The Pale Kingby David Foster Wallace
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived… See more details below
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.
The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questionsquestions of life's meaning and of the value of work and societythrough characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.
Rollicking postmodern romp, by the late cult-favorite novelist and essayist Wallace (with help from an editor), through the bowels of the IRS.
Leave it to Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996, etc.) to find fascination in the workings of a tax audit. Yet, with its mock-Arthurian title, his novel explores the minds and mores of the little men in the gray flannel suits, or at least their modern gray-souled counterparts. The story of the making of the novel is at least as interesting as the book itself: It was assembled, writes editor Michael Pietsch, from "a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe's bags heavy with manuscripts,"working from multiple drafts and notes and various other clues, but with no certainty that Wallace intended the book to have its current, somewhat lumpy shape. Neither would Wallace, obsessive perfectionist, allowed some of the sloppinesses and redundancies in the present version to stand. Thus it deserves its title-page rubric "An Unfinished Novel," and thus it should be thought of less as the last word by the late writer—and certainly more manuscripts will be extracted from the vaults and published—than as a glimpse into his mind at work. And what a mind: Wallace was nothing if not thorough, and his tale of accountant Claude Sylvanshine, heroic traveler on bad commuter airlines and dogged reader of spreadsheets, is full of details, facts and factoids assembled over years of study and rumination. There's something of the author, perhaps, in Claude, but then there's something of him in the other characters, too, and it would be a mistake to read this as roman à clef. All of Wallace's intellectual interests come through: the notes and asides, the linguistic brilliance, the fact piled atop fact, the excurses into entropy and, yes, autobiography ("Like many Americans," reads one note, "I've been sued...Litigation is no fun, and it's worth one's time and trouble to try to head it off in advance whenever possible.") Does it add up to a story? Not always. But there are many moments of great beauty, as with this small passage: "Drinion looks at her steadily for a moment. His face, which is a bit oily, tends to shine in the fluorescence of the Examination areas, though less so in the windows' indirect light, the shade of which indicates that clouds have piled up overhead, though this is just Meredith Rand's impression, and one not wholly conscious."
Unfinished or no, it's worth reading this long, partly shaped novel just to get at its best moments, and to ponder what Wallace, that excellent writer, would have done with the book had he had time to finish it himself.
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The New York Times Book Review
"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical...By turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dull--funny, maddening and elegiac...in almost everything Wallace wrote, including THE PALE KING, he aimed to use words to lasso and somehow subdue the staggering, multifarious, cacophonous predicament that is modern American life."Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Feverishly encompassing, sharply comedic, and haunting...this is not a novel of defeat but, rather, of oddly heroic persistence....electrifying in its portrayal of individuals seeking unlikely refuge in a vast, absurd bureaucracy. In the spirit of Borges, Gaddis, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Wallace conducts a commanding and ingenious inquiry into monumental boredom, sorrow, the deception of appearances, and the redeeming if elusive truth that any endeavor, however tedious, however impossible, can become a conduit to enlightenment.'"Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Nothing short of sublime--the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections...are tiny masterpieces....achingly funny...pants-pissingly hilarious."Publishers Weekly
"One of the saddest and most lovely books I've ever read...Let's state this clearly: You should read THE PALE KING....You'll be [kept up at night] because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can't breathe."Benjamin Alsup, Esquire
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The Pale King
By Wallace, David Foster
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Wallace, David Foster
All right reserved.
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, the lead horse’s tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks’ burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.
From Midway Claude Sylvanshine then flew on something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines down to Peoria, a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck and reached back to pull a dingy fabric curtain over the cockpit and the beverage service consisted of a staggering girl underhanding you nuts while you chugged a Pepsi. Sylvanshine’s window seat was in 8-something, an emergency row, beside an older lady with a sacklike chin who could not seem despite strenuous efforts to open her nuts. The core accounting equation A = L + E can be dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A - L to beyond. The craft rode the updrafts and downdrafts like a dinghy in a gale. The only service into Peoria was regional out of either St. Louis or the two Chicagos. Sylvanshine had an inner ear thing and couldn’t read on planes but did read the emergency laminated card, twice. It was mostly illustrations; for legal reasons, the airline had to presume illiteracy. Without being aware that he was doing so, Sylvanshine mentally repeated the word illiterate several dozen times until the word ceased to mean anything and became just a rhythmic sound, not unlovely but out of sync with the propellers’ flux’s pulse. It was something he did when he was under stress and did not want an incursion. His point of departure was Dulles after a Service shuttle from Shepherdstown/Martinsburg. The three major codifications of US tax law being of course ’16, ’39, and ’54, with ’81 and ’82’s indexing and anti-abuse provisions also relevant. The