the way you got it. So now we’ve got people who are just stuck in limbo. Some of them are probably genuine terrorists, some are probably people we never should have picked up, but we’ve got them and we seem to believe that we can’t let them go, and we certainly can’t put them on trial. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare. I asked if his recent experience had altered his views on torture, but he defended himself and sneered at us: “Stop kidding yourselves. You’re just a bunch of air-headed idealists, but I’ve got news for you: holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ does not a national security policy make.” Something inside me flipped, as if I were a sleeper assassin and “Kumbaya” my trigger word, and I lunged toward him, prepared to throttle him but unable because of my quick-reflexed partners, who held me back with all their might, scrum-tugging me away from the revered columnist. “Kumbaya, motherfucker,” I shouted in my retreat. “Kumbamotherfuckingya, you goddamn pigfucking poltroon.”
We adjourned to another room, the former returns room, to cool off and talk over the situation. Scapegoat was for leaving him there, with some water, and calling the police in four hours to alert them to his location. Boudica concurred, but wanted to strip him and leave him naked. I wanted to cry, run home to my family, but said I thought we should load him up and take him home, with a warning to remain quiet or else.
“Or else what?” asked Momus, our bitterest member, so bitter because he was a rhyming poet, also because he was six-foot-six but banned from basketball because of his own body, which was made so monstrously tall and thin by Marfan syndrome, a disease that could kill him if he over-exerted himself. He was also the one, I recalled then, who suggested this ridiculous scheme in the first place. “Or else we’ll egg his house? TP his front yard? Prank call him? It’s very likely we’ll have to kill him now.”
“I always thought,” said Scapegoat, “it was crank call?”
“Crank? No, it’s prank. Prank call.”
There followed a short dialogue, between Scapegoat and Boudica, on misheard words and phrases, like “for all intensive purposes,” “a tough road to hoe,” and “a little snack to tie me over till dinner.” The poet threw up his hands and walked away.
A few moments later, just after Scapegoat introduced us to the words “Mondegreen” and “eggcorn,” a scream of true terror burst through the double doors. We looked around. One of our members was missing. “Oh, shit,” I said. “Where’s Momus?”
You can usually tell an MFA book or story because all the life has been critiqued out of it—death by workshop. It’s humorless and dry but has crisp sentences free of adjectives except for the occasional stylistic flourish of a David-Foster-Wallace-esque-jammed-together-bunch-of-words-that-wouldn’t-describe-much-on-their-own-but-can-serve-as-a-super-adjective-when-strung-together-as-a-hyper-hyphenated compound modifier. I’m happy to say that this story, my first foray into nonfiction, has until this point been read only by my wife, whose only criticism was that “it’s so angry.” I ignored her feedback, left the anger undiminished. Anger is my primary emotion. My comrades were all MFA grads, masters of fuck all, but we managed to get along. Their senses of humor had mostly survived the creative writing program. We didn’t talk about our writing. They had never read any of my books because they were all still unpublished and I don’t like to inflict unpublished work on my friends. They’re too hard to come by. Most people who know me, old friends and acquaintances, family, don’t even know I’m a writer. They think I’m a tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking English professor with tenure and a pension, a handsome salary, and I do nothing to disabuse them of that grand notion. I was depressed for most of my twenties (actually, most of my childhood and adolescence, too), missed out on so much good stuff. I have no friends left from that era, except my wife, and I have no idea how she stood it. I drank too much and ate too much and slept too much, was moody and splenetic. I came out of it in my thirtieth year, and it was like my vision cleared. I could see better, hear better, think better. It was like I just halted growing for those ten years, and took off again when I moved to New York. It could very well have been the Prozac-laced water. I was always a tap water man—those bottles are for chumps. Really it was my son that saved me, gave me a new life. But for so long now I had been languishing, living in Queens with a son and a dog and a wife and a combined income around $55,000 a year, a combined student loan debt over triple figures, working a job I occasionally enjoyed but that offered no advancement, no future, locked out of the careers I might find more fulfilling, like writing or raising alpacas. Four novels in and no