Authors: James P. Othmer
Henry Tuhoe is the quintessential twenty-first-century man. He has a vague, well-compensated job working for a multinational conglomerate. He has a beautiful wife and an idyllic home in the suburbs. But things change when Henry’s boss offers him a choice: go to the tiny, about-to-be-globalized Kingdom of Galado to oversee the launch of a new customer-service call center for a bottled water company, or lose the job with no severance, Henry takes the transfer. Once in Galado, a land both spiritual and corrupt, Henry wrestles with first-world moral conundrums, the attention of a megalomaniacal monarch, and a woman intent on redeeming both his soul and her country.From Publishers Weekly
The latest from Othmer (The Futurist) reads like a very contemporaryHeart of Darknessrun through the satire blender. Longtime company man Henry Tuhoe has a self-absorbed wife who is learning witchcraft and pressuring him to have a vasectomy; he's increasingly alienated from his friends, and is forced to decide between getting fired or accepting a new position opening a call center in an obscure Third World country called Galado. So he takes the job. That the call center doesn't have working telephones or employees who can speak English are just a couple of Henry's concerns in a plot that bounces between everyday realism and the absurd. His new workplace is as morally and spiritually corrupt as the corporate culture back home, and Henry makes it his personal humanitarian mission to help provide clean water to Galado's poorest citizens. Othmer wrings humor from nearly every facet of contemporary culture, with many of the most comical moments taking place in brief anecdotes (as with a Gulf War I re-enactor). It's well-done satire—dark, but not too—in the vein of Gary Shteyngart and early Colson Whitehead.(June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.From Booklist
Former adman Othmer follows his memoir, Adland (2009), with his second novel. Henry Tuhoe, vice president of underarm research for an antiperspirant maker, is paralyzed by self-doubt after an ill-advised move to the suburbs. Then his department is eliminated and he’s transferred to the tiny kingdom of Galado on the Indian-Chinese border, where he’s to oversee a call center for a Vermont-based bottled-water company. Unfortunately, Galado’s own water is a toxic stew, and, ironically, plastic bottles are forbidden. Worse, the country is a kleptocracy run by a steroid-crazed prince whose grandiose dreams of multinational investment are threatened by popular rebellion. Othmer is a sharp and intelligent writer, offering scathing takes on the realities of global commerce and the myopia of wealthy nations. But he’s frustrating, too. The book opens with a piece of bravura absurdity—a corporate outing on a burning river—but never quite regains that intensity. When it comes to novelistic housekeeping, he’s too conservative and the story loses momentum. It’s a good book. But, one suspects, if Othmer went truly gonzo, he might write something great. --Keir Graff
~ * ~
No copyright 2013by MadMaxAU eBooks
~ * ~
The river is burning down.
Or is it up? The river is burning up. More than a hundred feet up. And since his boat is upwind from the night-burning pit furnaces to the south and stars are shining defiantly in a sky that rarely allows them to and the white-tipped lesser Himalayas loom on either side of the valley to the east and west, he thinks that this is a disturbingly beautiful thing. This riverfire.
They didn’t tell him about this phenomenon at the executive briefing in Manhattan. The exit interview at the home office. Nowhere in the Winning Business Abroad Six Sigma PowerPoint presentation does he recall hearing anything about a body of water consumed by flame.
All they told him was,In this economy, be thankful you have afreakin’job.
His groin aches. The epicenter of phantom pains. The karmic vortex. The fleshy receptacle of damaged memories. Formerly known as his testicles.
The fire is highest where debris collects in the crooked river’s bend.
He is a big believer in the symbolic weight of what song is playing at a particular moment. And if a song isn’t playing, he will assign a song to the moment and force the symbolism, revel in the false epiphany. His suggested sound trackfor this moment would be Spoon’s“The Beast and the Dragon Adored.”
“That’s beautiful. Is it some kind of welcome ceremony organized by the villagers?”he asks, even though he knows that this isn’t some kind ofwelcome ceremony organized by the villagers. He knows that the river up here was coated with a black skin of waste that was waiting to burn. Daring someone to light the match.
Like what? The Cuyahoga. Near Cleveland in 1969. He is too young to remember the actual fire but not too young to get his history from R.E.M.’s“Cuyahoga.”
This is where we walked, this is where we swam . . .
“It is not a ceremony,”explains his corporate liaison/host/executioner.“It is toxic, this river.”The man waves at the flaming water as if it is a hyperkinetic child.“Sometimes it does that.”
Henry and the corporate liaison exchange a glance that signals a transition in their relationship. The end of bullshit. Previously the liaison had told him that a pro-democracy demonstration in the capital city was a birthday celebration for the king, that the blackashthat felllike nightmare snow on Shangri-La Square was volcanic, and that his country was a human rights champion despite the fact that it still hasn’t abolished slavery.
Let’s put our heads together, start a new country up . . .
He sees this as a bad thing, this sudden telling of the truth. He decides that the end of bullshit means they no longer care what he thinks. His hosts. His corporate partners. The diminished bureaucrats of a fading monarchy. Because someone to whom they have decided to tell the truth is obviously someone who no longer matters. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the Madison Avenue PR exec brought in to work the same spin magic her firm did for the Beijing Games staring at her out-of-service iPhone and quietly weeping.
He decides to give the corporate liaison another chance to lie. To help matters, he even spells out the premise of the lie for him.“Maybe there was,you know, an accident. A tanker spill or a factory mishap. Perhaps the Chinese...”
The liaison shakes his head, lights an American cigarette.“No,”he answers.“Even rivers burn. This one. . . toxic, twenty four seven.”
Cuyahoga, gone . . .
No one told him about any of this. No one told him about the corruption, the poverty, themalapropbillboard in the half built“Free Zone”touting“Quality Manufactured Gods.”No one told him that thenonpartyconstitutional democracy to which he was being extra-sourced was actually an unhinged monarchy which is, when the UN and Amnesty International aren’t looking, a dictatorship. No one told him about the delusional, profit- and Bollywood-obsessed despot in waiting. And no one told him that his five-star“spiritual eco-lodge”with a private bathing garden, infinity pool, and extensive spa menu was also a whorehouse that sat on a hilltop less than a mile from a water-challenged village with one occasionally working pump that tapped into an aquifer of the most polluted and, as it turns out, flammable river on the planet.
Which would have been nice, since he works for a recently purchased subsidiary of an American-held bottled water company whose mission statement, printed on the cover of its lavishly produced annual report, is“Bringing fresh water to a thirsty world.”
No one told him. But then again, it’s not like he’d asked a whole lot of questions.
“What do you put it out with?”Henry asks. The liaison doesn’t answer. He just watches the flames.
But the front man from the yet-to-be-dispatched U.S. congressional delegation, a young Republican who vomited over the side of the boat less than ten minutes ago, does have an answer.“You put it out with truth,”he says.“And courage.”
This elicits laughter from the in-country deal-maker for the biggest brand at the gates, the Walmart delegation, which is just waiting for the proverbial green light. The winkand nod from the palace. He removes from his lips the stem of a silver hashish pipe that had been passed to him by an Australian corporate mercenary.“Courage? My God, son. Don’t start going all John McCain on us now.”
Randy Newman had a Cuyahoga song too.“Burn on, Big River.”
He squirts a glob ofPurell into his left palm and rubs as if it can kill nightmares and coups d’État as well as 99.9 percent of most common germs.
Before he left New York he did the most perfunctory of searches. Google. Lonely Planet. An old atlas. It’s all he had time for, considering what he left, how fast everything happened. His boss called Galado achance to start over, an opportunity to lose his inherentwussiness. His boss’s boss called it, via e-mail, history waiting to happen, the next Bangalore. Wikipedia called it“a secret and mysterious kingdom, long isolated from international politics and commerce.”
“Wow, what a shit-hole,”he hears the Walmart guy say as they skirt east of the fire and drift past a shoreline village. Women with buckets are wading into those sections of the water that are not burning. Children are running along the river’s edge, keeping pace with the slow-moving boat.
He’s not sure where they’re taking him.Either to a party in his honor, he thinks, or to kill him, to preserve what’s left of theirs.
His soon-to-be ex-wife called it the perfect place for him to suffer the slow and painful death he deserves.
The woman with whom he thought he was falling in love called it something too, but he can’t be sure, because she said it in a language he doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t know and no one told him anything.
Yet here he is. A newly made VP of global water, investor relations, for a company whose headquarters he’s never seen, whose founders he just met, and one of them is huddled somewhere in the hold of this boat, on a burning river in a country he didn’t know existed three months ago.
As they reverse engines and slow alongside a floating dock at the far end of the village that his suspiciously beaming colleague has just called a shit-hole, he looks it the people gathering to meet them, to throw them a line, their faces aglow with hope and reflected riverfire.
Or is that hate instead of hope?
He listens for the symbolic song to accompany the moment. Perhaps a chant supplied by the locals or faint notes from a far-off boom box. Then, hearing only the wailing of strangers, he attempts to assign one. But this moment needs more than one song, he decides. It needs a sound track- A play list.
A mix tape for the apocalypse.
~ * ~
~ * ~
Depending on where he wakes up, Henry Tuhoe’s train ride is either a life-affirming journey through a pastoral wonderland of lakes, woods, and river palisades or an oppressive death trek through the biggest cemetery ghetto in the world.
Today it’s all cemeteries. Gravestones of all shapes, denominations, and price tags, a mile-long stretch of a half-million granite guillotines on either side of the tracks, pinching in.
Lately, even on those less frequent occasions when he does happen to awaken and look out upon a glorious stretch of river, the tacking sailboats and tug-drawn barges, he sees nothing. He doesn’t see or feel the beauty of any of it. Instead he sees only the slack tide of the river inside him, separating anxiety from despair, and the only thing that he feels is regret. Regret for not having even the smallest urge to take some kind of meaningful action, to pursue something even remotely honest or admirable regarding . . . well, anything.
Which is to be expected when one is living a middle-manager, commuter life at the age of thirty-two, when one’s wife, who of late has taken an interest in the occult, recently insisted that one get a vasectomy and then rarely lets one touch her anyway.
This morning, awakening to the gravestones, Henry sits up in his window seat and sees everything. Every plot, every marker, every mass-molded ornament in all of its excessive, maudlin detail. From the crudest unpolished stones, for which even the wordslabwould be an overstatement, to the condominium-sized mausoleums of those who felt obligated to sayfuckyouto their neighbors, even in death.
The song in his headphones is“Fleeing the Valley of Whirling Knives,”by Lightning Bolt.
In these first waking moments, as the train jerks and shudders toward Grand Central and the sleeping businessman next to him leaks drool on the keyboard of his laptop, oblivious of the soft-core love scene from a Hong Kong action flick playing on his screen, Henry thinks of how his life to this point has been so precisely planned and ordered, the conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations. So much so that he decides if he were to write down how the next fifty years of his time on earth will play out, he is certain that he would get a troubling amount of it right.
Last week on the 6:18 into Manhattan the train slowed to a stop just below Tarry town. After ten minutes the engineer announced over the PA that because of police activity on the southbound track they would be backing up and switching to the northbound. Henry sat up and looked out at a gathering of forlorn police and MTA officials contained in a ring of yellow tape, stooping over a body bag just beyond the shelf of the Tarrytown platform. Later that day he read on Twitter that it was a suicide. Not the first track-jumper he’d heard of, but seeing the body bag as dawn broke over suburbia had affected him.
On the way home that night, passing the scene, he thought, If you do it in the morning, you hate your job. If you do it in the evening, you hate whatever it is you’re going home to.
Looking back out the window this morning, he can’t help but feel that these graves are all his, and that he lies rotting beneath every last piece of stone, every cross, every Star of David, every pedestal-mounted archangel twisting skyward. He lies beneath the faded miniature military flags, the wreaths of white carnations, the single red roses, and the tilted vases of flowers plastic and dead. He lies beneath the rain-smeared Polaroids, crayon notes from children and grandchildren, yearbooks signed by teenagers who weren’t in the car that night. Beneath the Barbie dolls and baseball gloves and dog biscuits, the footprints of grave dancers and the stains ofgrave pissers.Beneath the paperback copies of Wordsworth and Whitman and Danielle Steel, the half-drunk bottles of fine champagne and small-batch bourbon, twenty-five-year-old tawny port and brand-stinking-new Mad Dog 20/20.
He lies beneath all of it, staring into the wet press of earth above.
Henry Tuhoe, all of thirty-two, without the slightest inclination to rise.
Yet he does.
~ * ~
Not a Station
The world is sweating. Billions of gallons a day oozing, dripping, puddling, staining. Beading on foreheads, glistening on backs, trickling down anxious underarms. Sixty percent water, with traces of sodium chloride, ammonia, calcium chloride, copper, lactic acid, phosphorous, and potassium. The universal metaphor for hard work. It’s sexy. It’s disgusting. And if you happen to be the vice president of underarm research for the world’s largest maker of antiperspirants, it’s gold.
The world is sweating and it’s Henry Tuhoe’s job to stop it. Or at least make it smell better.
~ * ~
The rush-hour walk through Grand Central. Madness or beauty, entertaining or terrifying, depending on who you are, where you’re going, which path you choose to spit you out onto the concrete of the city, the ambiguity of career.
Not long ago, even before his unfortunate move to the suburbs, Henry would consciously alter his route to avoid the main concourse because he was certain that it would be attacked. Smart-bombed or dirty-bombed or lit up with the rush-hour gunfire of a martyr. He used to try to arrive extra early or a little late to avoid the prime-time crush of people, because only an amateur would bring down a landmark off-hours. He used to walk up the ramp from thelower level by the Oyster Bar or take one of the side halls to the east or west. They wouldn’t attack there, would they? Could the Oyster Bar ramp have been in their recon photos, their crude schematics? But now he just walks theshortest distance, not because he’s suddenly become courageous or defiant or because he feels invincible or the least bit safer. He does it because he’s been trying to convince himself that he no longer gives a shit.
The brush of shopping bags against his wilting quadriceps. The smell of fresh bagels and overpriced coffee from the market on the Lex side. A blur of suits. A swirl of skirts. Hints subtle and nauseatingly acute of every imaginable varietal of sweat. Once in a workshop they asked himtosmell it. They passed around beakers.
At the base of the mezzanine stairs a crew is trying to film stop-motion footage of the crowd for a TV commercial, but in a subconscious expression of what they think about the cinematic cliche, commuters keep bumping into, getting too close to, the camera. Bustling, time-lapsed Grand Central? Show us something we haven’t seen. The director, his powers useless in the real world, throws up his hands.
~ * ~
Some days Henry glides through the crowds in perfect sync. Sometimes he plays a game in which he tries to avoid physical contact for the entire workday. On the train he’ll sit near the window on a three-seater without fear of being bothered, because on good days people would rather stand than take the middle seat between two other humans. He will dodge bodies walking through Grand Central, and on the sidewalks leading to his office he will slip and slide, juke and glide, eluding contact like a tailback, a Formula One driver, a xenophobic, germ-phobic, paranoid freak.
However, on other days he’ll find himself jammed three across on the train and slamming into everyone off of it. He’ll attempt to bob and weave, to synchronize movement, to change speeds and anticipate footsteps, but nothing will work.
Today is one of those days. Gathering himself after blindsidingan angry businesswoman while sideswiping a SWAT cop with a bomb-sniffing dog, he wonders if there is any kind of correlation between the cemetery-waking days and the awkward-passage days, or how about between the level of difficulty of the walk to work and the level of difficulty of the day that follows? He decides to make a note of it, which means he’ll never think of it again.
He’s listening to“Subbacultcha”by the Pixies.
A trade show in the old waiting room, Vanderbilt Hall. Well-scrubbed, blond white girls in old-fashioned Dutch dresses and kerchiefs handing out tulips and four-color travel brochures. Henry thinks Grand Central is so muchbetter now than when he first came through it with his father in the eighties. Transvestites beating off in the men’s room then. Foul-smelling squatters in the waiting room. The stars overhead in the main concourse buried beneath generations of diesel soot and cigarette smoke, decades away from restoration.
It’s a terminal, not a station, his father had corrected him back then. Stations connect to other places. Terminals terminate. They end.
He accepts a complimentary tulip from a blue-eyed, pink-cheeked girl and asks how the weather is in Holland this time of year, hot and muggy or cool and dry. Armpits of the world want to know. The girl hesitates a moment, looks at the bunched tulips in her hand as if they are a bouquet of roadkill, then looks over her shoulder for help from her team leader. Of course she’s not from Holland, Henry realizes. She’s just some college kid part-timing for a travel bureau, wearing a costume like a Disney character.
His father was forty-six when he died at a corporate teamwork off-site. Massive heart attack. Jostling among junior execs eager to be the first team member to administer CPR, to catch the eye of the boss. Then a dozen white-collar workers in matching T-shirts that sayNo Limits!carrying his stretcher in a synchronized sprint to the ambulance, the medi-chopper, all thinking, or at least attempting to demonstrate,Together we can do anythingwhile the paddles fail and the tiny monitorflatlines.
That’s how Henry imagines it, anyway.
He puts up his hand to retract the question, to wave off the not quite Dutch girl, but before he can speak he’s jolted by the vibrating phone in his pants. Rachel. He recently told her it has become illegal to use the phone on the train, so now she calls him within minutes after his scheduled arrival.
“Did you check . . .”
“And the pool?”
“It’s green. Again. Like a fluorescent radioactive green. What did you do?”
“I used the tester. I added the stuff.”
“No. I’m lying. I’m lying about the pool, Rachel.”
“In the dark?”
“I could do it in the day, but that would mean I’d have to quit my job to be a full-time pool boy.”
“I just didn’t notice.”
“I did it at three a.m. when I woke up downstairs in front of the TV.”
“All I know is our pool is disgusting.”
He takes a breath. He doesn’t want to fight. Doesn’t want to feel this way toward her.“You don’t even like to swim, Rachel.”
“It’s an embarrassment. Every other pool on this block is a perfect shade of blue, but ours looks like a Superfund waste site.”
“Every pool except at the houses that have been foreclosed. Look, I’ll check it again when I get home.”He moves to hang up, but reconsiders.“Listen, did you, you know, think about going back to talk to that guy? Philip?”Her shrink.
This time she clicks off. He puts the phone in his briefcase rather than his pocket. She’s not a bitch, he reminds himself. She’s afraid.
“Actually, I’m not from Holland,”the young woman tells him.At first he has no recollection of speaking to her, no idea what she’s talking about. Rachel’s calls have a way of doing this to him, detaching him from the present, clouding reality, making him breathless with what he hopes is anxiety, because he’s far too young for a heart attack.“But,”she says,“I hear it’s real sunny this time of year.”
He scrolls to Scissor Sisters’cover of Pink Floyd’s“Comfortably Numb,”taps Play.
~ * ~
The Land of EEEE
Four years ago they transferred him from Oral Care to Non-headache-related Pain Relief. Three years ago they transferred him from Pain Relief to Laxatives. Two years ago he was fast-tracked to Silicon-based Sprays and Coatings and was making quite a name for himself, but when lawsuits not of his making led to the rightsizing of the division (because discontinuing it would send the wrong signal to class-action lawyers), they transferred him to Armpits.
~ * ~
He has a nine-thirty focus group, which leaves just enough time to drop off his briefcase and check his messages. Outside his office sits Meredith, his administrative assistant.“Morning, Meredith.”
“You are a sought-after man.”Meredith is reading theNational Review.On her desk, already devoured, are theFinancial Times,theWall Street Journal,and theDaily Racing Form.Meredith’s auburn hair is pulled back, as it is every day, in a bun. A 1950s librarian’s bun. Her loose-fitting skirt suit makes her look short and, if not exactly fat, then chunky. But Henry knows better.
“Who’s doing the sought-aftering?”
“The emperor ofeccrineglands.”
“The armpit czar.”
“Aka Doctor Sweat.”
“Aka Giffler.”He loves this machine-gun give-and-take. He loves the way it makes him feel as if they really know each other, asif he’s one of the regular guys, nice to coworkers above and below, even though Meredith, a five-year employee of the firm, looks up to no man.
Meredith thinks the give-and-take is banal.“You got it.Giffler.”
“Bloodcurdlingly chipper. He said he’ll stop in on your nine-thirty.”
Henry rolls his eyes. Poor me. Poor us. Meredith looks away, turns the page. The ironic rolling of eyes, the office politics of Henry Tuhoe andGifflerand the rest of them: beneath her.
His office has a decent view of Park Avenue facing east, but he doesn’t bother to look anymore, unless there’s a demonstration in the street or an aerial view of a tragedy. Like the runaway cab that killed three on the sidewalk last month. They gathered in his office,Giffler, Meredith, the rest of Armpits, not because Henry is the one they all run to for calm and assurance in a crisis, but because his office has the best view. That’s the type of thing that seems to bond them now. Fatalities on the street below. Rumored and unexpected layoffs. So-and-so’s cancer scare. The collapse of a market, an industry, a way of life.
On those occasions they’ll gather and talk. They’ll inquire about non-underarm-related, occasionally personal topics. They’ll linger and joke, briefly revealing intimate aspects of their lives while chalk lines are drawn on the sidewalk below, gurneys loaded and lifted.
By contrast, the supposedly happy occasions—the baby showers in the seventh-floor conference room, the champagne toast for a job well done, and the soon-to-be-extinct ritual of after-work drinks—have the opposite effect on their relationships, their morale. Those rituals bore them, crystallize their sources of anger, and are breeding grounds for future resentment. She’s making how much? They had sex where? The nerve, taking the corporate jet with more cuts to come. It’s gotten to the point where even the people being honored can’t finish their Carvel cake and warmKorbeland get out of there fast enough. Or maybe this is just how Henry has begun to see it.
He closes the door, hangs up his jacket, and turns on his laptop. Standing, he bends over the keyboard. He has twenty-nine e-mails,but he’s not interested in them. E-mail now has all the urgency of snail mail, yet nothing, not Facebook orTumblror Twitter, has risen to replace it. He opens his Web browser and peeks up to look through the frosted glass of his interior windows. Meredith is standing, talking to someone. Through the lens of frosted glass she’s relegated to a vaguely defined shadow, but on his desktop screen Meredith is about to become something altogether different.
On a heart-shaped ruby red splash page with an adult content disclaimer, Henry clicksEEEEnter. He begins to ease himself into his seat, ready to enjoy the opening montage—which consists of Meredith’s alter ego, tanned, heavily made up, topless on a Harley, topless as a cheerleader, a dominatrix, schoolteacher, nurse, commando, construction worker, trial judge; Meredith poolside, ocean-side, in the rain forest, in the cab of a bulldozer, on a mansion roof, beside the broken white passing line of Route 66—when, to his surprise,“Steady as She Goes”by the Raconteurs begins playing on his speakers, loud enough to cause the shadow blobs outside his office to react. He quickly mutes her audio intro, looks at the window to make sure he hasn’t blown his cover. When the blobs outside seem to have stabilized, he slouches into his multi-adjustable, lumbar-supporting swivel chair, for which he feignedto Office Services a chronically bad back, and begins reading the wit and wisdom of the home page.
Welcome to the Land ofEEEE. Home ofEEEEVA EEEENORMOUS and her 46EEEE Twins.And there she is, Meredith who is not at all short or fat, or even chunky—unless you’re talking about her breasts, still topless—straddling some kind of missile, smiling more brightly than she or anyone else has ever smiled in this building.
Henry clicks to the What’s New VIP page, but there’s nothing new, really. At least, not since end of day yesterday. Just some additional, never-before-seen shots from a months-old naughty accountant layout. No new message for her loyal subscribers. No breaking career news or video updates. Maybe if she’d stop reading the damned financial pages, Henry thinks. He shuts the machine down and stands up.