fact that another major recodification was on the horizon would not, obviously, be on the CPA exam. Sylvanshine’s private goal was to pass the CPA exam, thereby immediately advancing two paygrades. The extent of the recodification would, of course, depend in part on the Service’s success in carrying out the Initiative’s directives. The job and the exam had to occupy two separate parts of his mind; it was crucial that he maintain separation of powers. Separation of the two areas. Calculating depreciation recapture for §1231 assets is a five-step process. The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer. There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing else for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind but try to look at the ground which appeared close enough that he could make out house colors and the types of different vehicles on the pale interstate the plane seemed to tack back and forth across. The card’s figures opening emergency doors and pulling cords and crossing their arms funereally with their seat cushions on their chests seemed amateurishly drawn and their features little more than bumps; you couldn’t see fear or relief or really anything on their faces as they slid down the emergency chutes in the drawing. Emergency doors’ handles opened in one way and emergency hatches over the wings opened in a totally different way. Components of equity include common stock, retained earnings, and how many different types of SE transaction. Distinguish between perpetual and periodic inventory and explain the relation(s) between a physical inventory and the cost of goods sold. The darkly gray head ahead of him gave off a scent of Brylcreem that was even now surely soaking and staining the little paper towel on the seat top. Sylvanshine wished again that Reynolds was with him on the flight. Sylvanshine and Reynolds were both aides to Systems icon Merrill Errol (‘Mel’) Lehrl although Reynolds was a GS-11 and Sylvanshine only a miserable and pathetic GS-9. Sylvanshine and Reynolds had lived together and gone everywhere together since the Rome REC debacle in ’82. They weren’t homosexual; they just lived together and both worked closely with Dr. Lehrl at Systems. Reynolds had both his CPA and a degree in Information Systems Management although he was only slightly more than two years Claude Sylvanshine’s senior. This asymmetry was just one more thing that compromised Sylvanshine’s self-regard since Rome and made him doubly loyal and grateful to Systems Director Lehrl for having salvaged him from the debris of the catastrophe in Rome and believing in his potential once his niche as a cog in the system was found. The double-entry method invented by Italian Pacioli during the same period as C. Columbus et alia. The card indicated that this was the type of aircraft whose emergency oxygen was a fire-extinguisherish thing beneath the seats rather than dropping from overhead. The primitive opacity of the figures’ faces was actually scarier than fear or some kind of visible expression would have been. It was unclear whether the card’s primary function was legal or PR or both. He briefly tried to remember the definition of yaw. Every so often while studying for the exam this winter Sylvanshine would burp and it would seem like more than a burp; it would taste like he’d almost thrown up a little. A light rain made a moving lace on the window and distended the crosshatched land they went over. At root, Sylvanshine saw himself as a dithering ninny with at most one marginal talent whose connection to him was itself marginal.
Here is what occurred at the Service’s Rome NY Northeast Regional Examination Center on or about the date in question: Two departments had fallen behind and reacted in a regrettably unprofessional fashion, an atmosphere of extreme stress was allowed to cloud judgment and overrule set procedures, the department attempting to hide the growing pile of returns and cross-audit receipts and W-2/1099 copies rather than duly reporting the backlog and requesting that some of the excess be rerouted to other centers. There failed to be full disclosure and prompt remedial action. Just where the failure and breakdown had occurred was still a matter of controversy despite blamestorming sessions at the very highest levels of Compliance, though ultimately the responsibility lay with the Rome REC Director despite the fact that it was never quite established whether the department heads had made her fully aware of the extent of the backlog. The dark Service joke about this Director now had been that her desk had had a Trumanesque wooden plaque on it which read: WHAT BUCK? It had taken three weeks for District Audit sections to start howling over the shortfall of examined returns for audit and/or Automated Collections Systems and the complaints had slowly worked their way up and over into Inspections as anyone should have been able to figure was only a matter of time. The Rome Director had taken early retirement and one Group Manager had been fired outright, which was exceedingly rare for GS-13s. It was obviously important that remedial action be quiet and that undue publicity not compromise the public’s full faith and confidence in the Service. No one threw forms away. Hid, yes, but not destroyed or discarded. Even in the midst of disastrous departmental psychosis no one could bring himself to burn, shred, or pack in Hefties and discard. That would have been a real disaster—that would have become public. The emergency hatch’s window was nothing more than several layers of plastic, it appeared, the inside of which gave ominously under digital pressure. Over the window was a stern injunction against opening the emergency hatch accompanied by an iconic triptych explaining how to open just this hatch. As a system, in other words, it was poorly thought through. What was now called stress used to be called tension or pressure. Pressure was now more like something you put on someone else, as in high-pressure salesmen. Reynolds said one of Dr. Lehrl’s interbranch liaisons had described the Peoria REC as a ‘real pressure cooker,’ although that was in terms of Exams, not Personnel, to which latter Sylvanshine was posted as advance and ground-laying for a possible Systems full-out. The truth, which Reynolds had stopped just short of expressing as such, was that the assignment couldn’t be that sensitive if they trusted it to Sylvanshine. There were, according