agent, no publisher, not even some ratty third-rate indie press. Being a stay-at-home dad was wonderful and rewarding but stifling, no time to write or grade. The possibility that my devotion to my art would turn out to be meaningless seemed to increase every day. That depression cloud was ever-looming. This is how terrorists are created. Stunted half-men feel powerless and voiceless and turn to extremism to make an impact. I am safe from that fate: agnostics don’t make good jihadists, and no one who has read Aristotle can embrace extremism. My father-in-law, who had lived in a different century unburdened by student loans, likes to brag about how he put himself through college. I finally had enough one day, when the family had come to visit. “Do you remember how much college cost back then? Probably less than a month’s rent in this home for orphaned roaches.” He also prides himself on his realistic worldview. Like Merkin, like most Americans, he considers himself a realist. Nearly sixty percent of Americans believe that torture was justified. If those people are realists, I am proud to be delusional. You might, like Merkin, believe I have a warped view of the world. But consider this: what if you are under a faery’s spell and the world itself is warped, and I am one of the rare creatures blessed or curse with the ability to see it in its true, repulsive form? What if your bullshit detector is on the fritz? Mine works, perhaps too well. Sometimes I feel like I’m awake, and everyone else is dreaming, and their dreams are very cynical and hedonistic, and Kiefer Sutherland is president. Realism: a view of reality in which your view of reality is the right one and everyone else’s is make-believe. This is a decadent country, and I don’t say that because of all the porn and SUVS; I say it because more Americans were outraged over the Twinkie shortage than by our use of torture.
As it turned out, the poet had not killed him but just ducked into the men’s room. Merkin’s scream reminded me of the scream I heard in the hospital after my son was born, someone else’s son being circumcised. Merkin’s cry was not as high-pitched, but it had the same note of wild panic. There is knowledge in a woman’s groans in the throes of labor. She is in intense pain, sure, but the pain has a purpose and a foreseeable end; there is only brute fear in a baby’s circumcision wail. I rode the fence on circumcision; it was only when I heard that scream that I knew we had made the right decision. Merkin’s scream was not so supportive. We ran in to find him bloody and thrashing. He convulsed like a dog that’s been gorging on grass to make himself throw up. I feared he would slither free from his bonds. And then he threw up. He held up a bloody finger. The nail had been ripped off. It clung to the cord around his thigh. The jerk had tried to escape.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” he cried. “I shall not want.”
Momus popped in just then, timely as ever, and quipped, “We’re going to make mutton chops out of you, little lamb.”
Merkin, wet-faced and trembling, called back, “You are terrorists!” Such a hard word to pronounce, as President Bush learned the hard way.
“This isn’t terrorism,” Scapegoat said. “It’s enhanced protest. Nothing else works. We wrote letters and op-eds, made impassioned phone calls. Visited our congressmen. Voted. Protested. Sat-in. No one listened, at least no one with any power. We are not men of violence.”
“And women, goddamnit.”
“Or women of violence.”
“You people are crazy. When I get out of here, and I will get out of here, I’m going straight to the police. I’ll publish it in The Times. The whole world will know about this cowardly act of violent stupidity.” In awe of his own wordsmithery: “Ah, there’s the book title.”
I looked at my bitter, rhyming comrade, put my hand on his back. “I think you’re right, comrade. We’re going to have to kill him.”
Merkin, sobbing, repeated his threats. We would go to jail, we would die in jail, but only after being tortured, and being buggered by—his spit-covered words now—“big black brutes.”
I couldn’t tell you if he soiled his pants before I hit him or after, but I knocked him out with one right hook, and it took only a few seconds for a pool of urine to form next to his right foot.
Naturally, we did not kill him. We just left him there, unconscious and bound to the chair. I had never hit a man before. I wanted it to feel good, in spite of my throbbing, bruising hand, but his being tied to a chair rankled me. To strike him in that position was not honorable. He probably would not be above such behavior, but I had always thought I was. The others tried to reassure me. It was the only thing to do. Cutting his bonds might have led to something worse, him fighting back and getting hurt worse. It was the only way to spare his life, etc. But it all reeked of the tortured logic of our enemies.