Back outside, Meredith doesn’t acknowledge him as he walksby. She continues talking to Giffler’s admin, a gay temp named Brad who could probably run the whole division if he were more interested in making a living and less interested in full-time clubbing.If you only knew what I know about the young woman to whom you’re talking, Bradley.Indeed, if anyone knew.But your secret is safe with me,EEEEva.
“I’m off to the Oven,”he says over his shoulder.
Meredith briefly considers Henry before turning back toward clueless Brad.
~ * ~
The Oven is the 101-degree-Fahrenheit observation room in which focus group participants are paid in the area of $75 to spend approximately two hours applying product and having their armpit sweat measured. An insensitive nickname, especially at a New York-headquartered company with more than 11,000 Jewish employees worldwide, but it is accurate.
On Henry’s side of the glass it’s a comfortable seventy-two degrees. He grabs a Snapple from the mini-fridge on the back wall and picks up the specsheet on the participants. Women, aged twenty-four to thirty-four, median income of $30,000. As they file in, he tries to match the specifics of their lives to their nametags. Hobbies, jobs, marital status, children. Stick, roll-on, or aerosol. Hygienic rituals. Brand affinities.
He’s disappointed that none seem particularly attractive, although it’s hard to tell, since most of them are wearing sweatshirts and who looks good in a sweatshirt in 101-degree fluorescent light? That will soon change, when the heat begins to register and they have to apply the product, which in this case features an innovation called Nanoabsorbers™, which isn’t really an innovation as much as a new name for an old technology, which isn’t really a technology as much as it is a bunch of loosely regulated, decades-old, sweat-blocking chemicals or ingredients, one of which is active.
Typically they’ll apply product, overheat the humans, andmicromeasurehow much sweat is released, but today the test ismore about the wordNanoabsorbers™and the perceived increase in dryness that hearing the actual word and watching three short computer-generated Nanoabsorbers™ demo films (variations on swirling, swarming molecules sopping up waterborne evil from free-floating, disembodied armpits) bestows upon the subjects. Someone in name generation came up with the word, and everyone creamed all over it. Moniker testing was through the roof, and now it’s just a matter of finding the right ingredients, the right product, to invent around the word.
When he first started in Armpits, Henry found sessions like this degrading for parties on both sides of the glass. He felt dirty when the participants, especially the women in the twenty-four-to-thirty-four demo, would glance his way through the two-way mirror. That first glance, or glare, really, before they became desensitized to the environment and caught up in the throes of ego and opinion, always made him feel ashamed. They looked angry, as if they knew they were about to be violated and dehumanized, all for $75 and as many soft drinks and salty, trans-fat-based snacks as they could consume. The stifling heat didn’t help their moods, either. He used to look away when they made that initial stroll by the mirror. He used to think about what their lives must be like outside of the Oven, beyond the spec sheet. What music did they listen to, how many brothers and sisters did they have, had they ever had an affair, where were they on 9/11? But now he just tries to predict which of them will have the most activeeccrineandapocrineglands. Which will sweat more profusely than all the others.
Sometimes they bet on it. Five bucks a head. Draw numbers to determine who goes first. Sometimes they do the over/under version, but usually it’s sheer volume that makes for the most interesting competition. Winner takes all in the sweat pool. But this morning he’s alone in the dark room as the subjects do the stroll and sulk. And even as they reluctantly start removing their sweatshirts (with one more obligatory glare for the perv on the other side), he’s not interested in any of it.
He just wants to get it over with.
The door in back of the room swings open. As yellow hall light seeps in, Henry averts his face from the group on the other side,because anything less than total darkness on his side will expose him as the solitary underarm voyeur he is. He sees Giffler’s face for an instant before his boss shuts the door, depriving the room of light.
At first he’s just a voice.“How do they look? Anyonebangable?”
Henry laughs, then regrets it, then feels disgusted with himself because he knows that while Giffler’s words are offensive, particularly when spoken in the hallowed workplace, he thought the same thing moments earlier.
Giffler reaches for the volume.“Mind if I turn this shit down?”
“Sure. If I miss something, I can check the tape.”
“They tape everything now, eh? Or record, because I doubt anyone tapes much of any fucking thing anymore. What they ought to do if they want to learn anything is tape-slash-record what goes onthisside of the mirror. I heard Dworik did a moderator against the glass last week while a baby-wipes group was in progress on the other side.”
“Wonderful. Quite the role model.”
On the other side women are removing their outer garments, revealing the sleeveless T-shirts and tank tops they were requested to wear.“Look at the cans on her. Jesus.”
Henry turns and looks with lust. Doesn’t look. Then looks without lust. He goes through the whole outrage/guilt/self-loathing ritual again.
“I wonder if there’s a link betweentatasize and volume of underarm sweat. Or type of odor. For instance, do chicks with fake titssmelldifferent? That’s a piece of research I’d like to oversee.”
“I’m sure Dworik would green-light it.”
“So why am I here, you ask.”
“All the time,”Henry replies, watching the women apply the generic stick product with the Nanoabsorber™ logo.
“Tell me that’s not erotic? Even the ugly ones. Were you here back in the day when we did the hairy group? Four weeks’armpit bush minimum to get in. Even that you can’t help but find—”
“So you’ve told me.”Henry thinks if the DVDs from the hairy armpit sessions just happen to come up missing from the archives, he’ll know where to look first.
“Anyway, I’m here to tell you that you owe me a great old big one. A huge fucking one.”
“Because . . .”
“Because . . .”
“Because I saved your ay-yass, Tuhoe. As we have this conversation that never happened, your whole level, most of this division, is being outsourced to fucking Bangalore, India.”
“They can’t do that.”
“Or Hungary. I forget. Some are going to Budapest and Prague and some to India. Anyway, I know. It’s an outrage. Makes one sick. Blah-blah-blah.”
“India? What do they know about what we do here?”
“They have armpits too. Besides, most of R & D is going to be humanely put down. Should have done it long ago. They’re going to stick with basically repackaging and repositioning what we’ve got. I mean, you’re only allowed to stop thirty percent of the sweat by law, and we can do that in our sleep, so what other mountain is there to climb in the world of sweaty pits?”
“They can’t outsource my job. I deal with clients and customers every day. I innovate. Some kid in India can’t do that over the phone.”
“Oh yes he can. And for one tenth the price.”
“That’s bullshit. I’m a knowledge worker. A right-brainer. Even in this economy, Dan Pink and Thomas Friedman say knowledge workers are untouchable.”
“We’ve already outsourced the entire Eye Care Division.”
“That’s not true. I just spoke to Warren last night. We had lunch yesterday. He’s all excited about—”
Giffler puts his hand to his mouth.“Whoopsy. I forgot that pit-sniffers andeyeballersoccasionally cross-pollinate. Forgot he was your friend. So I misspoke. Let’s forget I said that. Actually, I never did say it, you lying bastard. Eye Care is rock-solid. Warren is golden. Safe as ever.”
“He’s in his office. I passed it this morning. He’s not outsourced.”
“Oh yes he—or the hypothetical employee whom we’ll callWarren—is. Off the record, someone in Bangalore or Mumbai orperhaps Prague is doing his job right now for pennies on the dollar. We’re just being redundant for a little while to make sure it doesn’t bite us in the ass with some kind of cultural glitch, or typhoon, or Pakistani warhead. So don’t tell him.”
“He’s one of my closest friends in the company. And you should know that unlike everyone else in this place, Warren loves his job.”
“Right. Real American tragedy. This goddamn outsourcing. Soon we will outsource ourselves to death as a nation. Anyway, tell him and you’re fired too.”
“What about Nanoabsorbers™?”
Giffler looks at the ceiling for cameras,mics. He bends down, cuts his flat hand across his throat.“Already causing problems in white mice.”
“Too much sweat?”
“Your word. I’m sticking withmassifications.”
“Which technically is not a word.”
“Which technically is why I have a particular affinity for it.”
“But it’s the same ingredients as always, reconstituted.”
“All I know is something wentkaflooeyand they’re pulling the plug. Your entire division is beingrightsized.”
“Think up a better word for it, a more employee- and economy-sensitive phrase that big business and cable hosts will embrace, and we’ll make millions. We’ll write a book.”
“Should have seen it coming. Asia rising. China. India. Shit, I’ve already got our nanny making our two-year-old watch every Chinese-language and Bollywood piece of shit she can get her hands on.Bend It Like My Big Fat Crouching Hindu Wedding.To understand those cultures is to be eternally wealthy.”
“So why not me?”Henry speculates about the package the others have been given, wonders if maybe being an outsourcing victimis just the fashionable kick in the ass his life needs right now. A chance at a fresh start. Away from focus groups, team meetings, armpits, or worse: Giffler.
“Because you were right is why. Youarea bit of a knowledge worker. Your previous job, the one you were doing five minutes ago, was not a knowledge job per se. Anyone can stand here and whack off while chicks apply things to their naked sweaty pits. I did it for years. But your supplementary skills, they can’t be replicated.”
Henry stares through the glass. He thinks one of the participants is saying she feels dizzy, but because she’s saying it while looking into her armpit it’s hard to read her lips.“You know,”he says,“there are probably employees who would volunteer to be, you know,rightsized, if the package were enticing enough.”
“Indeed there are. And those are precisely the ones we cannot afford to lose. Those who want to leave us of their own volition but lack the courage or bank account to do so are indispensable. Beloved.”
“For instance, I know someone who would love that, um, opportunity.”
“Not gonna happen, Tuhoe.”
“So where am I being transferred to? Dental? Bath and Body? Chemical Weapons?”
“Here’s a hint: two thirds of the earth is covered with it.”
“Hint number two: two thirds of the people on this great planet can’t get enough of it.”
“I’m being transferred to the Department of Bacon? Please,rightsizeme, Giffler. Downsize me.GangBangaloreme. Offer me a package. Make me a victim of whatever euphemism for shit-canned Human Resources can come up with.”
Giffler laughs, but shakes his head.
“We don’t even have a water division.”
“Do now. Like . . .”Giffler counts on his fingers.“Like six. They’re buying up companies like there’s no tomorrow. Like when they had to play catch-up with the whole trans-fat scare. Twenty-grain this. Organic that. Some number-crunchingmuckety-muck must have told the C-suitersbetween lap dances at their favorite upscale gentleman’s sports cabaret that water was the future. A tremendous quote-unquote long-term growth driver. So they’ve been on a tear.”
“Water? I’m not—”
Giffler waves him off.“We’re talking the sustenance of billions. It’s over my head, but they told me that by 2025, five billion of the world’s nine billion people will be facing a scarcity of clean water. So there’s big money to be made. Every time you take a shower, a drink, or a shit, someonesomewhere’sgoing,Ca-ching!”
“I have no background in water.”
“Not true. Did you not minor in geology at Northeastern?”
“If Americans continue to use their current average of one hundred gallons per day, thirty-six states will have significant shortages by 2013.”
“So I’d be focusing on what, the Southwest? Arizona, California?”
Giffler shakes his head.“There’d be some traveling.”
“I hate traveling. You know that. I hate flying. I hate leaving New York. Where, then?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. But you might want to gain some proficiency with chopsticks.”
“And get your malaria, your bird, your swine flu shot. Your Ebola booster, if there is such a thing.”
“I will not go to China.”
“Not China or India per se. From what I hear. Wonderful cultures, though. On the rise. My guess is that someplace that is impoverished, polluted, riddled with disease, and even more economically flawed than we are would be your quote-unquote territory. But what do I know?”
“I have no knowledge of the industry, the languages. I know nothing about those cultures. I hate travel. Plus you know that I have a huge problem with germs.”
“These are some of the most fertile economies in the worldwe’re talking about. It is the Asian century, Tuhoe. You’ll probably just be a relationship placeholder until they figure out what they’re really gonna need, but think of how you can exploit that on your resume.”
“Let’s call it investor relations. VP of global water, investor relations, let’s call it. Talk about fulfilling. You could actually be doing something that makes a difference.”
“So it’s what—desalinization? Ultra-filtration? Some new way to help people in the third world have access to fresh water?”
“We’re going to give them bottled—”
“No. Not them. You’re going to help them learn customer relations and set up a customer call center for a U.S.-based bottled water company. More back-office stuff than anything. But still, terribly important.”
“Oh, you know. The one that fucking hippie lesbian couple started in Vermont.”
“Happy Mountain Springs? They’re privately held.”
“Were. Apparently even save-the-planet hippie lesbians have their price. Of course, they’re contractually obligated to stay on as the face of the company for three years and let us use their likenesses.”
“Why do you need me if you’re outsourcing it?”
“Someone’s got toset upthe outsourcing. Teach the locals how to perform ascluelesslyas our customer service people in Lincoln, Nebraska—for a quarter the salary, of course.”
“Let’s call itpresourcing. Much more 2010, much more marketable than outsourcing.”
“I’m not gonna do it.”
“Fine. Just remember that refusal to accept a plum assignment like the one that has just been hypothetically proposed to you would constitute a breach of contract that would result not in a rightsizing, or laying-off, or the gift of a package or parachute, golden or otherwise, but in a good old-fashioned‘You’re fired and Luther herefrom Security is giving you six minutes to clean your sorry personals out of your desk and get your ass out of the building.’Hypothetically, of course.”
“What about you? What are they doing with you?”
“Me? I’m firing people, mostly. But until the day comes when I must outsource my despicable self, I’ll be your U.S.-based boss and life coach.”
“I’m not gonna do this, Roger. I’ve got so much shit going on at home. I can’t. . . My wife and I aren’t even . . .”
Giffler puts up his hands.“Here’s what I’m gonna do. Take the rest of the day off. Go home and talk it over with Raquel.”
“Take tomorrow too if you’d like. I’ll give you two days to come to a decision. And you know why?”
“Because you love me like a son.”
“Bingo!”A blade of light slices the darkness, then vanishes as Giffler closes the door.
~ * ~
Henry stares at his reflection, his face ghosted over the scene on the other side. On the far right a body wobbles, crumples to the ground. As two other participants grab the woman under her arms and try to lift her off the Oven floor, the moderator flails with both hands up at the projection booth. At first Henry thinks it’s to call for an ambulance or to tell someone to lower the heat. But when he sees the moderator draw her fingers across her neck, he realizes that she’s telling them to kill the camera.
~ * ~
Henry’s phone is vibrating in his pants. Rachel, making her presence felt.
She knows that he had the focus group and that, according to Henry, the cell phone is off-limits in focus groups, so he doesn’t pick up, even though he’s no longer in the focus group, even though he’s no longer at work. He doesn’t know how the phone got back into his pants. He remembers stashing it in his briefcase but has no recollection of taking it back out, returning it to his pocket. Does it have a homing device? Some kind of boomerang function?
Walking down Park toward Thirty-third, he checks his watch and figures he’s got an hour, maybe two, before he absolutely has to get back to her, and by his calculations, if he gets it right, he can call when she’ll be unavailable in a videoconference with clients.
Not long ago he’d have been the one calling Rachel. Seeking her counsel, telling her everything. Not long ago, if he’d gotten a chance to scoot home early, regardless of the reason—promotion, transfer, early dismissal—he’d have pounced on it. He’d have picked up a bottle of cab and some Jarlsberg and Amy’s Bread and told Rachel to finish up early to meet him. But now going home early is the last thing that he wants to do, because Rachel, a respected independent Internet security consultant, very much in demand, works out of the house, and rare is the day, no matter what the hour, thatshe’s not home when Henry walks through the door. Before they moved out of the city he used to say he’d go crazy if he had to spend so muchtime in the suburbs, no matter how interesting the work. But now she assures him that she’s living a dream, telecommuting, videoconferencing with Kuala Lumpur in her slippers and cloudpj’s, doing every preposterous thing the tech commercials promised, all the dreams they assigned us to live. And now, of course, the irony or coincidence is that she’s the one who’s going crazy and living a lie, not a dream.
One option would be to go to a bar and drink himself silly, but he isn’t much of a drinker, and when he’s stressed alcohol hits him in the worst way. So, with his phone again vibrating in his pocket, he’s heading toward the gym, and he is listening to“Novocaine for the Soul”by the Eels.
The clientele in the gym at eleven a.m. is quite different from what you’d see at, say, six a.m., or six p.m. These aren’t the sweat-soaked type As grinding out Thing One on the day’s to-do list before heading to work. These aren’t the lean and jovial early risers, with notebooks and heart monitors and bottles filled with secret concoctions. At eleven a.m. the gym is almost empty.
The young woman at the front desk doesn’t look up when he swipes his membership card, or when he waves or says good morning. Eighties monster rock is the sound track for those who dare exercise without iPods. Journey, Henry thinks, but he can’t be sure. En route to the locker room he checks out the free-weight area. Two unemployed bodybuilders are doing dead lifts in the far corner. Near the dumbbell rack a JackLaLanne—like seventy-five-year-old man in a purple-and-white-stripedunitardis doing preacher curls, ogling his blood-engorged biceps at the peak of each four-count rep, mocking age, gravity, and the spirit of all things weak and flabby. In the empty yoga studio aBotoxed,liposucked, and tummy-tucked fifty-year-old woman is practicing spin kicks targeted at, Henry thinks, the testicles of imaginary men. The ghosts of husbands past, present, and yet to come.
He stands naked before the mirror in the empty locker room, appraising his enigmatic body. Arms and shoulders still defined, still strong at thirty-two, despite some seven years at a desk job, ten since he last played third base, in college. Legs lean and muscled, but less so since he stopped mountain biking. But his abs, or morespecifically the belly that covers them, are something in which he can take less pride. Not fat, but loose, settling in a roll on his hips, rounding out beneath his navel.
On other days, when he looked at his belly he thought of defibrillators and fat-clogged arteries in waiting, of corpulent bodies sprouting tubes in ICUs. He felt a certain age creeping in and another slipping away.
But today his wistfulness is focused on his testicles. Almost six weeks since they were shaved in preparation for surgery, three since the last of theprescribed icings. They’re once again covered with fine brown hair, once again looking very much like Henry Tuhoe’s testicles of old. Yet despite this superficial return to testicular form, Henry feels a rumbling churn in his lower abdomen just thinking about them, a knifing pain in the top of his skull just looking at them. And when he lets his left hand drop to touch them, to gently tumble them like Queeg’s steel balls, he feels as if he’s holding not a surgically altered reproductive organ but two tiny bombs planted by terrorists of the self, waiting to blow his life apart.
Not Journey. Foreigner:“I Want to Know What Love Is.”
When he looks back up, balls still in hand, Henry sees the reflection of the old muscle man in the purple-and-whiteunitardstaring at him with a disgusted look on his face.
~ * ~
“Five, six, seven, eight.”
Henry is on his back on the bench press, listening to the voice ofNorman, his personal trainer. But he’s not lifting anything. Hasn’tsince the count of two. The bar sits racked above his head; hisbreaths are silent and regular, not the breaths of someone workinghard.
“Nice job, Henry. Really excellent,”says Norman, who agreedto see Henry on short notice because he had nothing better to do.
“Yeah. You’re making real progress.”
“What if I told you I didn’t do a rep after two?”
“I’d be shocked and offended, Henry. I’d consider it a breach ofan understood trust. One more set, then we’ll do some, what? Someincline.”Henry pumps out a set of twelve reps. When he sits up, he sees that Norman is staring across the gym at an unoccupied hack squat machine, and that he is crying.
At first he tries to ignore it, to pretend he hasn’t noticed that his personal trainer, the man he pays $30 an hour to get him energized, motivated, and physically transformed, is crying. Again. He’s also trying to ignore the fact that Norman is wearing street clothes: black polyester slacks, an untucked black button-down shirt covered with yellow daisies, and flip-flops that have a bottle opener built into the sole. But Norman’s sobbing now, and Henry’s afraid if he doesn’t at least acknowledge this, things may escalateto a genuine scene, a spectacle, and the last thing he wants is to attract the attention of the disgusted oldmuscleheadand the kickboxing man-hater.
“Yeah. Give me a second. You did great. That an NPB?”
“A new personal best?”
“Christ, Norman. I don’t know. Why are you crying?”
“Just some tough times, Henry, man. I just feel sometimes kind of down, you know?”
“Is it because you’re, you know, taking downers again?”
Norman scratches the dry, thinning hair of his scalp, which looks like it needs a good scratching.“Painkillers. Not downers. Percocet. Mostly they help a lot, but sometimes even though the physical pain subsides the mental anguish lingers, and sometimes, I guess, comes up and devastates my ass, mentally.”
“Hey, did you see my latest film?”Norman is talking about the latest of many short films he has shot and posted on YouTube and several of other aggregate, viral video sites.
Henry has seen it—a four-minute, genre-defying video featuring an inferno of spider monkeys, icebergs calving in reverse, the poetry of Billy Collins, and a mock German techno track that he couldn’t get out of his head for days—but he tells Norman no, he has not had the chance.
“Well, check it out when you get home and vote, vote, vote! If I want to get a development deal, I need to show I have a following. Itold you I talked to that ex-client of mine with the friend who knows that documentary guy, the child prostitute guy?”
“Yeah. You’ve been taking these, um, painkillers for what? Six months at least, right?”
“This time around? Sure. About that. Okay. Let’s keep it moving while we talk, Henry. Let’s keep the energy positive.”
While they set up the incline bar, Henry stops and turns to Norman. He’s holding a forty-five-pound plate.“I don’t know what to tell you, Norman. I mean, you know you can’t do this. You know you have to quit. And Percocet, you can’t just do cold turkey. You need some kind of help.”
“How are you set for protein powder these days?”
“All set. What do your other clients think when you start sobbing in the middle of their workout?”
“Well, that’s the thing . . .”
“What do they think when you neglect to give them a spot? Or don’t pay attention to their set while they’re lifting? And your personal trainer—slash—Colombian drug dealer outfit—what do they think of that?”
Norman tugs at the bottom of his shirt, shrugs.
“When we first started two years ago, you were built, Norman, you had this whole sleek-white-Adidas-warmup-suit thing going. You were motivating. You shaved.”
“I actually thought of something cool for you. Involves tossing a sort of medicine ball and tying your ankles together with a piece of string.”
“I sawRockytoo, Norman. You can do better than that.”
Norman watches Henry slip clamps onto the bar. He sits on a nearby bench and puts his head in his hands. The old guy is coming out of the locker room again,unshoweredand in street clothes, and he is looking their way.
“That’s the thing. I don’t have any other clients right now. You’re pretty much it. The owner lets me do a spinning class on Tuesdays, but since I kind of spit up in my mouth during the warm-up last month, I don’t even ride anymore. I just spin good music andtalk all kinds of smack while I walk around the room with one of those Britney Spears headsets on.”
Henry wonders if he should tell Norman that his only remaining client is about to be fired, or at the very least transferred to the bottom half of the third world. He leans back and does a set on the incline bench. The same weight as usual, but itrisesand lowers with ease. After his twelfth rep he glances at Norman, who is looking somewhere far away, so he decides to keep going and bangs out another five reps. When he’s done he looks to Norman for recognition, a glimmer of positive reinforcement, but now he’s text-messaging someone. After thirty seconds Henry grinds out another set andfeels even stronger. This time he doesn’t look to Norman or anyone for approval, and when he guides the weights down he feels a warm, uncomplicated, guilt-free rush of endorphins, all of his own making.
“Where do you get them?”
“The painkillers? Clients. Ex-clients, actually. Why? You want?”
He thinks. Not so much about the painkillers but about his own situation at work, at home, and with his balls, and how he doesn’t know what to do, how to feel about any of it. Of course he won’t mention any of this to Norman. But if not Norman, then who?
“I’m just kidding,”Norman says. Then:“Hey. How’s work, Henry? Still the absolute pits?”