We summoned his protectors with his cell phone, calling 911 with a report of a fire, and then fled calmly. We shed our Special Ops outfits in the van and stuffed them all in a laundry bag, which we—well, we did something with it, let’s leave it at that.
It was all very exciting while it was happening, but afterward we were conflicted. We felt proud, on the one hand, but then we were embarrassed of feeling proud because we had probably proved nothing, had definitely won nothing. Orwell again, Homage to Catalonia again: “There are occasions where it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.” By default, I guess, we had been beaten, and even if we couldn’t really be proud, we regretted nothing. I don’t say we were right to do it, and I won’t be telling my son about it for many years at least, but it beat doing nothing, and it beat parading around at a protest, where you were watched, photographed, sneered at, corralled—a docile ungulate in a feedlot—into some free speech zone beyond shouting distance from the powerful men who might be inconvenienced or mildly shamed by your protest. The press dubbed us The Guerilla Gang. If we must be named, I’d prefer something like The Umbrella Bandits or Ski Patrol (remember our menacing ski masks), better yet the Antisocial Justice League, something not overly serious, yet not painfully stupid like the moniker the facile fourth estate tagged on us. The police are after us, of course. I don’t particularly think they’ll find us. I don’t worry too much about it. They’ve got bigger problems than a small group of mostly nonviolent idealists. There’s no physical evidence connecting us to the crime. And after all, if torture is only enhanced interrogation, then there was nothing criminal in our “action,” which, as one of my comrades had articulated, was really only an enhanced protest.
What can I say about President Bush that Gibbons didn’t already write about Emperor Commodus? Even now, in the twilight of the Obama presidency, I dislike him intensely. I don’t think he was evil, no Vlad the Impaler or James Frey. In spite of the many jokes I’ve made (always in private, never in class), I don’t think he was stupid. He was an idealist who conflated those ideals with reality (in other words: a realist), and he was too trusting of the supposed grownups around him. The U.S. was still a young country (as humans are a young species; we’ll know we’re finally grown when we stop torturing each other, beheading infidels, and thanking invisible spirits for helping win football games) when he took power, and he stunted its growth.
Religious terrorists, being fundamentally conservative, are excellent marketers. They can spin a fact like Dwight Gooden spun a curveball. We gain nothing by torture, but they gain sympathy and volunteers. It doesn’t matter what horrific act they commit, how many people they blow up, how many hostages they murder, if the most powerful country on earth, what was once this planet’s beacon of light, is shoving fluids up prisoners’ rectums. The fight against terrorism is a fight for the future against a brutal, primitive philosophy of forced submission, but there is no future if we’re no better than the fanatical beheaders. At least the jihadists live by their own code; we talk about justice and American values, then we stick a naked man in a dark cell, chain him up for hours, standing on broken ankles, and blast him with thrash metal music, and call it protecting our freedom and way of life. In order to live by our code we need to get back to our roots. No disrespect to veterans, but let’s have a little love for Enlightenment philosophers. We have Veterans Day, Independence Day, but no day that celebrates the thinkers that made our country possible. Enlightenment Day, a day we take off work, drink coffee, and discuss Locke and Hume, their influence on Jefferson and Franklin, and thank them for their efforts.
I got home in time to shower and kiss my wife before she left for work. I took my son to Central Park. Walking through the Ramble, we saw a mourning warbler. The sun was high, the sky eerily cloudless, with a sliver of daytime moon. We went to the carousel and rode it four times. We stopped for a pretzel and ate it sitting on a bench by the softball fields. I rubbed his head, all covered in Young Frankenstein curls. My heart felt full (my bladder, too, but forget that), my vision clear, my future, even if I never publish a book, joy-filled and meaningful. It is as Shaw said: “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” Probably the only heaven. My boy.
“Slow down, homunculus.” I’ve got to cut out that nickname before he develops a Wallace Shawn complex. “I don’t want you to choke on that pretzel.”