Norman laughs so enthusiastically at his joke that this time-the old man and angry kickboxing woman both turn to stare at them.“You’re a funny man, Henry. I mean it. Without fail, after our sessions, I always feel so much better.”
~ * ~
Only when an office is consumed by the maudlin does it become remotely interesting.
~ * ~
He’d tried to come up with a reason for returning, such as claiming to have forgotten a valuable document or needing to complete a mission-critical task. But unless a cruel joke has been played on him, there are no more valuable documents in his portfolio, there is no mission-critical anything to be done in the soon-to-be-extinct Underarm Research Division.
He’s returning because he doesn’t have anywhere better to go.
Dworik, the CEO, and three executive handlers are on the up elevator. Henry wonders if Dworik knows that one of the men he’s in the process of firing or shipping around the world for no apparent reason is standingalongside him. Then again, he wonders if Dworik even knows who he is. It’s only been seven years, after all.
Just before the door opens on the executive floor, Dworik looks at Henry. He turns his right thumb and forefinger into a pistol.“Underarms, right?”
“Yes, sir. At least for the moment.”
Dworik blinks and tilts his head like a dog listening to a harmonica. He doesn’t quite understand and doesn’t do a very good job of hiding it. Has this young man been fired? Is he quitting? Or something else? This is why he usually shies away from spontaneous downward-directed small talk. Always ends up with the big guy being made to look bad, one way or the other.
As Dworik steps off the elevator he looks to his handlers, one of whom whispers into his ear, presumably about the impending fate of the employees of the aforementioned Underarm Research Division. As he’s hustled away Secret Service—style from a potentially ugly employee-CEO confrontation, Dworik glances back one last time, and his face contorts into the most artificial smile Henry has ever seen, a smile that somehow manages to convey every type of emotion but sincerity—fear, loathing, disgust, hate, and contempt—all punctuated with a double thumbs-up gesture.
Meredith looks up as Henry rounds the corner.
“I had to come back,”he says, then adds with what he wants her to think of as his trademark sarcasm,“Can’t stay away from this place.”
Her look tells him that his trademark sarcasm, always weak at best, barely qualifies as sarcasm under the circumstances. She knows, sadly, that it is true. He can’t stay away from this place. And something that is so thoroughly true cannot be considered sarcastic. She also knows that his job is not that difficult and that lately he’s been staying in his office much more than necessary because he does not want to go home. She knows that his most recent personal days were for a vasectomy and that his wife calls him with obsessive frequency and varying degrees of hysteria on his work and cell phones and that he is a paid subscriber who regularly checks in on her Web site, sometimes up to ten times a day. Her Web traffic reports tracked them right back to the corporate server and his hometown cable provider.
“Anyone call? Anything going on?”
Meredith also knows that he’s been given an ultimatum between China or India or wherever the hell they’re sending him and unemployment. She knows the Underarm and Eye Care Divisions are being outsourced to India. She knows that Henry knows that Dworik banged a demographer in the focusgroup room during a baby-wipes session last week. And she knows that Henry knew that their friend Warren in Eye Care was going to get the ax this morning yet waved at him as if everything were wonderfulwhen he walked past his office.“Nope,”Meredith says.“No calls. And do you really want me to tell you what’s going on in this place?”
Henry thinks about this for a second. Looks into her eyes. He’s trained himself to do this, because he’s paranoid about getting busted for staring at her breasts.“No,”he says.“I guess that’s the last thing I want to know.”
He closes his door and stares out his window onto Park Avenue. There’s a mentally ill man standing on the median at Forty-sixth, his regular station for this time of day, waving a dog-eared Bible and screaming doomsday prophesies that Henry cannot hear. To the south, cars slide toward the traffic arch under the New York Central building and slip into its dark portal as if, he thinks, into some kind of urban genocide machine.
When he turns around, Warren from Eye Care is standing in the doorway with Meredith.“If the windows weren’t hermetically sealed, would you?”
Henry smiles.“The old ones in the conference room on eight open just fine. So if you don’t mind landing in an alley . . .”
“You waved at me when you walked by this morning. Twice.”
“The first time I didn’t know.”
“Giffler slipped. He told me to pretend I didn’t hear it and then denied that it was going to happen at all.”
“Which you knew was a lie.”
“When did he tell you?”Henry asks.
“Two minutes after he left the focus group. Right after he told you not to tell anyone.”
Meredith backs up a step.“I guess I’ll be leaving.”
“No,”Warren says.“Stay, Meredith. Don’t you want to know who else is getting axed?”
“Well, for starters,”Henry replies,“I am. Or at least I’ve been given an ultimatum. But don’t worry, Meredith. I imagine you’ll be moving somewhere else once I’m gone.”
Warren looks at Meredith, who pretends that all of this is news to her.“I feel like a jackass, Henry.”
Henry waves him off.“They’re overhauling this division too.The deal is I can either take a call-center job in some kind of newly acquired bottled water division in a third world nation, or refuse and be fired.”
Meredith says,“You hate to travel, Henry, and aren’t you a bit of agermphobe?”
He smiles. Even now, all he can think of is her boobs. Boobs, boobs, boobs.
“What will you do?”she asks.
“One week severance per year.”Boobs.“Right, Warren?”
“Correct. I know how I’m spending mine.”
“Really? Giffler’s giving me two days to think about it. But I’ve already made up my mind. Beside the fact that Rachel and I are already ass-deep in debt and our house is worth half what we paid for it and I have no discernible skill beyond being guardian of the psychological secrets of parity hygiene products, I’m kind of looking forward to getting out there and maybe, you know, actually stumbling upon something that doesn’t make me feel completely ashamed of myself.”
Warren closes the door and walks closer to Henry.“So you’re saying you didn’t like your job here?”
“Don’t. Didn’t. Never will. You knew that, Warren.”
Warren looks at his hands and shakes his head.“You always said it, but I thought that was just white-collar bravado.”
“The work we do here gives white collars a bad name. We’re like bureaucratic clerks in a Kafka novel.”
“Then why have you stayed here so long?”
“Because I’m an asshole. Because I didn’t know what else to do. And not just with the job, with everything. You say you like it, but you’re telling me you truly enjoy what you do, Warren?”
“Enjoydoes not do justice to how I feel about my job. I love the mission statement, the product mix, the day-to-day responsibilities. I love the research, the customer interaction, theEureka!moment that comes with a genuine insight. I never wanted a promotion or a transfer. I wanted to do this, customer insights, Eye Care, for the rest of my life. And that’s what I intend to do.”
“But that job, if I’m not mistaken, has been assumed by a twenty-two-year-old man-child in Bangalore, India.”
“So you know of a similar job at a similar company?”
Meredith and Henry exchange glances.
“I’m going to get my job back, people. Thisexactjob.”
“Okay,”says Henry, the way he’d say it to a crazy person.
“I’ve already done some research. I’m pretty sure I found the company in India they’re subcontracting to.”
Meredith sits down on Henry’s black leather couch.“And you’re going to try to convince them to bring it back here?”
“Oh, no,”Warren says, walking over to the window.“Not that. I’m going to go over there.”
“To India?”Henry asks.
“Uh-huh. To Bangalore. Or Mumbai. Could be Mumbai.”
Henry looks at Meredith again, but she is staring at Warren, transfixed.
“Listen,”Warren says.“I’m thirty. Single. Divorced. Childless. My parents are dead. My friends have all moved on with kids and spouses and midlife crises of their own. What I have . . . what I had was a job that I loved. It gave me pleasure. Fulfillment. I found it challenging. I felt as if I was helping people. Christ, Henry, listen to what you just said. And Meredith, you’ve as much as told me that if it weren’t for the medical benefits and the profit-sharing, you’d be long gone, trying to become a new media millionaire. What’s so wrong with me deciding that I want to travel halfway around the world to keep the job that I love?”
“Warren,”Henry says.“They’ve outsourced it because it’s an unskilled job and they’re probably paying someone one tenth of what they’re paying you. You couldn’t live on that.”
“I could in Bangalore. Besides, I’ve got one point three million dollars in the bank. One point three. With no kids and no alimony.”
Henry does the math. The son of a bitch was here for the takeover eight years ago that he’d just missed, but still.“One point three after the crash?”
Warren nods.“I yanked it all out way before and put half in gold, which I sold at the high.”
“But you don’t speak the language.”
“I’ll learn. Besides, most of the people I’ll work with speak English.”
“I think it’s crazy, Warren,”Henry says.
Meredith disagrees.“I think it’s adorable.”
“I think it’s better than your plan, Henry,”Warren answers.
Meredith nods.“Whatever that is.”
“When Giffler told me this morning,”Warren continues,“I was devastated. But now I feel liberated, because I absolutely know what I want to do. I may not be able to do it, but knowing what that is, and being on a mission to achieve it, to make it a part of an adventure, feels incredible. What is it that you want to do, Henry?”
Henry considers the millionaire, Bangalore-bound, reverse-outsourcing customer-service-rep pioneer and then the all-knowing, multimillionaire (probably), big-boob new-media porn star/administrative assistant in front of him and then looks back out the window. The preacher man on the median below has gone wherever he goes when this part of his shift is up. The soup line? The gym? He’s probably rich and fulfilled too. Taillights continue to flash into the black mouth of the traffic arch down the avenue before vanishing, never to be seen again. He feels the dull throbbing in his scrotal sac that the doctors said might occur for several weeks after the procedure, and in some instances for several years. As he slips his hand into his pocket to make a discreet adjustment, his phone buzzes, and the jolt of it almost causes him to leap through the supposedlyunopenablewindow.
~ * ~
In the first days following your vasectomy, elevate your legs and apply ice packs liberally to the scrotal area. Lasting or significant pain is uncommon, but you should not have, and probably won’t feel like having, intercourse for several days to several weeks. Your doctor will tell you when to bring in your first semen sample for examination.
The pool is indeed green. A different green from the last time he’d seen it in daylight, on Sunday. Now it’s more of an Amazon jungle river green than an electric Kool-Aid, Chernobyl green, but green nonetheless.
Henry squats and takes a test strip out of a small blue plastic bottle. He dips it in and out of the deep end of the pool and compares its small multicolored panels to their idealized version on the back label. At first he thinks he’s holding the strip upside-down, because none of the colors come close to corresponding with those on the label. But he’s wrong, it’s right. Which is sort of a relief, he thinks, because if it all lined up perfectly and the pool was still green, he’d really be screwed.
Still, what a mess. And why does it have to be so difficult? And not just the pool but the entire, thanks to the real estate mess, drastically devalued house. So much breaking down, so much to maintain,even though it’s relatively new. Gutters to be cleaned. HVAC filters to be replaced. Furnace needing servicing, toilets clogging, water-treatment systems failing, minerals building up in a $2,000 dishwasher. Cracks in the driveway, water in the foundation. Always depreciating, never easy. And no matter how well stocked his basement workbench becomes, he never seems to have the right tool for the job. And parts. The part that he’ll dedicate a Saturday morning to finding in the Home Depot’s endless aisles is always, for reasons he never finds out, wrong. Wrong length, wrong width. Wrong model, color, pattern, gauge, grit, grade, viscosity, voltage. Wrong.
Right now, the entire house, even the parts that work, he thinks, is wrong. Four thousand state-of-the-McMansion-art square feet of wrong. Or maybe, it occurs to him, he is what’s wrong with the house. He’s the one fouling up the works, the one in need of maintenance, the one depreciating ata greater than anticipated rate. Maybe he’s the one who should be foreclosed upon.
He thinks, if the house had to shop for parts for Henry and Rachel Tuhoe at theHumanDepot, it would get it all wrong too. Wrong age. Wrong attitude. Wrong ambitions. And absolutely the wrong model. As he looks up at the towering clapboard wall of the back of the house, the screened-in porch, the rear windows of the three-car garage, the matching pool house, it’s all he can think. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong life.
Yet less than two years earlier it had seemed, or at least Rachel had convinced him to believe it was, kind of right. They had lived together on the Upper West Side for three years, two as a married couple, and had enjoyed it immensely. The laughable commute, the late-as-you-want dinners at the most eclectic places. They enjoyed watching friends’bad indie bands in Brooklyn and not understanding the art they kept going back to see in Chelsea. Waiting on line for midnight cupcakes at Billy’s. Sunday brunch with childless friends at Cafe Luxembourg. They enjoyed having the gym and the dive bar and the bookstore next door, themegatheaterstwo blocks south, and the art-house theater a few blocks beyond that.
And then they (Rachel first, he’s certain) decided that they had outgrown it. Their friends’escapades with love and drugs, real careers and fantasy vocations no longer seemed original or terriblyimportant. Tedious patterns began to emerge. Ill-considered behaviors were repeated. What had seemed outrageous began to register as immature. What had once passed as interesting had become banal. Melodramatic. It had rained three weekends in a row at the end of that summer, canceling the last August visits of the season to their Amagansett beach rental, which, after three years with the same people, had also become tedious, tiresome, banal. Melodramatic.
They’d both been working social-life-killing hours at jobs at which their entry-level, young-professional-on-the-rise energy and optimism had already been replaced by increased responsibility and, yes, money, as well as questions of a deeper philosophical nature. Also, Rachel was in the middle of a feud with her best friend, which added to her already bored state of mind.
So the early October invitation to a fall harvest festival at the northern Westchester County home of one of Rachel’s married coworkers seemed like something worth trying. Something new. On the Hudson Line train heading north, coming out of the first tunnel and seeing the sun-blasted leaves against a cloudless sky, they both felt it—that they were no longer mired in the expected but on the verge of something new and fresh and altogether different. Even the sky seemed of another place, much cleaner than the sky they’d just left.
And even though her friend’s fall harvest festival was tedious and corny, apple this and pumpkin that—”They’re acting like they grew and harvested everything down to the last gourd and are sharing them with the originalMayflowerpilgrims,”Rachel had whispered to him—they had to admit they did enjoy themselves, and the children running through the leaf piles were kind of fun.
On the train ride back to Manhattan that evening in a slight drizzle, during which some leaves had already begun to fall, they sipped takeout cups of green tea with lemon and leaned against each other, talking about the river and hiking trails and adjustable-rate mortgages. By the time they slipped back underground and their day in the country had come to a close, they had already made up their minds. It was time to leave the city, cash in their options, andbuy a big-ass house in the country like her kind-of-friend’s, and maybe, at some point, start a family.
~ * ~
For a second Henry looks directly into the sun hanging over the magnolia on the southwest side of the pool and is so blinded by its afternoon rays that he becomes disoriented. He loses his balance and slowly tips over sideways. Scrambling back to his knees, he glances toward the kitchen window to see if Rachel was looking. Hard to tell for sure, but he doesn’t think she’s in there. Probably in the office, still on her conference call. And even if she was looking, he wonders if it would have registered that he had fallen. Because looking at something and seeing it are completely different things, and he knows that she hasn’t seen him in a long time. He gathers himself with several deep breaths and realizes that he has not eaten since breakfast. Not during the focus group or even after the psychiatrist/workout session with Norman. So it’s no wonder he stumbled, especially in this heat.
He knows there’s one thing you’re supposed to balance first, and once you get that right, you move on to the others. He thinks it’s the alkalinity, but he can’t be sure. The back label of the alkalinity increaser jug offers no help. Neither does the label on the pH in-creaser. He has an entire milk crate filled with chemicals: increasers,decreasers, clarifiers, shocks,algicides, balancers. He has liquid chlorine, powdered chlorine, one-inch tabs and three-inch hockey pucks of chlorine. In addition to the test strips, he has more elaborate testing kits, small chemistry sets with tubes and droppers and their own color charts.
Everything he needs to get it right is here. All he needs is to figure out the prescribed sequence, the proper balance, and they’ll be swimming in no time. Because it needs both, he decides to dump in half a gallon of alkalinity increaser and then four or five—how many gallons of water does the pool hold again? Twenty thousand? Thirty? What the hell, make it an even sixscoops of soda ash. Standing back up, brushing off his pants, he figures he’ll give it a few hours and see how this all takes before reappraising.
~ * ~
Inside, he finds Rachel standing in her office with her back to him, dressed for a casual night out. Fitted jeans and riding boots, a green embroidered silk shirt. She is tall and athletic and in many ways, he thinks, still beautiful. But in other ways she isn’t. Her long, dark brown, shampoo-commercial-worthy hair is now dry and frayed (stress? age? meds?), and for the past three months an unnatural Marilyn Monroe blond. Her once perfect Mediterranean skin has deep creases around her eyes and mouth, a condition he attributes to her increased propensity for frowning, twitching, and furrowing her brow. And her eyes, her wide dark gorgeous clean-edged eyes, which had an energy that coursed through him when she was happy or angry or horny, now seem a half-shade lighter, ten watts duller, and, up close, softer, milkier, murkier. Of all the things they have been through in the past year, it’s the change in Rachel’s eyes that saddens him most.
“Hey,”he says, but she turns and gives him ashushwave. She’s wearing a wireless Skype headset and is holding some kind of spreadsheet. In a way, he’s relieved that she’s busy. Soon she’ll be leaving for a dinner date with one of her new girlfriends from her most recently organized social group, and he’ll be off to the latest iteration of what has become a tedious monthly male ritual: Meat Night, with five neighbors, five other men he barely knows, at a house a few blocks away. Not enough time to sit her down to talk about water for the third world or outsourcing, the chemistry of their pool and their marriage.
Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.
He leans over her desk to wave good-bye. He mouths the wordsMeat Nightand she looks at him as if he is insane. As he straightens up to leave, he notices a paperback on her desk calledThe Postmodern Cauldron: Diary of a 21st-century Witch.
Before he can pick it up, Rachel snaps it away and glares at him again, as if he is the crazy one.
~ * ~
It’s too late for the butcher shop, and that’s too bad, because it would have been a nice manly touch, a butcher-shop-procured prime cut of an exotic species wrapped in a sheet of coarse white paper, a hint of blood beginning to soak through. The only thing better, Henry imagines, would be to have killed and butchered the species in question himself. Maybe next time. This time, however, the A&P meat counter will have to suffice.
He takes special care to avoid aisle four, personal hygiene, because the last thing he wants right now is to start thinking about the quantity and quality of deodorant shelf space. Instead he takes the long way along the far edge of the store, where the aisles are lined exclusively with frozen and refrigerated goods. At the butcher’s counter in the back of the store there is a small line. An overweight young mother in camouflage stretch pants is yelling at her two-year-old son, telling him he’d better start adjusting his attitude right quick. Directly in front of him a middle-aged couple in matching Dale Earnhardt, Jr. number 8 NASCAR shirts and hats are having a heated debate over whether they should go with the sweet or the spicy Italian sausage. When Henry looks back at the mother and child, he sees that the little boy has stopped crying and is contentedly gnawing on the cap of a six-ounce Redwood Honeysuckle Spice stick, the best-selling version of the brand he worked on until eight hours ago.
~ * ~
As soon as they closed on the house, having a child went from something they might want to do to something they would try to do to— for Rachel—an obsession.
On the train back and forth to Manhattan (while they still commuted together), Rachel no longer read literary fiction; she began to read books on fertility. She no longer drank coffee or diet soda; she drank herbal teas and tinctures and potions from the health-food store that had names like Fertile Harvest, Women’s Blend, Leaves of Splendor, and, to Henry’s amazement, the disclaimer-free, citrus-flavored powdered supplement Conceive Now!
While their lovemaking in their Manhattan apartment had sometimes involved items such as vanilla-scented candles, massage oil, or one of Rachel’sMazzyStar albums, those accessories had been replaced for their suburban sessions by menstrual calendars, alarm clocks, and digital thermometers.
Several times he had to leave work early, or not go in at all, because like it or not, it was time. This was around the same time that he began to notice that she was missing from the bed late at night. Sometimes he’d find her outside in her nightgown, staring at the glow patches of clustered houses in the suburban sky. Sometimes he’d find her smoking in the empty upstairs bedroom.
After three months without success, Rachel began to question the heartiness of his sperm, the character of her eggs. They went to doctors, who essentially told them that they were fine. That they should calm down. Henry suggested that she might want to talk to another doctor, to, you know, help calm down. But Rachel responded by telling him he was crazy and didn’t speak with him for a week.
After six months Rachel blamed their inability to conceive on her job, the stress of her commute, so she quit and found less demanding, lower-paying work as a freelance, work-at-home (mostly) Internet security consultant. In the meantime, she bought more books, took up yoga, and had Henry ingesting up to twenty different vitamin and mineral supplements a day. Beyond C, E, and A, he didn’t know what most of them were. He knew only that his urine lookedradioactive and at nine every morning his bowels would erupt with Old Faithful—like regularity.
After nine months of trying to conceive, Rachel slipped into a mild depression. Even though she was only twenty-five, she began to play the role of a hopeless, barren, childless spinster out of the pages of a Victorian novel. She watched a lot of daytime TV and read a lot of Victorian novels, several about childless spinsters. She began, without prompting, to tell her friends and family and random strangers about their tragic predicament. She envied her neighbors’fertile wombs, coveted their chemical-free cedar swing sets, and resented their $700-stroller-pushing nannies and baby-formula-stained minivan floor mats.
Then, after almost a year of this, when prime conception opportunities presented themselves, she began to ignore them. When Henry reminded her, mostly because he realized it was his last best chance to have any kind of sex with her, she ignored him too.
Eventually the thermometer went back into the medicine cabinet, the tinctures were shelved, and the vitamins sat untaken long past their expiration date.
“Can I help you?”
Henry looks blankly at the butcher, then at the unimpressive display of meats behind the counter. No grass-fed organic New Zealand lamb racks or sides of free-range bison hanging from chains in the back room. Just your basic chucks and chops, T-bones and pork loins.
“Yes,”he says.“I’m looking for a special kind of meat to barbecue for me and five, urn, friends.”Five men so desperate to validate their manhood they dedicate an entire night to the burning and consuming of large quantities of animal flesh.“Any suggestions?”
~ * ~
He told Rachel to snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for herself. He said there was nothing wrong with her eggs or his sperm and she still had another twenty childbearing years in front of her, if she’d only stop obsessing. He even showed her an article he’d downloaded on the effects of self-imposed pressure on a couple’s ability to conceive.
Then, that September, he took her to Block Island, to a two-hundred-year-old bed-and-breakfast on a hill overlooking the Atlantic.
And it worked.
Getting away from the house prompted some kind of psychic release, and they made anxiety-free love twice a day for three days. On the ferry back to Point Judith, a transformed Rachel said that she was sorry, and that maybe they should wait to have children anyway. After all, they were still kids, and maybe it would be for the best if they sold the house and moved back to Manhattan. Henry felt as if the four-thousand-square-foot weight of that house had been lifted off him. He promptly contacted their Realtor in the country, a new Realtor to help them find a place back in Manhattan. He booked a return trip to Block Island.
Two weeks later, when he got home late one night from work, Rachel told him that she was pregnant.
“How do you know?”
“I missed. I never miss.”
“It’s a miracle. Why are you not ecstatic? Where is the beaming face of the proud father-to-be?”
“I. . . It’s . . . Considering what we’ve ... it certainly is. . .”
“What? Don’t say shock. Our first child will not be considered a shock.”
“How about ironic?”
“We wanted this, Henry. We desperately wanted this, and now our prayers have been answered.”
“Yeah. Great, Rachel. My God, but. . .”
“Well, if you’re not ecstatic, your mother certainly is. Maybe she’ll stop pitying my barren womb now.”
“She never . . . You told my mother?”
“And my parents. I knew you’d be home late and I didn’t want to tell you over the phone and I couldn’t sit on this all by myself.”
“Did you see a doctor?”
“No. Tomorrow. I used a strip. Then I got another test at the drugstore. Positive-positive. Isn’t it amazing?”
“Yes,”he said, and as he hugged her his gaze drifted out the kitchen window and over to the murky surface of their pool.
The next day her ob-gyn confirmed that Rachel was two, maybe three weeks pregnant. They took the house off the market and told the Manhattan broker they were no longer interested in moving. She went back to the health-food store with a vengeance, loading up on products with names like Fetal Fortifier, Mother’s Essentials, and Living Womb. At night after dinner he painted constellations on the ceiling of the baby’s room.
Rachel still wasn’t herself, still wasn’t the carefree woman he had fallen in love with and married, but she was happy, and that was an improvement. Regarding having a baby just then, he wasn’t sure what he wanted beyond wanting Rachel to be happy. For the first time he thought of his approach to their relationship in terms of saving her. And him, and them, of course. But he was convinced it had to begin with her.
At eleven weeks her mother and sister began plans for an extravagant surprise baby shower.
At fourteen weeks she began to spot blood.
At sixteen weeks she was put on bed rest and given medication, a special foam wedge to put between her legs.
At nineteen weeks they made their first trip to the emergency room.
The fourth time they went, at twenty-one weeks, they lost the baby.
That night they cried together on their living room couch. Later, in bed, he promised her they would try again. They would have another child. He was still crying, but Rachel wasn’t. She rolled over without answering.
~ * ~
The Ministry of Meat
“Gentlemen!”proclaims host Gerard Fundle.“Honorable members of the Ministry of Meat, behold the bounty and the spectacle, the revolting beauty that is. . . Meat Night!”
He raises the platter of assorted meat over his head as if it is the Stanley Cup, the Holy Grail, something more than dead flesh.
“The carne-valof carne!”shouts Victor Chan.
Marcus LeBlanc raises a glass.“The fusillade of flesh!”
“Meat! Meat! Meat!”The Osborne brothers are pounding on the glass-topped table, fists clenched around knives and forks.
Henry would laugh if he hadn’t first been exposed to each of these“spontaneous”outbursts via an embarrassing string of e-mails, messages bearing subject headings such as“A Meat-eater’sManifesto”to“Man Rules for Meat”(number three:“Gristle is our friend”).
He would laugh if it weren’t for his own sad contribution to the spectacle: Kobe beef hot dogs.
Besides Henry there are five of them gathered in the bluing twilight, all fathers at least eight years older than Henry. They all live within a half-mile of Gerard’s house, and all except for the Osborne brothers, who grew up in the first iteration of this subdivision, have landed here through the randomness of corporate migration.
Gerard is working three separate cooking stations: a coal-filled Weber kettle for the indirect heat purists, a massive stainless-steelWeber gas cooker for bulk, and a smoker that for the past sixteen hours has been working its magic on Gerard’s self-proclaimed (yet never before attempted) world-famous brisket. There’s a red plastic tub filled with an eclectic variety of international beers—Belgian ale, India pale ale, GermanHefeweizen, Slovakian pilsner, and, in a nod to Gerard’s less exotic college years in upstate New York, Genesee Cream Ale. Henry randomly selects a bottle of Blue Point Toasted Lager (Long Island), which, as he fumbles with the opener, Gerard is quick to point outrecently won a gold medal in Munich. Henry hears himself saying“Wow!”even though, except on nights like this, he doesn’t drink, especially beer, and he could give a shit about Munich or lager or medals. But after his first sip he has to admit that while nothing about this beer tastes particularly toasted or medal-worthy, it is good. He says as much to the group, because saying no to beer on manly Meat Night or poker night is much more of a lightning rod for sarcasm than nursing one or two until it’s time to go home.
He takes another swig, laterals his bag of exotic hot dogs over to Gerard, and begins shaking hands with his geographically mandated friends. Forty-something WASP Gerard; the forty-something Irish American brothers Osborne, John and Eric; forty-two-year-old Chinese American Victor Chan, who has a yet-to-be-explained purple and black shiner around his left eye; and forty-one-year-old African American Marcus LeBlanc.
They’re all employed in some form of corporate middle management. Financial services. New media. Apps. Digital widgets. They’re all wearing cargo shorts with cell phones clipped on the waistband, sport sandals, and colored cotton T-shirts stamped with the logos of places and things that might be cool if any of them actually existed.Freddie’s Bait and Tackle. Death Valley Road Rally. Chattanooga Charlie’s Chile Sauce.
They’ve been gathering like this, once a month or so, since they recruited Henry two years ago. Not only for Meat Night, but for everything from LawnJartsand horseshoes to bocce andWiffleball. Last fall they even had a brief beer pong season, which concluded on an ugly note, with that night’s champion and subsequent former group member Louis Bell getting a DUI from a state trooper on Route 9.
The games themselves don’t matter. What supposedly matters is the ritual of talking them up for days and sometimes weeks prior to the event. At first Henry wasn’t interested in any of it. The drinking, the“I’m aJartsGod!”e-mail shit, and especially the company of men much older than he.
At first he went out of politeness and because Rachel encouraged him. She said it would be good for him. Then later, during her obsession with getting pregnant, her obsession with staying pregnant, and her prolonged depression after she lost the baby, he found himself wanting to go, looking forward to it. Anything to get out of the house.
But now he’s unsure of where he’d rather not be: in his giant empty home with Rachel, ignoring each other or, worse, talking about his vasectomy; or here, feigning camaraderie in the universal epicenter of displaced manliness.
Before settling down, he announces to the others that he has to take a piss. That’s what you do on Meat Night, you announce it—I’m pissing in yourhouse whether you like it or not, perhaps with the seat down—because excusing oneself is a sign of weakness, is for pussies. He stops in the kitchen to look at the corkboard near the phone. Besides the preponderance of takeout menus, which reinforce his theory that Gerard’s wife and kids may be“vacationing”in Long Beach Island longer than Gerard wants to admit, there are two calendars, both turned to the month of June, even though it is now mid-August.
The first calendar is for Gerard’s soon-to-be fourth grader, Gerard Jr., and every day is meticulously inked in, from morning until bedtime, with appointments for everything from soccer practices to karate and alto saxophone lessons to three-times-a-week SAT prep tutoring with a woman who, Gerard has told Henry, virtually guarantees that Gerard Jr. will be accepted into an Ivy League school if he sticks to their long-term, increasingly expensive plan. The second calendar is for Gerard’s other son, Phillip, who is in preschool. There are no written words on it, only hand-drawn smiles for the days on which young Phillip hasn’t bitten anyone. Of June’s thirty days, there are only three smiles.
Back on the patio, while the meats sizzle and sputter on clean-brushed, recently oiled grates, Henry takes the only remaining seat at the glass-topped patio table, in between the Osborne brothers. The seat is empty for a reason. The brothers are notorious for their passionate discussions, with one taking the opposing view of everything the other believes in, from sports to how to light coals to, of course, politics. Henry’s never seen it, but several times the Osbornes’arguments have escalated to the physical, the most famous of which was a 2004 St. Patrick’s Day dance that left the basement of the Catholic church in ruins and Eric cupping his hands over his bleeding, shattered septum.
Henry’s not even sure which one is Eric and which is John. He’s known them long enough that he should (it’s not as if they’re twins), but to ask for clarification this late in the game would be counterproductive. They give him the slightest of nods before resuming their debate on immigration. One wants to close the borders and build an electrified wall and the other, he wants to . . . Henry stops listening. Lately he’s been doing this a lot. As soon as someone starts in on health care or taxes, playgroups or some neighborhood committee, he glazes over, shuts down. Same goes for stories about Face-book or Twitter or the social network du jour. Sports too, especially golf. And office crap. Lately, even the parts that involve him. Sometimes he daydreams and others, such as now, he wonders how he ever got himself living this doomed existence, at his age.
~ * ~
Rachel became convinced that their troubles were some kind of sign, that their having children just wasn’t meant to be. As soon as he agreed to at leastconsider having a vasectomy, she threw herself into the research. She downloaded articles and printed diagrams for him that were intended to allay his fears about loss of libido and the pain of recovery. What he was most concerned about, beyond the mental state of his wife, was having someone take a scalpel to his testicles, and no chart or penis-friendly phrasing could make it go away.
Whenever he tried to tell Rachel that perhaps they should wait just a little longer, because one day they might want to try to have achild again, she told him that she couldn’t handle the emotions of expectation and loss, that if it happened again it would break her completely. Whenever he mentioned therapy or counseling, she responded with anger, accusations, and prolonged periods of silence. Pushing harder, he thought, would be the end for them. So, while not assenting, he let her run with it, with the hope that things would change, she’d get better, or at least find a replacement obsession.
But she didn’t. Soon Rachel knew enough about the vicissitudes of vasectomies to do a dissertation for theNew England Journal of Medicine.
~ * ~
Henry accepts another beer.“A Slovakian—not Czech, there’s a huge difference—pilsner,”Gerard explains. One of the Osbornes, deep into a criticism of the latest government bailout, stops pointing his index finger at his brother long enough to say,“That’s what we want to see, Junior. Pounding some fine eastern European swill. We’ll make a man out of you yet.”
Henry raises the bottle in a toast. They have taken to calling him Junior, or Kid, or H. After two years he is still the plebe, the pledging frat boy. He has remained the disciple and they the wise elders, the savvy veterans of the mysteries of suburbia, marriage, fatherhood, and the sub-prime lending fiasco. They played every aspect of their hazing, mentoring roles to perfection, he thought, except the part about the actual dispensing of wisdom, the leading by example, or the solving of even the smallest problem.
LeBlanc asks Victor Chan for more details about his swollen and blackened left eye.“Happened at Kenny’s T-ball game.”Chan looks away from LeBlanc, hoping that this is description enough.
“What,”shouts Gerard,“did you get clipped with a line drive by a toddler on steroids?”
“Or did one of the parents clock you?”Henry offers with a laugh.
Chan turns and stares at Henry.“Well, actually, yes,”he says, as if Henry is the one who did the sucker punching.
“What happened, V-Chan?”asks Marcus.“This is T-ball, correct?”
“Yeah. There was this little kid, this little prick, actually, who started mouthing off to the first baseman, a nice kid twice the size of the other kid. The first baseman didn’t do anything, except catch the throw that sealed the other kid’s fate. I thought they were playing, but the little brat began throwing punches. Soon the big kid had him on the ground. I ran over and started pulling them apart and the next thing I know this other father, the little kid’s father, grabs my shoulder, spins me around, and clocks me.”
Gerard approaches from the grills, brandishing tongs and a long grease-slick fork from which dangles a piece of charred grizzle.“Holy shit, Victor, what’d you do?”
“What I did is fall down, Gerard. You think I know kung fu or something just because I’m Chinese?”
“You didn’t hit him?”Gerard is shocked.“I would’ve—”
“I would’ve sued him,”says Osborne the First.
“Further destroying our overly litigious society,”counters Osborne the Second.
“I did nothing. It wasn’t even my son in the fight. My son, who, by the way, won’t even talk to me because I walked away.”
“You have to redeem yourself,”Gerard insists.“You must bust that dude right in the nose, Victor Chan, for your dignity, your son’s future, and the integrity of our national pastime.”
“Did he at least apologize?”Henry asks.“Have you seen him since?”
“No. We have a game tomorrow. I feel sick just thinking about it.”
They grimace as one as the testosterone is sucked out of theirmanspace. No one speaks for a while. Clearly this tale of passive nonviolence at, of all things, a sporting event has been a level-one Meat Night buzz kill.
“Well,”Gerard finally declares.“That’s just weak, V-Chan.Effin’pathetic.”
Victor doesn’t respond as Gerard heads back inside. A few moments later Green Day’s“American Idiot”comes through theexterior wall-mounted speakers. Marcus LeBlanc starts jerking his head to the music. The Osborne brothers finger-jab to the beat. Henry is fairly sure that none of them know what’s playing, what it’s saying. What’s important to them is that even though itwas released more than six years ago, it sounds younger than they are and that, at least among themselves, they are getting away with co-opting it.
Gerard reappears and turns to Henry.“Too loud?”he asks, but what he means is,“Too much of a reach?”
Henry shakes his head and gives Gerard two rocking thumbs up. Meanwhile, Victor Chan seems to have collected himself after his tale of T-ball terror and is proudly removing the contents of the traveling martini kit he received for his fortieth birthday. Not especially macho, Henry thinks, as Victor reassembles, then begins to measure and pour and shake. But there is hard liquor involved, in this case a Polish vodka distilled from a particular type of wheat or something (Henry lost interest after the wordsdistilled from),and it does provide the others with the opportunity to point out Chan’s numerous tactical errors. Henry takes a long drink of a beer (English Porter) that he doesn’t remember opening and closes his eyes.
“That rude son of a bitch.”
Henry opens his eyes. It’s Victor Chan.“Who?”
“Gerard. The man’s man. If you only knew.”
Henry knows he’s supposed to follow up Chan’s tease, but he doesn’t. Doesn’t care.
~ * ~
The Permanent Snip
Rachel wasn’t the only one doing research.
He told her about the man who’d gotten one, yet his wife got pregnant anyway a month later. Then he told her about the guy at work whose wife had him get one even though she’d secretly had her tubes tied after a C-section. When the man found out, after it was too late, his wife said she didn’t want him to go running off and having kids with some bimbo and watering down her children’s estate.“But can’t I still get it reversed?”the soon-to-be-cuckolded man had asked her.“Nope,”his wife said.“Yours is irreversible. We got you the permanent snip.”
At the end of the story, Henry asked Rachel,“Do you want mine to be permanent?”
“No,”she said.“I just want it to work.”
~ * ~
Six weeks after the procedure date he’s still haunted by dreams of phallic mutilation, is still reminded of it in the quotidian images of his daily routines. So it’s understandable that watching Gerard take aGinsuknife to a heat-plumped kielbasa and his own sizzling Kobe beef dog is something his eyes cannot abide. Instead he looks away, drinks his martini, and manages to listen to the Osbornes argue long enough to discern that they’ve changed their topic from the auto industry bailout to waterboarding.
Soon after Victor gets up to make another batch of sub-par martinis, Marcus pulls a chair alongside Henry. Marcus is drinking seltzer. He says it is because he is on antibiotics for Lyme disease, but they all know it’s because Marcus is on antidepressants. Marcus’s wife, who is white, had told the other men’s wives, including Rachel, after theirfirefighter’sworkout class that Marcus is depressed over his diminished blackness in white suburbia. But Henry and the men at the round table of meat know that the real cause of Marcus’s depression is that his wife has been cheating on him with a man who has significantly more ghetto in him than Marcus. They know because Marcus confessed to them two months ago, after being over-served on small-batch bourbon and Raw Bar Night.
Marcus tried to win her back. He gave up golf, khakis, and, for a while, the Protestant church. He tried cooking soul food, watching BET and Samuel L. Jackson films, and listening to old-school hip-hop. He tried to alter his diction and even attempted to cultivate a genuine resentment of the Man. But none of it worked, he told them, because he was the Man. Born and raised in white suburbia. Soccer coach. Churchgoer. Occasional cardigan-wearer. What he realized, or what couples counseling helped him realize, just before his wife abandoned him and his two daughters and moved in with a man in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn for five weeks, is that she had a thing fordangerousblack men and Marcus, in retrospect, was way too white.
The Brooklyn experiment was a failure, and they are currently living under the same roof, trying to make a go of it for the sake, they say, of the children.
“Monsieur LeBlanc.”Henry smiles. He likes Marcus LeBlanc. On occasion they’ve actually had some decent conversations.
“How goes it at work?”
But apparently not today. And yet, though he hates talking about work while he’s away from work—primarily because talking about what he does for a living (which in itself is a depressingly accurate phrase) angers, humiliates, and frustrates him—here he is finishing up Polish specialty wheat martini number two and beginning to tell Marcus LeBlanc about his day.
About how goes it. How went it. About working hard or hardly working. About everything.
At first he doesn’t notice, but soon he sees that they’ve all stopped what they were doing—Gerard (cooking), the Osbornes (ranting: presidential citizenship), Victor Chan (fretting)—and, smelling the blood of genuine emotion, the scent of angst other than their own, have gathered closer to revel in his tale. He tells them about the morning gravestones, the fainting woman, and Giffler’s ambiguous ultimatum. He tells them about Norman from the gym, thelurkerin the locker room, and Warren’sBangalorianreverse-outsourcing ambitions. He even tells them about Meredith, though he refuses to reveal her name, real or porno.
Midtale, Victor refills Henry’s martini glass and Gerard gets him another beer (Hefeweisen, Germany). Moving back and forth through time, pausing for dramatic effect, and occasionally standing to pantomime an event, Henry tells them that after two miserable entry-level jobs in sales he fell into a job at his current company. And though it was better than sales, he never did like it. He tells them that he probably would have left the job long ago if he had had the slightest clue about what he’d like to do, about what gives him satisfaction or pleasure. He tells them that he’s probably being transferred, orexpatrio-sourced, the name he invents on the spot, to what he’s being told is a customer-service satellite for the newly acquired Water Division, even though he has little call-center knowledge and none of the bottled water industry, and that he’ll probably have to travel quite a bit, probably to a third-world-type place—India, China, South America—and that it troubles him deeply, because, as they know, he hates flying and has a bit of a germ phobia.
When he’s done he feels spent, but in some ways better for having told them, for having told anyone, and they certainly seemed to be eating it up, to be moved by his story, the tale of a man with whom they are sort of familiar, in actual conflict. Indeed, here is a chance for all of them to know Henry better—to know any human being better—and it seems, Henry thinks, to have registered with them on some deeper, more visceral and purely emotional level, to have transformed the banal dynamic, to have brought all of them a little closer to having more meaningful, truer relationships. To signal to themthat his tale is now done, that he’s ready for a little Q&A session if they’reinterested, Henry pushes aside the martini and takes a long drink of theHefeweisen.
Gerard (of course it would be Gerard, Henry thinks—Gerard the wise, Gerard the caring) steps forward. He has a dripping piece of ostrich meat on a barbecue fork in one hand, a Trappist ale in the other. Gerard the shaman.“Tell me,”Gerard says with the warmth of an uncle, the gravitas of a trusted adviser.“Tell me more about this porn-whore secretary of yours.”
“Yeah,”says Marcus.“Exactly how big are that chick’s fun-bags?”
~ * ~
There is a condition that occurs among a small number of men known as post-vasectomy pain syndrome (PVPS). Symptoms include a dull ache in the testicles beginning immediately or months or even years after the procedure. It may resolve on its own or require another surgery. In some cases the patient experiences psychological depression seemingly unrelated to the vasectomy.
~ * ~
The meat is paraded across the patio like May Day missiles past a Kremlin reviewing stand. Kielbasa, Italian sausage, veal chops, ostrich strips, T-bone steak, Gerard’s tender brisket, and Henry’s Kobe beef hot dogs. Henry takes some of everything and a second helping of the ostrich—not because he likes the way it tastes, but because it’s giving him a rarely experienced sort of primal pleasure, eating ostrich.“I never liked ostriches anyway,”he announces, spearing another piece off the main platter.
“Better get used to eating weirdness, the places you’re going,”says Osborne the Second, and his brother laughs for a moment before catching himself.
“That’s the thing, and I told you guys this,”Henry says, gesturing with his martini glass, which is impossible to do sober, let alonebuzzed, without spillage.“I am not going to goddamn China, India, anywhere that requires the administering of shots or the crossing of an ocean, dateline, or border.”
“So you’re not ruling out Mexico, then,”says conservative Osborne, winking at his soft-on-immigration brother.
“No way. I’d rather take a job in the mailroom of another soulless mega-conglomerate. I like my life right here, in quiet, vanilla American suburbia witheasy access to New York City restaurants and the occasionalDisneyfiedtheatrical production, just fine.”
“So what does Rachel make of all this?”asks Marcus, but the way they all lean forward to hear the answer, it’s clearly a group question.“What does she think of the ultimatum, of them wanting you to drop everything and relocate to the other side of the world?”
Henry rubs his face and drags his fingers through his hair.“Well, that’s the thing.When I got home this afternoon she was on the phone, a conference call, and I had to get the meat, the beef—five le boeuf!—no, le veal! So, you know, it had to wait.”
“You’re gonna tell her when you get home, then?”Gerard asks on behalf of the group. Gerard the snoop. Gerard the girly man. Gerard the cuckold.
Henry raises his glass, finishes the final half of his third martini. Or is it his fourth? Something buzzes in his head and he feels a little sick. The dull ache in his groin has spread up into his abdomen, his chest, his brain.“Tonight? I think not,”he says, before unleashing a magnificent belch.“For a light-drinking semi-vegetarian, I’m not doing bad tonight, eh, fellas?”
Victor Chan leans back and shakes his head. Marcus LeBlanc folds his arms. One Osborne gives him a thumbs-up, the other a thumbs-down. Gerard Fundle stands and whistles the universal melody of“Oh boy, are you in some deep shit.”
~ * ~
Come on Down
As directed by his urologist, he stopped taking aspirin two weeks prior to the procedure date because it thins the blood, increases the risk of bleeding. For three nights before the date he thoroughly scrubbed his scrotum with an antibacterial wash to reduce the probability of infection. Although not essential, it was recommended that he shave from the base of the penis down to the front of the scrotum. Just to be sure, Henry shaved everything from his navel to his inner thighs. In those final weeks he made a point of keeping Rachel apprised of everything, to demonstrate that he was on board with the idea, that he had embraced it.
In those final weeks he also started to masturbate more often. Much more often. With urgency. With abandon. Indiscriminately. At first maybe once a day in the shower, or in bed during a middle-of-the-night anxiety attack fused with an erotic dream. Sometimes he’d do it to downloaded porn on his home computer or retro-style with a discreetly archivedPlayboyor Victoria’s Secret catalog. But with each passing day he stepped up the intensity and frequency of his self-pleasuring, while conversely broadening the standards of what he found arousing enough to make him reach for theNivea.
In the final days this included not just the conjuring of fantasies traditional and kinky or the watching of porn downloaded or purchased, but also the absorption of whatever sexual nutrients he could extract from sources as diverse as late-night basic cable erotica to a ScarlettJohannsonappearance onConanto a scantily cladcartoon heroine in a graphic novel to, disturbingly, on more than one occasion, the late-morning giggles and cleavage of the prize girls on Game Show Network reruns ofThe Price Is Right.
Come on down.
The way Henry had begun to see it, he and his penis had been given six weeks to live, and short of committing adultery, having sex with his wife, or fantasizing about Meredith, akaEEEEvaEEEEnormous(which for some reason he had always declared off-limits), they were going to make the most of every remaining sperm-laden salvo.
~ * ~
Henry thinks he hears children, but he’s still sober enough to remember that Gerard’s children are not home. Now he hears a splash, followed by more youthful laughter. Must be the neighbor’s kids in their crystal-clear, perfectly balanced pool, he thinks, and not a malevolent hallucination. A few months ago he might have let himself slip into sentimentality about children, or his and Rachel’s lack of them, but as he listens he feels nothing of the kind. Rather than coveting children, or resenting them, or, if Rachel had been around, trying to pretend they’re not there, he feels only happiness for them, and instead of wishing they’d be quiet, he finds himself wishing that he was one of them again, splashing about in midweek, midsummer, preadolescent twilight with nothing on the agenda for tomorrow except a lot more of the same. Of course, he realizes, the primary reason that he feels this way is that he’s drunk, his formerly pure system churning with the chemicals of four or more 100-proof vodka martinis, five different kinds of imported beer, and the flesh of six different animals.
The tiki torches are lighted. Gerard is in the kitchen Saran-wrapping theundevouredmeat. Victor, Marcus, and Henry are talking music, but though he recognizes the names—Springsteen, Clapton, even Kiss, for Christ’s sake—theothers’taste seems to Henry as if it comes from not just another generation but another galaxy. As they continue to talk his mind wanders again, this time to the Upper West Side. To images of people his age doing the exact opposite of what he’s doing now. People who would rather be on themenu at Meat Night than attend it. It’s gotten to the point where even the sorriest New Yorkers with whom he works seem to have more exciting lives than his. They tell him about the Hal Hartley movie they saw the night before at the Angelika, the installation at Emergency Arts in Chelsea, or the next killer band he’s never heard of in Williamsburg. Up here thecineplexesare filled with talking animals and incendiary spectacle. White-haired women in museums that close at five champion the arts. And the music scene is a guy with a guitar named Joey doing covers for the after-dinner crowd at the Lakeside Bar & Grill.
In the city, even people with kids seem to lead much more interesting lives. Henry lowers his face and rubs his eyes, as if his fingertips are erasers. But before the scene around him can be wiped away he hears one Osborne tell the other that he’s“aneffin’A-hole.”Then Henry hears the antiwar, pacifist Osborne’s martini splash against theprowarOsborne’s face. By the time Henry opens his eyes they’re lunging out of their chairs, bull-rushing each other. Henry is knocked back against the table. A beer bottle (Magic Hat #9, Vermont) smashes on the bluestone. The others quickly descend on them and begin prying the pacifist’s hands from his brother’s neck.
Everyone except Henry. Still seated, all that he can manage is to say,“Hey. Guys. Not cool. Not effing”—when did I start sayingeffing?—”cool.”Which he does not say with a great deal of emphasis, because part of him wouldn’t mind seeing the brothers fight to the death with steak knives and shish kebab spears. Once separated, they quickly give up the fight, and within seconds they start feeling foolish. They apologize to Gerard and the group, and then to each other. After they clean up the broken glass together, the fighting Osborne brothers apologize all over again and then say their goodbyes and leave together, because they have to. Tonight is John’s turn to be Eric’s designated driver.
After the Osbornes leave, the remaining four make a game of trying to remember what topic sent the brothers over the edge. Marcus thinks it was executive bonuses for government bailouts, combined with the more disturbing aspects of Henry’s just-told bombshell. Victor thinks it was gay marriage. But Gerard and Marcus eventually determine that the topic that drove the brothers toviolence, the last of their many subjects, was, appropriately, the obscure House Bill 5991, a resolution to prohibit the injection of carbon monoxide in meat products.
“Whatever that is,”says Marcus.
“I think,”Henry offers,“that House Bill 5991 has to do with protecting the individual’s, or group of individuals’, inalienable right to completely fuck upan otherwise tedious social gathering.”The other three almost begin to laugh and then realize they shouldn’t.
Gerard lowers his head and wipes his hand on his apron. For a few moments the men on the patio are silent, and it looks like the night might be coming to a close. A ridiculous near fistfight between brothers and an increasingly obnoxious young maverick who can’t handle his liquor seem like good enough reasons, but Gerard decides to let Henry’s comment pass. Gerard the patient. Gerard the lonely. Screw the housewives, Gerard’s the one who’s desperate for companionship, likely to remain alone at his house until his family comes home at the end of the summer. If they decide to come back at all. One of Victor’s compilation CDs—”Chick stuff this hot tech person I work with burned for me”—has taken over as the sound track of their lives.
“So, Henry,”Gerard prompts.“What’s with you tonight? What’s on your mind ?”
Never taking his gaze off Gerard, Henry rises and walks to the cooler. Henry opens them all a fresh beer, whether they are ready or not. When Victor starts to wave him off, he tells him to sit back down, the night is still young, and then he proceeds to tell each of them what he really thinks, what’s really on his mind.
~ * ~
I Am the Ghost
“I think if you apologize everyone will be cool with it.”
Marcus LeBlanc and Henry are parked in Henry’s recently sealed driveway. Marcus is at the wheel of Henry’s Audi A4. Behind them, Victor Chan has just gotten out of Marcus’s Audi A4 and without a word to the others has begun walking the three blocks to his house with his fortieth-birthday traveling martini kit tucked under his arm. Henry laughs.
“I called Victor an embarrassment to his race. The anti—Bruce Lee. Whatever I say to him he should absolutely not be cool with.”
Turning to his surroundings, he stares at the dimming solar lights that line the driveway edges, the curved path to his front door. Two helix-shapedtopiaries at the end of the path twist into the darkness like flawed DNA. Runaway chromosomes. He doesn’t know what he hates most, the topiaries, the solar lights, or the new-tar smell of his flawless driveway.
“This is the problem. An apology should not fix this. Words were said:Cuckold.Douchebag. Beard.StepfordHusbands.Even if I were truly sorry that I said them, which I can’t in good faith say I am—and the fact that I’ve been drinking is no excuse—they were thought and they were said. The words. Anyone with a backbone would not and should not accept my apology. Which is why I won’t do it. It would be embarrassing for all of us. Henry Tuhoe is not an apologist. At least, not anymore. Do you realize how many times I’ve said I’m sorry to Rachel in the last twelve months? In the lasttwelve hours? Sickening. I don’t even know what I’m saying I’m sorry for anymore. I’m thinking, basically, if this will shut her up for five minutes, then I am truly, genuinely, forever sorry. For a long time I was one sorry bastard. But no more.”
Marcus takes the keys out of the ignition.“You know, Henry, I had the procedure too. After our second. It’s not easy, mentally or physically. And mine was relatively side-effect-free.”
Henry either doesn’t hear Marcus or doesn’t want to. Inside, the house is dark, but through the living room window he can see two red dots, from the sound system or the TiVo, or from Satan, he thinks, staring out at him, more of a presence in his house than he himself will ever be.
“They know,”Marcus says.“They all know. The Osbornes have even debated it. In case you’re wondering, Rachel told Viv, who told everyone.”
One night just before the procedure date, Rachel had over a bunch of friends whom he’d never met. For kicks, they had booked a psychic. To stay out of their way, Henry made plans to work late and have dinner with Warren. Warren ended up canceling, something big had come up in the Eye Care Division that would soon lay him off, leaving Henry with nothing to do. He browsed the aisles ofPosmanBooks in Grand Central. He stopped at the Blazer, a road-house near the train stop, and had a cheeseburger at the bar. That killed another hour. It was too dark to take a walk. Too late to drop in unannounced on a neighbor, friend, or relative, not that there were any candidates. So he slowly cruised the streets of his hometown by default, like a stranger, an alien, apedophileon the prowl.
He headed up Route 9 as far as the quaint river town of Cold Spring, but all the quaint river town shops were closed. He parked at the gazebo and looked across at the Hudson Highlands, the lights of West Point. For ten minutes. Then he went home. The driveway was still full and cars were lined up at the curb, so he pulled in behind the last car on the road and dimmed the lights. For a while he stared at the house as if it were a trig problem. Ametaphysical equation. The only light that he could see was the flickering of a candle in the great room.
Finally he got out and walked across the lawn, eschewing thepath. Rather than going inside, he continued on to the edge of the great room window and, leaning over the boxwoods, peeked in on the gathering. There were more than a dozen of them sitting around the candlelit table, women holding hands with their eyes closed, some talking, some smiling, every face fixed with an expression that said, even though they couldn’t see him, that he was not welcome here.
Rachel had given him an ultimatum: Do it or we’re through. He didn’t want them to be through, but he didn’t want to be neutered and married to the unfamiliar woman chanting in his living room either. When he suggested that if she was uncomfortable going to an office, he could arrange to have a psychologist come to the house, she said that if he did, she would have both of them arrested.
The next day he asked her about the gathering.
“We had a ladies’night.”
“What was that smell? What was burning?”
Rachel laughed.“Alicia, who did the readings . . . sometimes she burns some things—sage, myrrh—beforehand to sort of cleanse the house.”
“I never heard of psychics burning things for readings.”
“She’s a witch, actually. And it wasn’t just readings. It was aséance.”
“Sounds like fun. Was it a hoot?”
“No, it was not a hoot, Henry. It was fascinating.”
“Really? Did you . . . I mean, did she . . .”
Rachel put her hands up.“Sorry. We promised not to discuss it outside the group.”
~ * ~
“After a while,”he finally says, as much to himself as to Marcus,“it’s accompanied by a certain loss of dignity, the apologizing. A diminishing self-respect.”
“You got that right,”Marcus replies.“After I had it, I did lose some of that. Some dignity. A little respect. Eventually I could get it up just fine and all, but there’s that ego thing that your boys—your swimmers—they’re no longer a part of the event. Disqualified beforethe medal round. So I’d get wistful. But none-of that mattered, because within two months of the procedure, which was her idea, she took her little adventure, which you were kind enough to allude to during your diatribe.”
“Do you know,”Henry says, half out the window, half to Marcus,“how some people who are troubled, in a certain kind of emotional turmoil, how they claim to see ghosts? To be visited by the ghosts of dead family members or famous people?”
No, Marcus does not know, but he nods anyway.
“Well, lately in my dreams, waking visions, hallucinations, whatever you want to call them, I am the ghost. The one visiting these people, these now-dead people back whentheywere alive, before I knew them, sometimes before I was born. And get this: I’m the one scaring the shit outof them,haunting them, and ultimately I’m the one pissing them off, because you know, after I do my thing, they realize that unlike most visitors from the great or not-so-great beyond, I’ve got absolutely zero wisdom for them. Nothing. They know that I’m talking to them fromTomorrowland, a place from where I should be able to tell them all sorts of helpful things. Key dates. Critical events. Potentially life-saving things to avoid. Other things or people to seek out. To embrace. But I have zilch. I have nothing to give them except that which makes the dead absolutely terrified of the living.”
Marcus has no comment. He has to get home, for no reason, really. And even though this talk is making him feel uncomfortable, it is compelling. But the pull of the habitual is stronger. Certain digitally recorded shows. Certain slippers. Haifa pint of Cherry Garcia still in the freezer, if he’s not mistaken.“I’ve really got to get going, dude.”
Henry ignores him. Takes a deep breath. Even this late at night, the air smells of just-mowed grass. Some nut whose house hasn’t been foreclosed came home from work and got on the John Deere in the dark. Before lawn care became a competitive sport, a neighborhood obsession, before he lived here, he used to like that smell too.“Do you have any friends, Marcus?”
Marcus shifts in his seat. Where to put the keys? He doesn’twant to insult Henry, but he doesn’t want him to go out for a joy ride in the condition he’s in either. Plus there’s the liability issue.“Sure, H. I’ve got friends.”
“Really? You have someone you can totally trust? Someone you can absolutely count on to make you laugh, to help you out, to let you know whenyou’re messing up? Someone you’ve known a long time who looks forward to your company and whose company you look forward to?”
“Yeah. Sure. I guess. Sure I do, Henry. I consider you my friend.”
Henry turns and looks at both MarcusLeBlancs. He shakes his head and closes his eyes for a second, but that makes him dizzy, makes his stomach turn. When he opens them again he sees a singular Marcus, and he decides that he won’t reveal the harsh truth to him about their supposed friendship. About all friendships. He decides that tonight Marcus has earned the right to go home wrapped in the comfort of the lie.“You want to know the most disturbing part about my marriage, about my vasectomy, Marcus?”
Marcus LeBlanc sits upright. Maybe the Cherry Garcia can wait. He smiles and nods at his very good friend Henry Tuhoe. Yes. Yes, he certainly does.
~ * ~
The first week after the vasectomy procedure:
• Stay off your feet as much as possible.
• Ice the scrotum for 20 minutes every hour (except when sleeping). You can make your own ice pack by using a bag of frozen peas.
• Do not have sex or lift anything heavier than 10 pounds.
Henry sits poolside on the end of a chaise lounge, staring at the cloud-scrimmedmoon, listening to the wet hum of circulating water. He wants to lie back and close his eyes, but the sour swirling in his stomach will not allow it.
Rachel may or may not be inside. If she’s home she’s surely asleep, the sound machine on her nightstand soothing her into REM with“Ocean Waves”or“Rain Forest”or the urethra-taunting“Trickling Stream.”Speaking of which.Henry rises and crab-walks to the bed of impatiens near the pool house and releases a long, scattershot piss.
Two days before the procedure, Rachel went away for her annual weeklong Internet Security Convention in Vegas. If things had been better between them, Henry would have accompanied her, as he had in previous years, and they would have made the mostof it, gambled, tried to see Prince’s show, maybe piggybacked a trip to Tahoe onto it. But he told her that this was the first available date and he wanted to get it over with. Even though he could tell that Rachel was relieved, she had offered to cancel the trip, to stay home to help him, but Henry would not hear of it. It wasn’t a big deal; plus she generated most of her new business leads for the year at the Vegas convention.
“There’s really nothing you can do,”he said.“Most people have it on a Thursday or Friday and if all goes well are back to work on Monday. I’ve already got the peas in the freezer. A vegetable medley too, for variety. So you see, you’re not the only one capable of icing my balls.”
He shakes, zips, and sits back on the edge of the chaise lounge. The night that they closed on the house, they had a poolside candlelight dinner with a $200 bottle of red Bordeaux that one of Rachel’s clients had given them. Afterward they swam naked in the clear heated water and began making love in the deep end, then moved to the shallows, the pool stairs, and finally the carpeted floor of their otherwise empty family room. Once last May they’d had a poolside party, just over three months after the miscarriage. At the end of the day, while he was barbecuing and GnarlsBarcley’s“Crazy”played on their outdoor speakers, he heard a woman shriek and looked up to see Rachel pulling their neighbor’s two-year-old girl out of the bottom of the deep end. The parents had not been paying attention. No one except Rachel had even heard the tiny splash. She jumped in wearing a beautiful white sundress and with a red hyacinth in her hand. He’d brought a dozen home from the city the day before. When they came up, the wet flower was pressed against the little girl’s blond hair. Staring at the very spot where it had happened, Henry remembers thinking that maybe saving the girl would change Rachel. Maybe she would interpret the event as a life-altering moment and she would revert to the way she had been, or mutate into something altogether new, rather than what she’d become. Yet the only change that came from what Henry would later refer to as the Hyacinth Incident was Rachel telling him that she was now certain that she wanted him to get a vasectomy. A bomb had gone off somewhere in the world that morning. A jetliner had mysteriouslydropped out of the sky the day before. The markets were in free fall, and in the past week another house on their block had been abandoned by its owners in the middle of the night. Did any of that inform her decision? Or something else?
Or had she made up her mind long before that?
“Why?”he finally asked her.“Why are you so certain?”
“The world feasts on evil and random tragedy,”she said.“And I will not bring another innocent child into it.”
After the Hyacinth Incident, after the vasectomy request, Henry fell into a funk of his own. At work, in addition to researching all things vasectomy, he Googled the wordhyacinthand clicked on its mythological origin. Hyacinth, he read, was a beautiful youth killed by his jealous friend Apollo. Rather than allowing Hades to claim the boy, the supposedly distraught Apollo kept him and made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood. Other versions have Apollo accidentally killing Hyacinth or someone orchestrating diabolical events, but the spilled-blood-into-a-flower bit remained the same. Henry didn’t believe in mythology, and the fact that there were two entirely different takes with different villains and heroes of the same story didn’t help. But even though the parallels to his life were vague at best, the story freaked him out, and the image of his lost wife and the red flower pressed against the saved girl’s dripping hair troubles him still.
For a few moments there is a gap in the clouds, revealing the half-formed patterns of constellations whose names he’ll never know. The light of the moon spreads across the motionless pool like a coroner’s sheet. Henry gets up and turns on the switch for the underwater lights near the pool house. Illuminated from above and below, the water comes back to life. To his amazement, it is as clean and blue as he has ever seen it. As clean as it looked the day they moved in. Did he see this in her then? The quirkiness? The instability? Over the past year he has tried to help her, but now the word isn’thelp,it’ssave.Still, she wants none of it. Counseling, getaways, walking, talking, and absolutely no counseling or psychiatric help. She fought it all. Insulted him. She wanted none of it, and less and less of him. He’d be lying if he said he’d never considered leaving her. Kids wouldn’t be a problem. But she wasn’t well. And leavingsomeone who isn’t well is different from leaving someone who is, for instance, a bitch. So it’s not that simple, especially since lately she has been more than a bit of both, not well and a bitch. Regardless, he determines to work harder at everything.
It starts with telling her everything—he really has to, and she will have to understand. They will talk deep into the night again, every night, and make a series of plans. They will keep the house or sell the house. They will stay put or drop it all. Move back to Manhattan. Start over in San Francisco. Go off the grid. Whatever it takes. They will rediscover each other. The woman she was. The man he ought to be. And she will promise to make a commitment to get well.
At water’s edge he kneels and lets his fingers brush the smooth surface. Just to be sure, he undoes the cap of the test strip bottle. As he bends to dip the strip into the water, to confirm what he already knows, his throat constricts, his stomach seizes and heaves. Before he can stand, remnants of six cuts of fire-cooked meat, five specialty martinis, and a comprehensive selection of the world’s finest beers shoot from his mouth and arc through the bone-white moonlight before splashing down into the pool, botching its chemistry all over again.
~ * ~
Analysis of the Self
and the Semen
At your physician’s discretion, you can collect yourinitialseminal specimen at home and bring it directly to the doctor’s office or lab.
Rachel is gone when he wakes up. Pilates. Spinning. Group walk on the bike path. Broomstick-making. Who knows? They never saw each other last night. She didn’t say good-bye this morning, but that’s nothing new. He slept on the living room couch, but that too is nothing new. He’s taken to sleeping on the couch more and more to see if it will bother her, but she hasn’t even pretended to notice. He’s still not sure whether Rachel got home first or sometime after he did. He doubts that she knows that he was drunk, or that hepukedin the pool, in part because that would have required her to pay attention to him, and also because he hasn’t gotten drunk in years, hasn’t vomited from alcohol since college. Not that she’d be upset with him. In fact, before she changed, Rachel used to urge him to let loose more, get out with the proverbial boys, even if in this instance the boys were more likely to be addicted to Viagra than, say, adrenaline.
But rather than brightening his disposition, the outings would trigger fits of morbid self-reflection, scenarios that always played out to the ultimate endgame. After men’s nights, even the mostinnocent reverie about, say, fishing, or granite countertops, or honey Dijon potato chips, would invariably end for Henry with a lurid contemplation of death.
Yet he kept going back.
TossingJartsandWiffleballs, talking bourbon and brisket and bocce. Saying things likeMan upandDude.For all of his complaining, for all of his regrets, he still maintained a perfect attendance record. But no more.
Last night, before the Osbornes blew up, before he became drunk and obnoxiously forthcoming in his opinions, someone—was it Victor, perhaps to help him get over post-vasectomy anxiety?— suggested having next month’s men’s night at a strip club.They serve a surprisingly good buffet there,he remembers someone saying. He imagines himself standing in line, the PA announcer callingDynasteeto the main stage, strobe lights flashing offsterno-warmed aluminum banquet trays, passing the chicken cordon bleu spoon without making eye contact to a stranger with a post-lap-dance erection. No, sir.
Shuffling into the kitchen, scanning the cereal cabinet, he figures he has an hour, maybe an hour and a half before Rachel returns home. Just to be sure, he determines to be gone within the hour, before nine. Now is certainly not the time to have the most important conversation of your marriage. Indeed, right now his mind is incapable of forming fully developed concepts and sentences. Just staccato thoughts of disjointed anguish.
He mixes health-food-store raisin bran with supermarket Cocoa Crisps. The benefits of the former, he figures, cancel the consequences of the latter. But life is a series of trade-offs, right? Compromises and concessions. Bending but not breaking. Treading water. Sinking. Avoiding. Lying. Feigning impotence, then jerking off.
On the kitchen table he notices the witchcraft book again and assumes that’s where she was last night, bitching about men, conjuring and executing pagan rituals. Coming up with new ways to rid them of their sanity, their dignity, their semen. Last week, after he’d had an especially trying day, only to come home as she was walking out the door, he asked what she did at the witches’group.
“It’s a women’s group,”she answered.
“One person’s women’s group is another’s coven.”
“We discuss womanly things.”
“Like how to use black magic to destroy men.”
“Only the ones who deserve it, Henry,”she said, smiling.“So you really have nothing to worry about, right?”-
~ * ~
The night returns in crude flashes. The Osbornes tumbling onto the bluestone, locked in mortal ideological combat. The piles of bloody meat. The embarrassing chick music. Telling Gerard he has no soul and Victor he has no guts, or was it the other way around?
And of course everyone knowing about his vasectomy.
And then babbling in the driveway to Marcus. How much did I say? he wonders. Who should get the first letter of apology? Whom should I call? Or how about an e-mail? The same e-mail to the entire group—apologetic, contrite but not without a bit of humor. Maybe something likeIt was the ostrich talking,orWho did I thinkI was, the third Osborne brother?Would that suffice? Or how about this, he thinks, finishing the final bit of soggy cereal, lifting the bowl to drink the last of the brown, sugary soy milk substitute. How about cc-ingevery adult male in the United States on a memo with this for the subject heading:We are an embarrassment.
~ * ~
The calendar on the wall next to the refrigerator has a large red asteriskSharpiedacross today’s date. Beneath it, in Rachel’s bold red handwriting, is written:
Sperm Day! Sample #3 Due! No cheating!
Hispanic men at the train station, waiting for contractors to put them behind a wheelbarrow, a lawn mower, a toxic spray gun.Insourcing. The 9:02 is gliding away from the platform while he is still looking for a parking space. He can wait an hour for a local, or he can drive in, or what?
He puts the shift in park and decides to think about it. Apolitician handing out fliers for an upcoming primary is talking with an aide, wondering if it’s worth it to stick around for the next train. A mason’s dump truck pulls up to the curb, and after a brief negotiation, three day laborers climb onto the back. Henry wonders what the politician thinks of this. Shit, what doeshethink of it? As the truck passes, he sees that one of the laborers is wearing an FDNY hat and aVote for PedroT-shirt.
He fiddles with the radio. Hate rhetoric, liberal and conservative. Contemporary Christian death metal.Doodoojokes from the wacky morning crew. Lionel Richie on the best of the old and the hottest of the new.“Truly.”Should’ve charged the iPod. Suddenly it becomes extremely important that he find NPR.
Henry locates it just in time to hear the newswoman finishing up the national segment announce that today is the day that the world has used up its allotted resources for the year and it is operating at an environmental deficit. From now on it will be borrowing against next year, when the deficit day will arrive even earlier. And so on, earlier and earlier, every year of the foreseeable future, until there’s nothing left to borrow.
He decides that he doesn’t want to go to work, or to the city, but he can’t go home and can’t think of anything to do here. Lost in the suburbs and lost in the city, and it’s funny how residents of each place assume that he’s distinctly of the other.
A train that he didn’t know about comes and goes. His phone buzzes on the empty passenger’s seat. Rachel.“How’d it go?”
“Splendidly. I just hope they don’t check for alcohol content.”
“You got drunk with the boys last night! I thought I heard you banging around by the pool.”
Her happiness jars him. What’s the motive for that? He considers telling her that he insulted every one of“the boys,”that he vomited into said pool, destroying its briefly perfect balance, and that he’s done with Meat Night forever, but it’s too complicated. He’s afraid he’ll start babbling and tell her everything the wrong way.
“So did the doctor say anything?”
“No. This was strictly a drop-off. Splash and dash.”
“Where are you?”
“In the parking lot at the train station. I just missed two trains.”
“How is it possible to just miss two trains?”
“It’s an acquired skill, Rachel.”
“So you’re still going in?”
He thinks. What the hell.“Unless you’d like a little company.”
Nervous laughter.“I’m . . .”
What? He thinks. Swamped? Crazy? Trying to make me crazy too? Anything but interested.
“... sorry. But today’s bad, Henry.”
“Sure. Actually, it’s not looking so good on my end either.”
He clicks End and stares at the phone.
~ * ~
He thinks, I can go to the beach. I can go for a hike. I can go to the library. I can go bowling.
~ * ~
During his research he came across several stories of homosexual men who had vasectomies.
~ * ~
He calls Meredith.“What’s the good word?”
“Who is this?”
“Your soon-to-be former coworker.”
“Giffler came by. Tried to peek through the smoked glass to see where you were.”
“Did you have the Henry Tuhoe life-sized action figure placed in the hard-at-work position?”
“He didn’t buy it. Lingered for a minute, spraying just enough executive pee to let you sense he was here.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He had me put you down for an eleven o’clock with him tomorrow morning.”
“La fin du monde.”
“Only to the self-absorbed and melodramatic among us.”
“Easy for the self-absorbed and still employed to say.”
“I know too much to be fired. So are you not going to accept the transfer?”
“Not a chance. This is the best thing to happen to me, Meredith. I had a drunken epiphany last night, actually a series of them, and I’m going to do something with my life that matters.”
“The other line’s flashing. Anything else?”
“Still pissed at you, but very excited about India. He’s already tracked down hisBangaloriandoppelgänger job.”
“You know what? I would like to take you and Warren out to lunch tomorrow. No, how about drinks after work? A sort of going-away party in my honor, given by me.”
“Wow. Drinks with two recently laid-off middle-aged men. Can’t get any better than that.”
“How about Ginger Man at five?”
“Will you be in today?”
“No. I don’t want to see Giffler yet. Plus I have a doctor’s appointment.”
He thinks he hears Meredith cluck her tongue, her audio equivalent of the skeptical eye roll.“I see,”she says.
~ * ~
Two black vans claim the last of the day laborers. The politician is long gone. No votes left to court. Off to record telemarketing messages, Henry thinks, about immigration, or the tangible evil his opponent stands for. Such as telemarketing, campaign finance reform, and mudslinging. He shuts off Lionel Ritchie and lowers the windows to better soak in the late-morning commuter rail station silence. At 10:37 a northbound train stops and more than a dozen black women in white nurse’s outfits get off. A small bus pulls in seconds later, ready to drive them to hospitals and nursing homes, the lonely residences of the affluent and infirm.Insourcingfor the soon-to-be permanently outsourced.
Before his grandmother died six years ago, while she lived alone in an apartment in White Plains, he tried to convince her to let a nurse come in to visit once a day. But she wanted no part of a stranger in her house, and sometimes he felt that included him. The day before she died, he called to say he was coming by on the weekend and asked if she needed anything. She said yes.“Get me thevitamin drink where the old couple on the rowboat in themiddle of the lake are laughing and drinking and saluting the feeble, no-vitamin-drinking couple languishing onshore.”
~ * ~
He thinks, I can get a Swedish massage. I can get the car washed. I can text-message every person whose text messages I’ve ignored in the last three months.
~ * ~
More buzzing in the passenger’s seat. Norman from the gym. Henry watches the screen signal that a message is being left, probably confirming tomorrow’s workout, which he most likely will have to cancel. How to break it to Norman?
Next to the message icon is a small movie camera icon. Norman has left a video message as well. He opens the file and hits Play. Soon his small screen fills with the title“Jump”in white letters on a black background. As VanHalen’ssong of the same name begins to play, Henry watches a series of vignettes presumably filmed by Norman. Nursery school children jumping in a classroom. Kids on blow-up castles. Trampolines. High schoolers dancing. Sweet, sappy, happy stuff. Boring,clichédstuff. Then it changes with the chorus. The happy kids give way to grainy long-range footage of a man standingmidspanon a great American bridge—yes, it’s the Golden Gate— poised to jump. Then jumping. Before the man hits the water and presumably dies, the piece cuts to footage of another jumper on another bridge, leaping. Then another. Might as well jump. A half-dozen suicidal jumpers on a half-dozen bridges, each falling with his own morbid choreography, arms windmilling, arms spread like a bird, torso locked straight, tucked, tumbling, spinning, hands at sides, over head. All plummeting. Go ahead and jump. When the chorus ends it match dissolves from bridge jumper back to happy jumper footage—a small girl and a dog on a playground, a chubby old man on a pogo stick, a yellow lab grabbing a Frisbee—and it has a profoundly different effect on Henry.
He shuts it off in the middle of the second chorus, after the third of three new jumpers, a teenage girl, appears poised at the rail. Thisis less than halfway through the film, still several minutes away from Norman’s printed signoff urging people to vote for his film at this address, to make it a daily favorite on his preferred aggregate video channel.
Closing his eyes, listening to another train pulling into the station—northbound or southbound, he can’t be sure—Henry decides that it’s a good idea to cancel tomorrow’s workout.
~ * ~
I can go for a jog. I can go clothes shopping. I can talk with a certified financial planner. I can take a short trip to the middle of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
~ * ~
Today’s women want a real man fucking them in the bedroom, someone had said at some point last night. But outside the bedroom it’s the other way around. They are the ones doing the fucking, the ones in charge, making us do the most emasculating things, subjecting us to the most humiliating shit. Shit that a real man would not do. Making the whole bedroom thing a sort of doomed construct.
Did Marcus say that? Did I? Do I really believe that?
~ * ~
He hears a chain saw in the distance and thinks of the months after they first moved up here. Whenever he would fire up his new chain saw, Rachel would throw a fit. She’d shout things like“Hire someone else to do that!”and“Please don’t hurt yourself, Henry.”
And then she didn’t. And he’s certain it had nothing to do with his improved cutting skills.
~ * ~
For how long? How many hours? How many trains?
The phone’s vibrations bring him back, spur the Pavlovian act of clicking Talk without checking caller ID.
“Tick, tick, tick. How goes the desperate searching of the soul?”Giffler.
“The search has been called off. No survivors.”
“Where are you? We’re worried to death.”
“No one, actually. But I was curious. Your wife too.”
“Called the casa and she said you were on your way into work, which is a big stinky lie. But I didn’t say a thing. I played along with whatever it is you’re up to. Figured you were considering the possibilities. Unlessyou areon your way into work at what, one o’clock?”
“I’m not on my way into work. I had a doctor’s appointment. Now I’m heading home.”
“We’re on for ten tomorrow?”
“Before we meet, and the reason I’m calling, because of our undeniable father-son-like bond, I wanted to give you some more information to run up the flagpole of your conscience. I wanted to tell you what else I’ve learned.”
“Okay, Dad. Lay it on me.”
“Where they’re sending you. It’s a tiny kingdom on the India-China border called . . . shit. Should have written it down.”
“No. Not Bhutan. Bhutan is like the Land of Oz compared to this place. Anyway, the government there is really making a play to open its once closed gates to, if not democracy, then capitalism. You’re to be part of a historic corporate delegation that will turn their wretched history around.”
“By setting up a call center for an American bottled water company?”
“Exactly. Hugely important, because this mind-bogglingly impoverished nation, whose name still eludes my memory, is like the water industry, bottled and otherwise, on the rise. You’ll be helping their economy, albeit not their thirst. Still quite admirable, the whole mission.”
“Not Nepal. Some place considerably less developed. Less known. But I’ll have all the facts by tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother. Doesn’t matter. Allthat matters is what kind of termination package you can pull together for your favorite son, because I’m not going anywhere.”
“Didn’t hear that. Click.”
~ * ~
If the second test shows non-motile (also known as dead) sperm, then a third test will be necessary. If the follow-up test shows moving or active sperm, the patient will be declared to have had a vasectomy failure, and it should be redone.
He thinks, I can be a research consultant. I can work for the competition. I can teach. Go back to school. I can work for a not-for-profit. I can work with my hands, building houses or honestly constructed pieces of furniture. I can become a personal trainer, a webmaster for a big-boob porn star, a day trader, an online five-card-hold-’empoker legend.
I can do whatever I want.
When I tell Rachel, she will understand. The job part, at least.
Pulling into the cursed driveway, turning off the incongruous car.
In fact, she’ll probably be happy, because she hates my job more than I do.
Stretching, staring at the unfortunate subdivision, the malevolent house, the thing that never should have happened. The window of the room where the recent orgasms were counterfeit, the funny faces forced.
He thinks, One thing I will absolutely do, first thing tomorrow, is call the doctor. Then a travel agent to book a trip. Nothing like an exotic trip to provide the perfect. . . what? The perfect sorbet for stagnant lives.
Walking up the foreign path, past the detestable topiaries, wondering how it will feel to be unemployed and watch a landscaper trim your hedges.
Nearing the door he never wanted to open, thinking, We’ll take a trip and sort it all out. Like we did inCabo. And Maui. And even in Block Island.She’s always wanted to go to Belize. With enough tranquilizers I would be willing to fly to Belize.
Reaching for said door but getting hit in the cheekbone by it first. Sensing blood before it flows.“You son of a bitch.”
Canceling Belize. Reaching for a possibly broken nose.
“You lying, duplicitous son of a . . . prick. We didn’t have much left, but we had the truth.”
Absorbing a two-handed push. Backtracking down the foreign path, brushing against a detestable topiary.“I just found out yesterday.”
“Yesterday? That is an absolutely unconscionable lie.”
Raising hands to block a series of roundhouse smacks.
“All you had to do was tell me. But you . . . this is deliberate, hateful, almost criminal.”
“I was going to tell you right now. Tonight. There wasn’t time last night. I just spoke to Giffler about it yesterday.”
“You told Giffler before you told me?”
“It’s his specialty. Besides, it’s not even official. I assume he broke my confidence and told you when he called today.”
“Your confidence? What? What are—”
“You’re talking about the layoff, right?”Realizing that the horrified look on her face has nothing to do with his employment situation. Watching her look for something to throw. Watching her fingers and eyes point at his crotch.
“Layoff? I’m talking aboutthat.I’m talking about a procedure that never happened, Henry.”
“The shaving, the follow-up tests. The frozen fucking vegetable ice packs. What a freak you are. My God. We were having unprotected sex when I thought you were testing negative!”
He holds up his right middle and forefingers.“Twice. And that’s because you were drunk on witches’brew. And I never orgasmed, Rachel. I faked. I made the face, but both times I faked.”
“I will not stay in a marriage built upon lies and fakes.”
“I did lie and I did fake. But it’s because I didn’t believe I was talking to the real you. I thought that you were going through a phase, that you might change your mind.”
“Well, I’m about to enter a new phase. It’s called life after the lying faker.”
“I want to work with you, Rachel. Get you some help. I mean, get us some help. I mean, what the hell happened to us up here? We were never meant to come here.”
“Getmesome help? I didn’t pretend I had an operation!”
“Years of moping. Years of your refusing to get out of your own way. You stopped paying attention to me, Rachel. It was as if I never lived here.”
“That’s the first true thing you’ve said. You never did live here! And now you don’t have to physically be here either. Now go.”
“I was laid off yesterday. Take a job somewhere in Asia or be fired, was the ultimatum.”
“This isn’t about yesterday, Henry. This is about long-term dishonesty.”
“I did it for us.”
“Hah! Go, Henry. Go on unemployment, because God knows you’re too boring and afraid to do the other thing.”She raises her hands as if to hit him again, but she continues to raise them overhead, closes her eyes, and begins chanting something in a tongue not of this world.
“I don’t want to leave you the way you are. I’d be willing to—”
“What, Henry? What have you ever been trulywillingto do?”
He has no answer.
“That’s right. Now get you and your lying penis out of here.”
~ * ~
Stepping away from the malevolent house, onto the cursed driveway. Reaching for the door of the incongruous car. Pulling away, thinking about sweat, andthen sperm, and now water. Feeling a sharp phantom pain in the recently shaved but otherwise undisturbed scrotal area.
~ * ~
A chain of hotels for wayward men. Displaced men. Men who have been given the boot. Men who have run away. There definitely is a market for it, Henry thinks, heading south on Route 9, in search of just such a place.
~ * ~
Within an hour after she kicked him out, Rachel called to say she was giving him two hours to come back and gather his belongings. When he asked if she’d be there, she told him no. She said she was going to her friend’s house to learn how to put a spell on his lying ass.
While lurking around the house in which he had never wanted to live, he thought about his belongings. He thought about how they were different from his stuff, his shit, his necessities, and he decided that a belonging was a thing he valued, that he’d miss and possibly even fight for. And he was surprised at how few things fell into that category, and even those could hardly be considered belongings. Clothes and music, mostly. His passport. The big bottle of Purell.
Whether he’d be gone a day or forever, it didn’t matter. These were all the belongings he had.
~ * ~
What amenities would his hypothetical hotel for wayward men have? Free legal and alcohol counseling for monthly guests? An on-call private investigator for the cuckolded? A nutritionist for thefast-food heart attack victim in the making? A concierge specializing in creative visitation outings and local strip clubs? How about a Barcalounger in every room? Amaxibar?
~ * ~
Although he had no idea where he might go, the act of packing filled him with a sense of excitement he hadn’t felt in many years, and the realization that he was actually leaving was a relief, at least when he wasn’t thinking of the shame and disgust bubbling one layer down. When he wasn’t dwelling on the death of love, the resurrection of guilt, the consequences of everything, and what the hell he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Just before he left, right after he locked the front door for perhaps the final time, out of curiosity, he took a final look at the pool, and even after the vomit episode it was perfect.
~ * ~
The Rabbit Angstrom Suite. The I-Told-You-So Post-NupBusiness Center. Only men’s rooms in the lobby.
~ * ~
The first motel he sees is a one-story cinder-block structure just south of Tarrytown, with none of the aforementioned amenities.“Just for the night,”he tells the old man behind the Plexiglas.
“You can have it by the hour too,”the old man offers.
He takes out an order of hot-and-sour soup and Szechuan chicken at a strip mall across the street and eats it looking out the window of Room 111 onto the parking lot. Already he’s seen others like himself, unfolding out of the second-string family car, sulkily walking to their rooms, carrying their takeout, their brown paper bags, one with all his belongings in a gym bag, another with more luggage than anyone would ever take on a business trip.
~ * ~
Motel Three (because she’s getting half of everything you have), you could call it. Or the Cleaners (because that’s where you’re about to be taken).
Or simply Asylum.
~ * ~
He spends the rest of the night oblivious of his surroundings, transfixed in front of his laptop, downloading songs and albums off the Internet and thinking of what to do next. Sometimes the music informs his thinking and sometimes it is the other way around. It has always been that way with Henry. He cannot carry a tune and has never shown any aptitude for playing an instrument, yet he believes that music has moved and taught him far morethan any book or person. He’s spoken to others who claimed to feel the same way, but they were different. They always seemed more obsessed with the facts and dates of when a group formed, when it changed drummers, when it broke up, when the import single became available in the States, but Henry never cared about any of that. What he cared about was the music and how it made him feel. His father often told him that he used music as an escape, a way to hide from the world, but Henry had always thought about it as a way to discover it.
Tonight he is ripping and sampling songs like a man who may never hear music again.
When he falls asleep, it is three a.m. and David Ford’s“State of the Union”is playing, from the albumI Sincerely Apologize for All the Trouble I’ve Caused.
~ * ~
Sometime in what’s left of the night his cell phone rings.“One more thing,”Rachel says.“In Vegas, I met an old friend. And the sex was outstanding.”
~ * ~
The song for the morning commute, by design, is“Rusty Cage”by Johnny Cash.
You wired me awake
And hit me with a hand of broken nails. . .
At nine a.m. he walks unannounced into Giffler’s office and closes the door.
Giffler puts down a book he’s pretending to read:Beehive Management: How Life in the Honeycomb Translates to Winning in the Workplace.“Dworik gave me this. What a bunch of hooey.”
“I want a guaranteed contract, first-class accommodations, and a hell of a lot more money than these assholes are paying me now.”Crazy he can put up with. Work with. Adultery? Not so much.
Giffler smiles, does a slow-motion slap of his hand upon the desk.“That’s my boy.”
~ * ~
“Is a typhoid shot a billable expense?”
Meredith nods.“Typhoid, hep A, hep B, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, rabies, swine, avian, and a tetanus-diphtheria booster. All billable if not universally recommended.”
“The perks never stop,”Henry says.
“Who says this is not a compassionate multinational conglomerate?”adds Warren.
Henry smiles. They are in a side booth at the Ginger Man in Midtown, a long, narrow beer hall filled with young, end-of-the-workday drinkers. The morning and most of the afternoon were spent decompressing with one Human Resources group and introducing himself to another. Accelerated orientations, a crash course in international business protocol, were scheduled. Background packets were expedited his way. He was green-lighted, fast-tracked, and shown the door. And this is his party: Meredith and Warren, who is wearing a vintage Indian Nehru shirt that Henry decides not to acknowledge. Norman from the gym said he’d try to make it and Giffler swore to God he’d show, but Henry knows better than to count on that.
He could have invited others—the rest of the Underarm Research Division, whoever’s left from his days in Oral Care or Non-headache-related Pain Relief or Laxatives, or the ill-fated Silicon-based Sprays and Coatings team—but that would have been just a clusterfuck of negativism that would have had aThis Is Your Lifevibe that would have cast an all-too-revelatory light on an extended period of said life that Henry, in retrospect, would rather forget.
This degree of negativism is much more manageable. And because this is his going-away party, and his wife has just evicted him from his house and her life, and he’ll be taking a very long plane ride to a very strange place, very soon Henry has decided that it is absolutely okay to drink again. Just a beer or two. As long as he’s not chasing it with ostrich.
Meredith and Warren want to know how it went with Giffler and company this morning, so he gives them a best-of version of the wit and wisdom dispensed by his delusional life mentor and soon-to-be long-distance supervisor. Such as:
“The more efficient we get as consultants, the less money we make, so . . . By. All. Means. Take. Your. Bloody . . . Time.”
And,“I’ve outsourced hundreds of jobs these last few weeks, but you, Henry—your whole miserablelifeis being outsourced.”
And,“Our clients want to hear that we’re outsourcing people assigned to their business, not because it’s the strategically right thing to do but because it covers their trembling asses and says,‘I am a fiscally responsible manager and a passive-aggressive advocate of the corporate trend du jour.’Which is why we’re diversifying beyond India and Prague. It’s the newness of this place, not the practicalities of it, that makes us seem enlightened.”
And,“Don’t ever say the wordmillenniumagain. It will be nine hundred and eighty years before that word will be in the least bit cool.”
And,“Teach your children engineering and Mandarin or else in ten years they’ll be mowing lawns and cleaning toilets for someone with the last name of Hung.”
And this:“Be careful over there, because I swear to God, Hank, ifany thingever happened to you . . .”
Meredith shakes her head.“Hank?”
“Confucius-like in his wisdom,”Warren says.“Most people go to the East to absorb its ancient truths, but you’re going with a whole suitcase full of your own, courtesy of a white-collar sociopath.”
“Are you excited?”Meredith asks.
Henry stares at her. Is he? Simple enough question, but he is stumped. He tries to guess what’s playing on the sound system. Fergie? Duffy? Pink? Doesn’t matter. No meaning, ironic or symbolic, to be gleaned there.“Actually, I don’t know enough about where I’m going to be excited. I’m excited to be leaving, but I should be equally excited about my destination. But the truth is. . . Truth is, I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought.”
Meredith pretends to sip her seltzer as she maintains eye contact with Henry. Warren looks around. Coughs into his fist.“I’ve got to take a leak.”
After Warren leaves, Henry says,“Rachel threw me out yesterday.”
Meredith nods.“I know. She called.”
“Did she tell you why?”
“No. I already knew.”
He starts to ask how she knew, then decides it doesn’t matter. Just assume she knows everything.
“She’s been studying witchcraft, you know.”
Meredith nods.“She said she put a virility-sapping spell on you.”
Henry opens and closes his legs under the table, sips hisHoegaarden.“She said she knows how to make my penis dry up and fall off.”
“So you’re going to leave the country to work in a place you never heard of because your wife threw you out?”
“Because you falsified a vasectomy?”
Of course she’d know.“Pretty much. Yeah.”
Neither speaks for a while. Henry decides that anything he says to Meredith will be redundant, something already known. ItisFergie on the sound system. Fergie with the Black Eyed Peas, anyway.“Boom BoomPow.”
“I chickened out. She didn’t seem all that. . .all that stable. She’d already changed her mind about kids, our house, her job, several times, and I just thought that this was something that you don’t want to mess with unless you’re certain.”
“What about saying no, Henry? Did that ever occur to you?”
“She’s studying to be a bloody witch.”
“Probably because she’s looking for what is lacking in her life.”
“She could have joined a reading group.”
“Again, all you had to do is tell her you don’t want a vasectomy and you are not interested in being the soul mate of a child of Artemis.”
“We had no sex life. I’m thirty-two, and even after I was supposed to have had it, she barely let me near her anyway.”
“And she cheated on me. In Vegas.”
Meredith straightens up.“I see. This is more info than even I need to know. Listen, you’re a great person on the inside, Henry. With all the right principles and convictions. The problem is you lack the balls to act on them.”
“So I should go?”
And indeed there will be time
To wonder,“Do I dare?”and,“DoIdare?”
. . .“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?”
He looks at Meredith and feels ashamed. Few people have this effect on him, but often without prompting, condescending, or saying a word, she has the ability, in her mere presence, to make him fully aware of his deficiencies as a human. BoomBoomPow.
She shakes her head dismissively.“Eliot.”
“I guess you know I’ve visited your Web site.”
She nods.“Several times a day. Every day. I can track the hits right back to our server, your office, your home PC.”
“Right. Well, it’s very well done, you know. The graphics and the. . .”
Warren comes back and slides into the booth.“Miss anything?”
~ * ~
They order sandwiches and another round as Warren begins to lay out his plans for his forthcoming trip to India. Flights, inoculations, accommodations. Lots of talk aboutSlumdogMillionaire.Henry appears to be listening, but he isn’t. Maybe 50 percent of the time the words register, but the other 50 percent he is thinking about the course of his life so far and he realizes that Meredith is right, that he is the problem. Not suburbia or Metro-North or overdosing on armpit sweat focus groups or a cheating, mentally unstable wife who wants to be a witch. Well, maybe all that is part of the problem, but what has he ever done to change it? To prevent it?
“I got a two-bedroom place in one of the most exclusive condominiums in Bangalore for next to nothing,”he doesn’t hear Warren say.
But he does see two construction workers at the bar looking at Meredith, then at him in a way that can be described only as disdainfully. As if he is half a man. Unworthy of the company of a woman like Meredith, let alone, if they only knew, none other thanEEEEvaEEEEnormous. And he has to admit, they might be half right.
“I’m not just gonna be in Bangalore, though. All over theirregion. Mumbai. Delhi. Shit, I may even make it up to your neck of the Himalayas, Henry.”
Henry doubts that his father ever dwelled on his role as a man. His vocation. His direction. He went to Vietnam against his will and never spoke about it again. He got married to a woman his brother fixed him up with, got a job in sales because his father-in-law set it up, and to this day it remains a mystery to Henry whether or not he enjoyed any of it. He just kept his mouth shut and soldiered on. Like a man. Right up until the off-site. The coronary.
After his father died Henry wanted to ask his mother if she was satisfied with the path of her life. Marriage. Kids. Suburbs. Taking a backseat to Dad’s supposed career when he’s certain she would have been a star at whatever career she’d chosen if she’d been born in a different family, or ten years later. But he never asked, and sixteen months after his father died she was married to a real estate man named Alexi who made her—to Henry’s. . . what?Dismayis the only word for it—so happy that he no longer had the desire to ask the question or the stomach to handle its reply, because who enjoys seeing his mother more in love with a man than she was when she was with his father?
Norman arrives and slides in alongside Henry. After introductions Henry asks if he can get him anything.“No thanks. Got really wasted last night.”
“Wow. Where was the party?”Meredith asks.
“Actually, I was alone in my apartment, doing a marathon viewing of season one ofGossip Girlon DVD.”
Within minutes Norman has given up on abstinence (“Oookaaay. . . Bourbon, rocks”) and may or may not have slipped something into his mouth, Henry can’t be sure, and has his laptop open and is showing them his latest film, a four-minute documentary on a day in the life of a Gulf War Ireenactor. It’s hard to hear what thereenactoris saying over the tiny laptop speakers because the music in the bar is so loud, so they can only watch as a man in full U.S. Army Desert Storm fatigues goes through SCUD gas-mask application, entrenching, and weapons drills in what looks, at least initially, like a desert environment.
“So he’s the only one?”Meredith asks.
“Yeah. For now.”
“And was he really there?”
“Oh, no. He’s just a buff.”
“I think I just saw the mast of a sailboat,”Warren says.“Where’d you shoot this?”
Norman takes an exaggerated breath.“That’s the thing. We had to do it at Robert Moses State Park. We started at Jones Beach, but it was too crowded, even on a weekday morning, and the park police kicked me out for not having a permit.”
“IthoughtI heard waves crashing,”Meredith adds.“Far off in the desert.”
Henry watches thereenactorlumbering along the beach/desert and diving into the sand to get a better look at the invisible Republican Guard. The laptop screen is small and there’s a glare from the outside window, but at one point a sand castle is clearly visible in the background, and now Henry is fairly sure that the protagonist’s assault rifle is plastic.
“Are there many more like him?”Meredith continues.“Are there, like, Falklandsreenactors? Sons of Grenada?”
Norman shakes his head.“He’s the only one. Which is the appeal, you know. The uniqueness of his story.”
Norman and Warren hit it off. They continue talking about film and vocation and life long after Meredith and Henry lose interest. They continue talking even after Norman realizes that Bangalore-bound Warren is not a potential personal-training client.
“Anyway, ultimately,”Meredith tells him,“I think it can turn into a good thing, your taking this trip, this job. If only for a while.”
“But you just mocked my lack of preparation, my going for all the wrong reasons.”
“That doesn’t mean something good won’t come of it. I mean, were you really happy doing . . .”
He shakes his head.“No. I mean, what have I ever done? All I do is what someone else tells me. I mean, every day it made me feel less like—”
“Hence the poker night, cigar night.”
“The reluctance to have your testicles sliced with a knife.”
“Snipped from the gang. From tradition. From a chance to prove yourself beyond a valuable conference report.”She looks at Warren and Norman.“The definition of manhood is going through a major transition, Henry.”Then she looks down at the top of her breasts.“Women, on the other hand, have never been more confident.”
“Is it because we’re not used to being so afraid? Because terror has marginalized us? The economy?”
Meredith shakes her head.“It’s because we’ve gone from a manufacturing- to a technology-based economy. It’s harder for a man to find a place to display physical strength now—it’s no longer socially or professionally rewarded. And men haven’t figured out how to deal with that. How toremasculate.”
“I’m going to try.”
“Good. I hope you really tear it up over there, Henry. Wherever it is. I really do.”
Finally a song he recognizes.“How We Operate,”by Gomez. He listens to the words, finishes his beer, and stares at Meredith. Meredith the wise. Meredith the compassionate. Meredith the enormously buxom. His eyes betray his thoughts.
“Not a chance, mister.”
~ * ~
~ * ~
The New Oil
In the book1000 Places to See Before You Die,which Giffler had given Henry as a going-away present, the imperial palace in the Kingdom of Galado is listed as number 998.
And now, in-country less than eight hours, Henry is already inside the royal gates, smack in the middle of an after-party for a business conference he didn’t attend, surrounded by people who seem much more important than him, even if he is a VP of global water, investor relations for Happy Mountain Springs.
“The world is parched,”this brute of an Aussie named Madden is telling Henry, presumably because he noticed Henry’s name-tag title.“Parched not like a bloke in a beer advertisement who’s just played a homoerotic touch football game with a bunch of handsome, scruffy young lads. It’s parched like a severely dehydrated, lost soul in the midday sun in some unforgiving desert. Deranged and naked, on trembling hands and knees, tongue wagging in the blistering heat, hallucinating, clutching its stomach, praying for something that can facilitate a more forgiving form of death before its organs shrivel and its heart explodes. That kind of parched. So congratulations—you’re in the right bleedin’business then, mate.”
Henry nods, and for a second he wonders, If the palace is listed as the nine hundred and ninety-eighth place to see before you die, could Madden’s face be the nine hundred and ninety-ninth? The last?“Well, then,”he finally replies, raising his mineral water without bacteria-laden ice,“I guess I’ll drink to that.”
He scans the room for possible asylum. Scores of white men in dark suits and locals in burnt-orangeghoswith finely decorated sashes. In the opposite end of the great hall, small beings in what appear to be clown masks—children? dwarfs? robots?—are performing some kind of interpretivedance to the dull throb of indigenous drums. Shug, his official guide and interpreter, stands beside a giant golden urn against the near wall, watching Henry but not acknowledging him, disinclined to guide or interpret.
“So what do you reckon to accomplish here, Tuhoe?”asks Madden.
Henry considers this giant sunburned man who is what, his coworker? Competitor? Colleague? Employer? Mate? He hasn’t a clue. Nor does he have a clue about what he wants to accomplish. SayingFirst of all, I’d like to forget about the last five years of my life, with a heavy emphasis on the last twenty four months,seems a little too forthcoming under the circumstances.“Well, I guess it’s our job,”Henry hears himself saying and asking,“to somehow, not necessarily quench, I guess, but alleviate that thirst?”
“Ourjob?”Madden laughs and snorts at the suggestion.“Ours?Hardlymyresponsibility, Tuhoe. I will say this about your product, though: someday very soon nations will go to war not over oil but over water. And it will tear the planet asunder. So where do they have you staying, then?”
Henry removes a slip of paper from his pants pocket.“It’s supposed to be a simple place near my office just outside the city. Something Djong. Didn’t actually get to see it yet.”
More laughter from Madden, who smells of sweet booze and a smoke residue not unlike marijuana. Hashish? Henry doesn’t know what to make of any of this, but he is willing to blame it all on a monster case of jet lag. He was unable to sleep at all on his JFK-to-Bangkok flight (during which he watched three in-flight movies and read two Graham Greene novels) or, after a six-hour layover in theJetsons-likeSuvarnabhumi Airport, on the four-hour connecting flight to Galado. After landing soon after dawn and waiting almost three hours to clear customs and for the last piece of his luggage to be found, he was informed by his chaperone, Shug, that there had been a late change of plans: his presence had beenrequested at the Royal Palace by His Most Serene Majesty the prince of Galado.
Even though Henry was weak and exhausted to the point where he was having trouble standing, let alone keeping his eyes open, he thought, Why not? This was the new beginning you sought, right? The much-needed adventure. The first day of the rest of your up-until-now pathetic life.
“For your information,”Madden begins,“the Ayurved Djong and Spa is a five-star, hilltop,multicultieco-lodge perfect for the searching of the soul and its libidinous depths. Far from a simple place, it is a spiritual retreat of the highest order. That is, if you like your Eastern spirituality backed by Western money and served up alongside vintage wine tastings, seaweed wraps, and a mind-blowing selection of in-room . . . let’s call them diversions.”
Not knowing how to respond, Henry decides to pretend he didn’t hear Madden. He looks to his surroundings for diversion. The palace is much as he had imagined a royal residence in this part of the world might be—high paneled walls and coffered ceilings lavishly decorated with intricate Chinese- and Indian-influenced scrollwork in vivid blues and reds and yellows. Ornately carved dark-wood chairs and servers. Pink marble floors. Twelve-foot windows looking out on terraced fields, a glimpse of a river. But what he hadn’t expected were the movie posters, some from contemporary Hollywood, but most for lavish musicals from India, hanging where in past centuries there were surely gorgeous framed paintings or frescoes or tapestries.
“Nice, eh?”Madden again.“You can thank the prince for that. The bloody loon. Obsessed with the pictures, with Bollywood, he is, almost as much as he’s obsessed with money, which plays into our hands quite conveniently, what with his father, the once saintly king, losing his own set of marbles in some faraway corner of the kingdom.”
“How long have you been here?”Henry asks.
“Long enough to know that it’s about to blow wide fucking open. This is a country that has just met its steroid dealer, Tuhoe. Hungry to grow, no matter how fast or unnaturally. They try to fill us all up with this magical-little-kingdom shit, but if anything, it’s a corrupt, filthy, environmentally bankrupt fuckingkleptocracy.”
Henry fumbles with theminibottleof Purell in his pocket, thinking, as he tries to undo the cap, of Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, Mary’s typhoid, Dorothy’s heels trying to click, the cocked hammer of a pistol.
“It’s more like San Marino without the human rights,”Madden continues.“Bhutan without the commitment to gross national happiness. So what exactly will you be doing in the water business here? Ultra-filtration membranes? Desalinization? Rural wells?”
“No,”answers Henry.“None of that.”
Henry shakes his head, thinking of his original conversation on the subject with Giffler.“Bottled water, actually.”
“Really? Distribution center? Treatment plant? Because while there is plenty of water here, most of it is—”
“Actually, it’s more back-office stuff.”
“Back-office. You know, like a call center. Customer relations for Happy Mountain Springs in Vermont.”
Madden takes a step back and allows Henry’s reply to register before laughter overtakes him.“You’re going to run a goddamn call center for a water companyhere?In a country where for all intents and purposes the majority of the people are without potable water, you’re going to have employees spend their day talking about crystal-clear water from the springs of. . . where did you say?”
“From the lush mountains of bloodyVur-mont. They’ll spend their days talking in Galado-tinged English about its crystalline purity and their nights fretting about where they can get a few clean drops for their own parched families. Did you know, Tuhoe, that every daydiarrheakills hundreds in this happy little country? Most under the age of five?”
“Or that one in three people here—and that’s a conservative estimate—has no access to safe drinking water?”
Another shake of the head.
“Good Christ, this is so wrong it’s almost beautiful.”
“Well, then,”Henry offers.“I’m sort of just getting up to speed, but perhaps I can bring this to the attention of management back in the States and figure out some way to help. A donation. Funding some wells. Distributing some . . . what did you say they were again?”
“LifeStraws. A three-dollar water purifier that lasts up to a month, with seven filters, a membrane basically with holes as fine as six microns, plus resin treated with iodine and activated carbon.”
“Wow. The LifeStraw.”
“Ninety-nine point nine percent effective for parasites and bacteria.”
“For just three dollars. Are you involved with the inventors?”
Madden laughs again.“Shit, no.”
“Are you with a human rights organization or a regional distributor?”
“Do you mind if I ask what business you’re in?”
“I’m in the business of business.”
“For instance, if someone wanted to get into the LifeStraw business here, I could facilitate that. Also, most recently, I’ve become quite thedomainer.”
Henry blinks, shakes his head.
“Internet domains. I hold the rights to Galado dot-com, dot-net, dot-org, plus every suffix variation on dot-Galado. Once this country opens its doors and officially embraces the Internet, these domains will be worth countless millions. A colleague of mine recently sold the domain rights to a Polynesian island nation for mid-seven figures. Right now I get money just from people typing anything Galadonian and getting the ads on the land pages.Wannabuy shares in it?”
“What else do you do?”
Madden raises his hand to his chin.“Here? Well, I’m also in the carbon-management business. Basically that means I can broker a deal that will let your company or country pollute more by paying other countries or companies to assume your carbon debt. Unlike a Realtor, I collect fees from buyers and sellers, and of course moreoften than not I’m the person who opens and owns those‘other,’environmentally aware companies.”
Henry stares at Madden.“And I was letting you makemefeel shitty about my corporate mission.”
“I was just reveling in the irony of the situation. Truth is, the only problem I have with your mission, mate, is that it’s for corporate rather than individual gain. I like to see individuals make a go of it.”
“Even if it means exploiting a third world nation?”
“No one’s breaking any laws that I’m aware of. Plus, screw the third world. It’s in thesecondworld, between extreme poverty and extreme excess, that the real heat is. The real opportunities. And this place is a royal heartbeat away from joining the second world.”
Henry scans the room. People are bowing and shaking hands, heading for the way out. Not much longer, he thinks.
“So what’s your plan for setting up the call centers?”
He stares at a pretty Galadonian woman in a Western business suit, jacket and slacks, wide-collared blue silk shirt, as he answers.“From what I understand, we have office space out near the spa, a small classroom building. While tech people are looking into the IT infrastructure, I’m to start training educated locals who can speak some English.”
“The Bangalore model.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s right. In fact, an Indian consultant is to join me in afew days to show me how they did it.”
“An Indian teaching an American how to teach Galadonians to act like the Indians he taught to act like Americans.”
Henry nods, allows a smile.“I guess that’s right. Any pointers?”
On hearing the question, Madden stops smiling and rests a long, heavy arm upon Henry’s shoulder.“Obviously you’ve been around the block a bit, Tuhoe, or they wouldn’t have sent you to the likes of this place. Even so, I will give you two pieces of advice. One, donotget involved with the locals. The peasants’struggle and all that shit. Make your fortune and keep your conscience and your libidostowed in your briefcase, because it is fruitless to try to get in the way of the unstoppable momentum of money rolling downhill.”
“And the second?”Henry asks.
“The second? Well, actually, in your capacity, you don’t have to worry about the second. Oh, look. Here comes your man, Tuhoe. Your‘official translator.’And don’t you believe a bloody word he tells you.”
“That’s the second ?”
Madden sighs, then lowers his voice.“The second piece of advice—and this is mostly for heads of state, ambassadors, and C-suite execs, not blokes like you and me, whom he could care less about—is to avoid the prince. At all costs. Not only is he bonkers, he’s a bloody sociopath.”
Shug is alongside them now. He half bows at Madden, who responds with a heel click and a sort of hand-twirling salute. Henry suspects that each just told the other to fuck off without opening their mouths.
“I was just telling Mr. Tuhoe about the many pleasures of your magical little kingdom,”Madden says.
Shug’s brow crunches as if he’s translating Madden’s words for an unseen dignitary.“Yes,”he says.“We have much to be thankful for in Galado, Mr. Madden. Now, if you’ll please excuse us, we must be going.”
Shug escorts Henry toward the doors to the great hall.“Interesting man, that Mr. Madden,”Henry says.
Shug considers Henry as he attempts to proffer a reply, then decides not to respond at all.
In the vestibule outside the great hall they stop by another large set of windows. Shug wanders away and begins an animated conversation with a Galadonian official. Henry pulls out his small container of hand sanitizer and gives himself an unobstructed squirt. It is not raining outside, but the sky is dark for two p.m., the sun obscured by a low-hanging, unnatural blue haze. To his right, across the dull surface of the river, just behind a long procession of factories with idle smokestacks, is the escarpment of a city that does not look even remotely magical.
When Shug returns, Henry points to a squall of black flakes swirling over the meticulously terraced royal jute fields that lead to this side of the river’s edge.“Is that ash?”
Shug shakes his head and says, unconvincingly,“No. That is snow. Himalayan snow.”
“Really? In September? So where are we off to, Shug?”
Shug walks and Henry follows. When he catches up, Henry can see that the small, dour man has now miraculously shifted into an even lower gear of seriousness, and for the first time his smug exterior seems to have been shaken.“Shug?”
Shug stops, takes a breath.“We are going to see the prince,”he finally says.“I have been told that the prince has specifically requested your presence.”
~ * ~
His Royal Smallness
After Henry is frisked for a second time, an aide instructs him to“please be seated until the prince has completed his fitness regimen.”He sits and looks out upon the enormous ancient hall, which has been transformed into a glistening modern fitness center. At the far end of the hall, silhouetted against a row of floor-to-ceiling windows, Henry can detect some kind of movement, the bends and twists of distant bodies. Presumably the prince, but it is so far away Henry cannot be sure.
Dozens of large plasma monitors are mounted every ten feet or so, including a row directly in Henry’s line of vision. He expected some combination of the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, a Tokyo business report, andGood Day Galado,but instead it is all movies, some American—The DarkKnight, Iron Man, The Hangover, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—but mostly, he presumes, Indian. Musicals and thrillers, fantasies and love stories, playing to the overdone bass of the house music pulsing through the room.
Unaccompanied by musical scores and dialogue, Henry thinks, the films seem diminished, rendered silly, broad pantomimes of events nothing at all like life, unless, he thinks, life is this simple, this stereotypically predictable.
A few minutes later another aide in aghoapproaches. Henry rises and offers to shake the man’s hand, but the gesture is ignored.“You are not under any circumstance to touch the prince. This is expressly forbidden. Under no circumstances are you to ask himanything, or speak unless spoken to, or address him as anything other than Your Majesty.”
“Sure, that’s—”Henry begins, but the man raises a hand, silencing him.
“In addition, any discussion of the Galadonian political situation, international trade, human rights, the environment, the health of the king, or the prince’s recent trip to Graceland is also expressly forbidden.”
“Gotcha,”Henry answers.“Ixnayon theElvisay.”
The man stares at Henry for a moment, then looks to Shug as if he is considering calling the whole thing off. But it is too late. Someone across the hall haswavedfor them to approach. The man lifts his chin at Henry and says,“He is ready for you.”
Henry looks at Shug.“Aren’t you coming?”
Shug shakes his head.“The prince prides himself on his command of English. My presence would be an insult.”
~ * ~
When Henry is halfway across the room, the new chaperone stops him. From the flat bench-press station near the wall of windows at the end of the room comes a high-pitched, extended grunt as the weights—what look to be three forty-five-pound plates on each side of the bar—rise and fall in short,pistonlikebursts. A final exaggerated squeal is the signal for the royal spotters to grab the ends of the bar and safely place it in the forks of the rack. When the bar is secured, the spotters stand back and the lifter sits upright, then jumps up onto the bench, where, squealing again, he begins to execute a series of moves that are a combination of bastardized bodybuilder poses, World Wrestling Federation bravado, and a six-year-old’sinterpretation of kung fu. The music playing on the sound system, Henry realizes, is“Get Your Head in the Game”from Disney’sHigh School Musical.It is during this routine that Henry notices that even though the lifter, presumably the prince, is standing on the bench, he is the same height as his seemingly average-sized spotters.
“Holy crap,”he says.“His Highness is a Smallness.”
The chaperone looks at Henry.“Any discussion of height is also—”
Henry cuts him off.“Understood. Is bodybuilding something of a national obsession here?”
“No. This is the only such facility in the kingdom. The prince discovered the benefits of weight training and nutrition during a visit to the San Francisco Bay area several years ago.”
For his final pose the prince rolls his black Lycra shorts down to his knees, then bends and thrusts his hard, thickly veined bubble butt toward the rest of the room, Henry included, shaking it to the final chords of the Disney tune. After the prince pulls his shorts back on, one of his assistants gives him a high five and another helps him into a shiny lavender Adidas sweat jacket before whispering into his ear and nodding toward Henry.
When the prince sights Henry, he hops off the bench and bounds toward him.
“Remember,”the chaperone says under his breath,“no touching.”
But the prince is quickening his pace and spreading his short, incongruously muscled arms as wide as they will go.“Mister Henry Tuhoe! What’s up Yo-Town!”he says, and embraces Henry, who looks over the prince’s shoulder at the chaperone.
Is it more dangerous to return the royal embrace or to ignore it? What’s up with the princely enthusiasm? And on what planet is this place called Yo-Town? He gets no help from the chaperone, just a sinister sort of smile. Finally Henry raises his arms less than a foot away from his outer thighs and gently wraps them around the prince’s back.
“Welcome to my kingdom. It is an honor.”
“The honor is mine, Your Highness. Thank you for having me.
“Go, Huskies. You are a fellow Northeastern man, yes?”
Henry blinks. Aren’t princes supposed to go to Harvard or Yale?“You know Northeastern?”
“Go, Huskies! Class of’01, Yo-Town!”
“Really? I was‘00.”
“I know. This is partially why I granted you an audience. You were a geology major, no?”
“Actually, I majored in English, with a geology minor.”
The prince stops smiling, and for a moment it looks as if he might cry, or have Henry or whoever gave him the slightly inaccurate biographical information put to death. As if on cue the Disney music stops, but Henry can still hear music. It is coming faintly from the iPod headphones dangling around the prince’s neck.
“The Hold Steady?”
The prince tilts his head, again not sure if this is a slight or some insider’s lingo that he doesn’t know about. Either one would be bad for everyone involved. But Henry points at the postage-stamp-sized music player.“The Hold Steady.‘Sequestered in Memphis.’I like their sound.”
The prince looks at his headphones and then at Henry. He smiles.“The Hold Steady. Absolutely, bro!”He slaps Henry on the small of his back.“Come,”he says.“Let me show you around. It is such a pleasure to have an American here to appreciate what I am trying to do with our archaic little society in Galado. Ancient ways. Ancient places. Spirituality. Too much, you know, can have such a corrosive effect on the culture.”
Henry decides it’s best not to comment on this. The prince waves off the members of his staff and leads Henry into a room off the thousand-year-old iron-pumping room. It’s a smaller, more formal space, with one wall of windows looking out on an expanse of royal gardens.
Against the near wall is a one-thousand-gallon fish tank, at the bottom of which floats one eighteen-inch-long, wrinkled, and grotesque fish. Henry has to bend closer to make sure that the fish, a gray, black-spotted, seemingly eyeless being with a long pocked and whiskered nose, is alive.
“Ah-hah,”the prince offers, bending alongside Henry to observe the barely moving creature.“This is Gaily, a rare specimen indeed. Gaily is the last known living evidence of the bottle-nosed Galadonian riverfish. Gaily has become something of a pet project of mine,and a symbol of my government’s commitment to preserving the indigenous species of Galado. It is blind.”
“It uses sonar to catch other fish. But now, after twenty million years, it is threatened. Every day teams of scientists from the Ministry of Wildlife scour our streams and rivers, in hopes of finding one blessed partner for lovely Gaily to perpetuate the species.”
“Is Gaily male or female?”
In response to the question, the prince stands up and cocks his head.
“I’m just saying it would be a shame if it was a male and after all that work the only fish they found was another male.”
The prince doesn’t answer.“Come,”he says, waving Henry away from the last living bottle-nosed Galadonian riverfish,“There is much to see.”He strolls to a long, knee-high table in the middle of the room, upon which are two scale models of two versions of the same urban landscape. In the center of the table is a laminated sign that readsThe Shangri-La Zone.Before the model on the right is a smaller sign that readsPresent,and before the model on the left, which is considerably larger and features a number of large office towers, banks, hotels, brand-name luxury boutiques, and a huge cineplex, is a sign that readsVery Near Future.
“What do you think?”
Henry bends and then decides to kneel to consider the models more closely. After giving the past a casual glance, he decides it’s better etiquette to linger on the future.“That’s quite a cineplex.”
“Twenty-eight theaters, with a grand auditorium for world premieres and, of course, the film festival. Just like Cannes.”
In front of the mock cinemas are tiny limousines and tiny paparazzi, and at the entrance high above the street is a two-inch likeness of the prince standing atop a grand, red-carpeted semicircle of stairs. Henry says,“I like the movies too.”
The prince comes alongside him and, looking at the model, asks,“Have you seen the filmWalkthe Line?”
“I have. I love Johnny Cash.”
“Of all the types of film, I enjoy nothing more than a well-donebiopic.Biopicsmake me cry, because if created with love, they make me consider the only cliche that still has the power to make me laugh and care and thrill and fear, and that is the finite arc of a life that, inevitably, ends.”
Henry turns away from the models and looks at the prince. He didn’t expect this kind of insight from the man who only minutes ago had addressed him as Yo-Town.“You know,”he quietly answers,“I’ve often had that same thought. Whether it’s about Cash or Ray Charles or Marie Antoinette, even though the stories are often completely predictable and the endings universally known, if they’re told well enough, they leave me in the most profound, contemplative I guess, funk.”
The prince puts his arm over Henry’s shoulder.“The inevitability of mortality, yes?”
Henry rises and the prince’s arm falls away.
A servant knocks at the door. He is holding a silver tray with two drinks. The prince nods. As the man approaches, the prince says to Henry,“Proteinsmoothies.”
Henry accepts his glass and sniffs the drink.
“Do you lift?”
“I belonged to a gym in Manhattan but didn’t—”
“Fantastic. We can train together!”
Henry takes a gulp of the cold orangesmoothie. As he swallows, he wonders if it is possible to detect orangutan testosterone in pureed mango.
The prince points back at the models.“So what do you think, Henry Tuhoe?”
Henry licks his lips and nods.“I think it is grand and ambitious.”
“For charter corporate partners, like your company, for instance, the Shangri-La or Free Zone will offer tax-exempt status and other perks.”
Henry can think of no reason why a bottled water company would want a storefront presence in the Shangri-La Zone, but says,“I would think that a lot of companies would be interested in such a deal. I admit, I’m not an expert on Galado—in fact, until recently I’d read very little about it—but from what I understand it has, if anything, resisted corporate involvement, outside involvement, industrial development, and even tourism. Is this an issue?”
The prince takes the last sip of his protein shake and hands the glass to the servant. He shrugs his shoulders and torques his neck left, then right. Then his lips twist to the side in such an exaggerated fashion—pained? disgusted?—that Henry is certain he has gone too far. Only after the prince takes three deep breaths does Henry feel that things might be all right between him and the prince after all.“I appreciate the candor,”the prince says.“Most of my advisers are so terrified of me, and rightfully so, they go to extremes to placate, to avoid conflict.”
“I was just curious. Not seeking conflict.”
“Obviously, Henry Tuhoe, things are changing in my little country. We can continue as we have for centuries, shut off from the world, economically challenged but spiritually pure, while our Chinese and Indian neighbors to the north and south, the two biggest rising powers in the world, thrive. Or we can find a way to engage with the world while remaining spiritually one with the universe. We can welcome the Internet, the global brands that bring jobs and prosperity. We can begin to tap into its rich natural resources and embrace industry. Did you know that right now if a citizen of Gal-ado wants to cut down a tree—a single tree—he must first get permission from the king, or, under the current circumstances, me. And if I want to cut down a tree, I must gain permission from two thirds of Parliament. Preposterous. Do you know that until five years ago there was no television in this country? Granted, only state-run programming is permitted now, thanks to me, and it was quite a struggle, but it’s a start.”
“Do the people want it?”Henry asks.“TV? Internet? The freedom to wield their own chain saws?”
The prince waves him off.“They don’t know what they want, but it is coming. I have been laying the groundwork for years, making alliances in Parliament. Getting my father to champion my legislation as his. It is forbidden to talk about it, but already we have steel mills burning night and day in the valleys to the north. Coal mining to the north and south. Timber harvesting in the hills. And it has made a difference. Because of my changes, our GNP per person, which Parliament refuses to acknowledge in lieu of the preposterous and unmeasurable spiritual indicator gross national karma,has risen five percent in the last year, but it is still the second lowest on earth.
“They want more monasteries,”the prince continues, and then points at another building on the model, a towering modern edifice of spiraling glass and steel.“I want more of this.”
“The Royal Galadonian Academy of Ideas. Designed by the people who worked with people who did the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing. Some years off, but the Academy of Ideas itself already exists within the walls of this palace, at the very site in the country that is your place of work. One day I will give you a virtual tour.”
“That would be nice,”Henry says, still looking at the models, surprised that, under the circumstances, he is so interested in the future of a place that three weeks ago he didn’t know existed.“What about tourism? I know it’s strictly limited, but I would think as a revenue source ...”
“Tourism will come and it will absolutely become a source of profit. But for now, until I get the next steps of our plan in place, limiting tourism and the unwanted attention of undesirables is one of the old rules that I actually agree with.”
Henry raises his chin in the direction of the scale models.“So this is the next step?”
“Exactly. We first needed industry before opening the doors to commerce and development. Right now we are in discussions with dozens of leaders from the top brands and multinationals in the world. For the most part I have decided to bypass governments and political diplomacy in favor of corporate diplomacy. When you think of it, the modern CEO of a multinational conglomerate is more powerful than any ambassador, more of a head of state than any president or other despot.”
“Is there a model in the free world that you’re patterning yourself after?”
The prince shakes his head dismissively.“We want to be the next Bangalore. The next Beijing. The next Bollywood. Silicon Valley. Technologyandindustryandthe arts. The Academy of Ideas. A state-of-the-art sports stadium.”
“More democracy than monarchy, then.”
The prince aggressively shakes his head.“Oh, no. The people don’t want democracy. The monarchy will still rule.Brandocracy, if anything. Plus, of course, we need to strengthen our army. Our nuclear arsenal.”
“Do you have one?”
“So you aspire be a nonviolent Buddhistbrandocracywith nuclear capability.”
The prince considers this and smiles.“Perhaps.”
Henry begins to laugh, but, realizing that the prince wasn’t going for a laugh, he transitions to a clearing of the throat.“Well, I don’t know what to say, other than, you know, good luck with all this, Your Highness.”
“Not so fast, Henry Tuhoe. You haven’t heard my proposal.”
“I think you’re overestimating my importance in the grand scheme of things here.”
“Oh, I’m not overestimating a thing. I know who you are, and just from speaking with you for this short time, I can see that you are my kind of person. I make it my business to meet with almost every new dignitary, corporate or political, who enters our kingdom, and ninety-nine percent of them I dismiss as unenlightened, incapable of seeing the way things can be. But you and I. . . you got to admit, we totally hit it off.”
The prince puts his forefinger to his lips.“What is your principal responsibility here on behalf of Happy Mountain Springs bottled water?”
“To set up a back-office customer service call-center operation.”
“Exactly. And this will no doubt include the training of Galadonians.”
“Galadonians who speak English.”
“And when these English-speaking Galadonians are being trained, what colloquialisms and accents will you be looking for, what country’s ways will you encourage?”
Henry stares at the prince. He knows the answer but isn’t surewhere it’s going.“Okay, I guess that would be American. The more convincingly American they can sound, the better.”
The prince smacks his hands together so forcefully it startles Henry.“Bingo, Yo-Town!”
“I don’t follow.”
“Despite your economy, your widening cultural void, your anti-intellectualism, your reality-TV approach to electing leaders, your fast-food addictions and thickening midsections—despite all of this, what the world wants most is to act like America. And at this moment in time I think that there is no greater job, no calling that better captures the era, than what you are doing here. Teaching the art of being American.”
The prince returns to the models, looks at them while speaking with Henry.“What you are doing for your water company is teaching this on a lesser scale. Important, yes, but what I would like is to be able to hold your model up as an example to other companies that are considering doing business here, to show them that our people are capable of acting like and doing business with the best.”
Henry nods.“That’s fine, but I haven’t even started yet. I need to make my own little thing work before using it as some kind of—“
The prince waves him off.“I have no doubt you will succeed.”
“But, again . . . I’m not. . . I. . .”
“I’m sure your company would not mind at all, Henry Tuhoe, if you helped out casually, every now and then, as a friend of the state, as a corporate liaison. As a favor to me, because in this economy I could use all the help I can get.”
Henry decides that it’s best to go along with it for now. Later he will call Giffler and speak with whomever he needs to speak with to see how to handle this. But right now, jet-lagged, disoriented, frightened, and freaked out, he decides he’s in no position to take a stand on anything. Rather than formally committing, he answers the prince with a question.“So to make all of this come to pass,”he says, sidling up to the edge of the models,“what is the single most important thing that needs to happen?”
The prince steps back and fixes his gaze on Henry. He stares athim for an uncomfortably long time. He wants Henry to know that not just his question but every aspect of him and everything that he represents is being considered, being judged, and that the answer the prince is about to give is not something to be taken lightly.
“What needs to happen first and foremost, and sooner rather than later, Henry Tuhoe, is for the heart of my father to stop beating.”
~ * ~
One Man’s Spa
Spiritual enlightenment and state-of-the-art luxury, it turns out, are not mutually exclusive.
After sleeping for most of the hour-and-a-half drive from the capital, a gradually ascending, late-day trek over deep-rutted, unpaved roads bordered by rice paddies and jute fields, Henry awakens when the Range Rover jerks to a stop.
Shug looks at him in the rearview mirror and clears his throat. Several times at the beginning of the journey Shug tried to get Henry to discuss his conversation with the prince, but all that Henry would volunteer, to Shug’s growing consternation, was that one day he might work out with the prince at the palace. When it became clear that Shug wasn’t going to get any political insight or royal gossip, he decided to give Henry the silent treatment.
Henry sits up and rubs his eyes. To his left, the edge of the road gives way to a sheer granite precipice. Looking down through the lavender twilight,he sees a gray mass of smog trapped in the valley, and through the smog he can barely make out the rooftops of a village and the black snake of a river.
Shug points to the nearest bend in the snake, to a modern building north of the village.“Your place of business is down there. In the valley.”Then he looks up and to his right at a lavish edifice partially built into the smog-free mountainside. Sunset rays illuminate a spectrum of brilliant colors and ornate Galadonian spiritual carvings.“And here . . . once again, here are your lodgings: Ayurved Djong and Spa.”Two men in whiteghosscramble down the front steps of the spa to greet them.
Madden may have been right.“What happened to having an apartment in the valley, near the office park?”
Shug glances at him in the rearview mirror again.“You were supposed to. But the prince upgraded you. Last week the head of Sri Lankan Trade stayed here in the presidential suite, until the head buyer of Old Navy arrived and bumped him to a lesser room. Anyway,”Shug continues by way of farewell,“these men will show you to your accommodations. In two days, Monday, I will be waiting here at eleven a.m. to take you to your new headquarters in the valley.”
At once Henry’s door and the back luggage hatch swing open. A smiling young man steps back and opens his arms.“Welcome to Ayurved Djong and Spa. I am Ratu, your personal concierge.”
~ * ~
Eating a room-service cheeseburger in his boxers alone in his suite, listening on his headphones to Dylan’s“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”fromBlonde on Blonde,which, if he’s not mistaken, was written in a hotel room, in the Chelsea.
He’d asked for the cheeseburger and fries to mess with Ratu, who seemed especially proud of the organic vegetarian menu, but the man, despite seeming pure of heart and mind, did not blink.“Absolutely, Mr. Tuhoe. Would you prefer waffle or shoestring fries with that?”
Ever since that morning in the focus group room with Giffler, Henry hasn’t had a chance to stop and collect his thoughts. And now, still unable to sleep and too tired to engage in anything beyond music, he is finally doing just that. And the results of collecting and giving these thoughts even the most casual scrutiny are disturbing. Losing a marriage, a job, a house, and a country, all in . . . what, two, three weeks? Jesus. This song, he decides, concentrate on the song.
Written for Dylan’s wife Sara, right?
On“Sara,”onDesire,he sang what?
Stay in’up for days in the Chelsea Hotel,
Writin“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”for you .. .
But it’s no use. He is sweating all over, and clearly it’s not that hot out; this is the mountains, he thinks, not the goddamn tropics. And it’s too soon to have contracted, like, typhoid, right?
He places his hand over his heart, which is racing considerably faster than the six-eight time of the song, and now he can’t concentrate on the lyrics or even the specific things he’s trying not to concentrate on, but instead of not concentrating on individual issues, or let’s call them themes, the themes of his totally fucked-up life, he is overwhelmed by their inseparable blind totality.
Telling himself, At least you didn’t go through with the vasectomy, at least you still have this or that, doesn’t help, only reminds him of. . . an even greater totality that now includes fundamental penis/procreation/cuckold/witchcraft issues as well. He rises and walks away from his half-eaten burger, the untouched pile of shoestring fries, and walks to his window, which looks out over the now black valley, the unseen village, the river.
A heart attack, he thinks. So this is what a heart attack feels like. Here, of all places.
On the intro tour,whatshisname—Ragu? Ratu?—showed him mud baths, yoga, meditation pods, sundry wraps and scrubs, wine tasting bars, infinity pools, massage suites, flora and fauna, using the language of religion to preach the gospel of self-indulgence, telling him he can achieve a higher sense of purpose without having to give up the creature comforts, that he can go on a one-of-a-kind metaphysical quest without sacrificing a thing. Right here. And now, he thinks, here you are in one of the world’s most exclusive enclaves of relaxation, eating a cheeseburger and shoestring fries, and you’re having a massive heart attack. Like Martin Sheen inApocalypse Now.
He tumbles facedown upon the pure white bedding and tries to breathe, but the air is slow in coming. As he begins to roll onto his back he is startled by a small patch of red on the sheets. An aneurism! Great! He pulls out his earphones and touches his earsfor signs of blood while leaning in for a closer look at the stain. Ketchup. That’s what you get for ordering red meat in an Ayurvedic spa in a Buddhist nation. Bad condiment karma. On his back now, breathing deeply, still gasping, he takes stock of his arms, the right in particular. No pain to speak of, shooting, throbbing, pulsing from the heart. And other than not being able to breathe, he feels no pain in his chest, the general neighborhood of the heart.
He thinks, Maybe I’m not having a heart attack in an Ayurvedic spa in a Buddhist nation after all.
Maybe it’s only an anxiety attack.
When he asked what the worddjongmeant in relation to the resort’s name, Ratu answered,“Monastery fortress.”When he asked how many centuries old this monastery was, Ratu answered,“This is not technically a monastery. Or a fortress. It was built two years ago, a fusion of the old and the new culture, as part of the prince’s grand plan.”
The likelihood that this is an anxiety attack, not a heart attack, isn’t as comforting as he’d like. An anxietyepisodewould be preferable, he decides, much better than an attack, but it’s nice to be relatively sure you’re not about to die.
On the nightstand, wrapped in a strip of green banana leaf next to a vase of white lilies, is a spa menu. Still on his back, he reaches for it and opens it. Listed in calligraphy within its eight vellum pages are dozens of categories and subcategories of treatments. Facials. Wraps. Mineral baths. In-room spiritual consultation.
The entire centerfold is dedicated to a variety of massage options.
A man answers the house phone.“How may I help you, Mister Tuhoe ?”
“I would like a massage.”
“We have many massage options. Have you considered the menu?”
“I have not. Look, Ratu. Between us, I’m not doing so well right now,stresswise. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mister Tuhoe. I believe I know exactly what you mean.”
“It’s been a crazy couple of days, with no relief in sight. Mywife ... I feel like I’m about to explode.”
“Say no more. I can have someone in your suite within fifteenminutes.”
~ * ~
Fourteen minutes later there is a knock at his door. A pretty Galadonian woman with her black hair cross-thatched in a loose bun smiles and bows at him.“My name is Lacy.”She is wearing a white doctor’s smock and holding a black leather work bag.
Henry returns the bow and motions her inside. Lacy tells him to remove his clothes and liefacedownon the bed.
As he takes off his T-shirt, he begins to explain his trip and his new job, but she shushes him and twirls her finger to indicate that he should spin around, get on the bed, and shut up.
Warm lavender-scented oil drips onto his back, forming an S-shaped bead. When Lacy’s hands touch him his body spasms; he is not so much startled as, after months of real rejection and fraudulent sexual recuperation, unaccustomed to the touch of another human. He takes a deep breath, finally with ease, and closes his eyes as the masseuse works her way from his neck and trapeziums down to the balled mass of muscle in the center of his back. It’s all feeling quite good and he’s thinking that this was a great idea, when the towel over his ass is slowly peeled down and a well-oiled index finger begins to probe the outer perimeter of his rectum.
“Excuse me, Lacy?”
“I think I’ll skip the prostate massage this evening, thank you.”
After a moment Lacy shrugs and moves her hand north along his spine.“Maybe later, then.”
He shakes his head, which isfacedownin a rolled-up ring of white towels.
Several minutes later, Lacy’s hand finds its way back under the towel. Warm fingers scoop underneath his buttocks and begin to softly squeeze his recently reprieved testicles.
“Hey—whoa, no. No, thank you.”
“I think that trimmed privates is very sexy, Mister Henry. Does this not feel good?”
It does. Besides the chronic pre-surgery-that-never-happened masturbating jag and the two times, post-non-op, that he faked ejaculating while with Rachel, it has been a while. Months. And technically and legally, he is separated. But no. Not here. Not tonight. Whoring in the second world withjet lag, fifteen minutes after having either a heart attack or an anxiety attack, or a combination of both, sporting a pair of fuzz-covered testicles upon which a virility curse has just been placed, isn’t how he wants to begin hispostmaritallove life. He’d rather get on with the anxiety attack.
He pushes his chest off the bed and turns. Lacy is naked. Her hair is down, unbound, almost touching the tops of her small breasts. The white smock is in a lump on the mahogany floor.“Sorry, Lacy. But I can’t.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
He doesn’t know what to say.
“Maybe you want a boy instead?”
Henry shakes his head.
“You want me to continue, but without returning to . . . ?”She looks at his midsection.
He looks at his midsection.“No.”He doesn’t trust himself.“But thank you. Really.”
While she bends to pick up the smock, he swings his legs around and sits on the edge of the bed with a small towel covering his crotch. He tries again to explain the month he’s had, the chest pains, but Lacy doesn’t seem to be interested. When she is done buttoning the front of the smock, she walks to a mirror on the wall and pulls back her hair, ties it into a kind of soft knot.
She walks to the door and puts her hand on the knob without turning to say good-bye. Henry calls her name. She stops.“Yes?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any knowledge of the occult, would you?”
~ * ~
Cue the Motivational Video
Early Monday morning the phone in his room rings.“What’s shaking,studly?”
Giffler. Henry rubs his eyes. He’s been sleeping on and off for almost two days.“The eco-lodge is a whorehouse.”
“Book me a VIP suite ASAP,”Giffler replies, back in New York City, via sat-phone.
“It’s like Canyon Ranch, but with prostitutes on the spa menu, right next to seaweed wraps and morning Pilates.”
“That’s my kind of inconvenient truth. And absolutely consistent with my prediction that with time, green will become so increasingly complex and fractured it will be impossible to separate the good from the bad.”
Henry opens his mouth but decides not to speak. Outside his window on the lawn of a lush garden he sees a group of American and European guests inghosbeing led through a series of yoga moves. He’s fairly sure that the instructor is Lacy.
“Have you met the prince?”
“I have. We . . . well, we seem to have hit it off.”
“Splendid. I hear he’s bonkers in a cute, occasionally homicidal way. What’s up with the call center?”
“I just got here,Giff. I’m supposed to go meet the local management team and tour the new building in about an hour.”
“Here’s a little tip: your best bet right off the bat is to go all empire on them.”
“Empire. Gun-to-the-head, no-nonsense leadership. Make an example of someone within the first five minutes of the meeting. The third world expects this from us, or they will rob you blind.”
Henry considers telling Giffler Madden’s theory that Galado is about to transition from third to second world, but again chooses not to reply.
“I imagine as part of the orientation you’re gonna screen the motivational creation myth video. You have seen the video, haven’t your
“The Happy Mountain Springs video?”He hasn’t.“Sure.”
“It’s brilliantly manipulative. Show them that. Hopefully they won’t be too offended by the lesbian marriage thing. If they are, downplay it. No, denyit. Just say that’s the way hard-core environmentalists look in the Vermont section of the United States.”
“If that fails, just keep emphasizing how much money they can make compared to abject poverty, then give them the sample customer service scripts so they can start justifying themselves.”
“Gotcha,”Henry answers, then adds,“By the way, were you or anyone back in New York or Vermont aware of the fact that more than three quarters of the country of Galado is drought-stricken or has no access to potable water?”
“So you think there’s a bottled water opportunity there?”
“No. I think it’s sort of a sensitive issue that we might want to be careful with. Maybe we should consider a token investment in their infrastructure. Wells. Filtration membranes. Treatment plants. LifeStraws. You know, consistent with the whole Happy Mountain Springs ethos. We could even get someone from marketing to film it and use it as a PR tool.”
“So, these Galadonian whores,”Giffler responds.“Are they hot or skanky?”
“I have to go.”
“Wait a sec. I gotta run, but someone wants to say hi.”
He hears the jostling of the phone, then a woman’s voice saying hello.
“Giffler tells me you’re smothered in prostitutes.”
“I forgot, you work for the man without a conscience now.”
“He needs someone to keep track of all the people he’s firing.”
“He’s gone. To India. He did get his job back.”
“Do I dare? Do I dare disturb the universe?”
“Nicely observed, Tuhoe. How are your testicles?”
“Filled with shame and healthy swimmers. And your quadruple Es?”
“Apparently they are recession-proof. When the markets crash, men seem to have an uncontrollable desire to seek the solace of very large, digitally convenient breasts.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing here, Meredith.”
“Would you rather behere? What’s here—abandoned cubicles and defaulted loans? Endless memos about armpits?”
“Exactly. Have an adventure, Henry. You’re in a mysterious land. A mountain kingdom. Disturb the universe. Get your freaking‘nadsback.”
~ * ~
He is greeted in brilliant sunshine outside the call-center-to-be by a group of twelve employees, several local dignitaries, and a small chorus of sweet-singing, orange-robed schoolchildren accompanied by adranyen, an instrument similar to a folk guitar. He can’t make out the words to their song, but as he watches them tightly grouped with the white-peaked Himalayas as a backdrop, he is fairly sure that they have embedded his name into the chorus—TuhoeTuhoe-Tuhoe—and he finds it all strange and moving.
When the song is over, a bass drumming commences and two shirtless, barefoot men in bright skirts of red and yellow and lavender silk with porcelain fish masks on their heads begin enacting a dance that mimics rainfall and swimming and drinking. As they dance his eye is drawn to a gathering of peasants on the other side of the stone fence. Their robes are worn and tattered, and the expressions on their faces are the opposite of the brilliant smiles of those formally assembled before him, for him.
He applauds when the dance ends, then accepts from two young girls a bouquet of wildflowers and a porcelain fish mask all his own.
“It is a bottle-nosed Galadonian riverfish,”explains Maya, a Galadonian woman in a black Western-style skirt and jacket who is to be his second in command, pointing at the mask.“Soon to be extinct. The river teemed with them before the factories, but now there is only one known left in the world.”
“I know,”he answers.“I saw it yesterday in a tank in the prince’s game room.”
Maya narrows her eyes and looks Henry up and down, as if he is about to be extinct. He meets her wide, dark eyes for a moment, but can’t hold her stare for long.
After bowing to the performers and the assembled group in a gesture of thanks, he turns to hand the gifts to Shug, but Shug takes a step back and gives him a look of incredulity.Are you kidding me?
~ * ~
The new building in which the call center is to operate is more substantial and better constructed than Henry had expected. It’s a long, rectangular structure with white-painted concrete walls and an asphalt-shingled roof. Inside there are four rows of cafeteria-style tables that stretch the sixty-foot length of the open space and dozens of metal folding chairs stacked against the windowless walls. He stands in the center of the room taking it in, flanked by Maya and the Galadonian minister of future commerce. He waves at the gathered, employees and in unison they bow in his direction.
“The telecommunications service is not yet in place,”the minister of future commerce, a tall (for Galado), thin man with a shaved head, tells him.“It’s simply a matter of running lines through the mountains, wiring the building, purchasing the devices, and negotiating a contract with a provider.”
Henry nods.“What’s the official relationship with outsidetelcosin Galado?”
“Presently,”the minister answers,“they are forbidden. Mostly because of the Internet. But the prince is in negotiations with several large multinationals, and a piece of legislation is being drafted that we are confident will soon rectify the situation.”