to his researches, registration slots for the CPA examination at Peoria College of Business on November 7 and 8, and at Joliet Community College November 14–15. Duration of this posting unknown. One of the most effective isometric exercises for the deskbound is to sit up quite straight and tighten the large muscles of the buttocks, holding for a count of eight, then release. It tones, aids blood flow and alertness, and can, unlike other isometric exercises, be performed even in public, being largely obscured by the desk’s material mass. Avoid grimacing or loud exhalations upon release. Preferential transfers, liquidation provisions, unsecured creditors, claims against bankruptcy estate as per Ch. 7. He had his hat in his lap, over the belt. Systems Director Lehrl had started as a GS-9 auditor in Danville VA before the éclat and rapid rise. He had the strength of ten men. When Sylvanshine studied for the exam now the worst thing was that studying any one thing would set off a storm in his head about all the other things he hadn’t studied and felt he was still weak on, making it almost impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind. He’d been studying for the CPA exam for three and a half years. It was like trying to build a model in a high wind. ‘The most important component in organizing a structure for effective study is:’ something. What killed him were the story problems. Reynolds had passed the exam on his first sit. Yaw was rotating slightly from side to side. The word for pitching forward and back was something else. Axes were involved. There was something called gimble or ‘gimbal’ that came into his mind whenever he saw the Donagan kid at Lombard High who then later ended up at Mission Control for the last two Apollos and had his picture in a glass case by the Office at Lombard. The worst then was that he knew what teachers were the last people suited for their jobs, and they then smelled some part of this knowledge on him and were at their worst when he was watching. It was a loop. Sylvanshine’s senior yearbook in his trunk in storage in Philly was almost wholly unsigned. The older party next door was still trying to open her package of nuts with her teeth but had been clear on not wanting help or needing help. The projected benefit obligation (PBO) equals the present value of all benefits attributed by the pension benefit formula to employee services rendered prior to that date. If you spell it fast with stress on the h and the a and then the second a and the h again then headache becomes a lilting children’s rhymed refrain, something to jump rope to. Look down your shirt and spell attic. One of the teenagers outside the video arcade next to the facilities at Midway had worn a black tee shirt with the words SYMPATHY FOR NIXON TOUR and then a long list of cities in tiny appliqué letters. The teen, who was not on the flight, had then sat briefly across from Sylvanshine in the gate area and had picked at his face with a concentration that wasn’t at all like the absent face-picking and feeling at parts of the face that accompanied concentrated work in the Service. Sylvanshine still dreamed of desk drawers and air ducts stuffed with forms and forms’ edges protruding from grilles over the ducts and the utility closet stacked to the top with Hollerith cards and the Inspections Division lady forcing the door and the cards all falling out on her like McGee’s closet as the whole debacle caught up to them after they fell behind on cross-audit receipts at the Rome REC. He dreamed still of Grecula and Harris disabling the Fornix mainframe with something poured from a thermos into the rear vent as hisses and bits of blue-tinged smoke issued. The teen had had no vocational aura at all; this happened with some people. Ethical standards comprising the exam’s whole first unit, about which there were also many Service jokes. A violation of the profession’s ethical standards most likely would have occurred when: Such was the propellers’ otherworldly sound that Sylvanshine now could hear nothing more than drifting syllables of the exchanges around him. The woman’s claw on the steel armrest between them was a horrible sight that he declined to attend to. Old people’s hands frightened and repelled him. He’d had grandparents whose hands he could remember in their laps looking alien and clawlike. Upon incorporation, Jones, Inc. issues common stock at a price in excess of its par value. It was difficult not to imagine the faces of those whose jobs were writing these questions. What they thought about, what their professional hopes and dreams were. Many of the questions were like little stories with all the human meat left out. On December 1, 1982, Clark Co. leases office space for three years at a monthly rental of $20,000. For a count of one hundred, Sylvanshine tried flexing first one buttock and then the other instead of both buttocks at once, which required concentration and a strange type of noncontrol, like trying to wiggle your ears in the mirror. He tried the inclined-to-the-side thing of stretching out his neck’s muscles on each side very gently and gradually but still got a look from the older lady, who with her dark dress and staved-in face appeared more and more skull-like and frightening and like some type of omen of death or crushing failure on the CPA exam, which two things had collapsed in Sylvanshine’s psyche to a single image of his silently, expressionlessly pushing a wide industrial mop down a corridor lined with frosted-glass doors bearing other men’s names. Even the sight of a mop, rollable bucket, or custodian with his name woven in red Palmer script on the breast pocket of his gray jumpsuit (as at Midway, outside the men’s room whose little yellow sign warned bilingually of wet floors, the cursive name something beginning with M, Morris or Maurice, the man fitted to his job like a man to the exact pocket of space he displaces) now rattled Sylvanshine to the point where precious time was lost before he could even think about how to set up a workable schedule for maximally efficient reviewing for the exam, even mentally, which he did every day. His great weakness was strategic organization and apportionment of time, as Reynolds pointed out at every opportunity, enjoining Claude to for Christ’s sake just take a book off the stack and study instead of sitting there noodling impotently about how best to study. Stuffing returns behind cabinets and into air ducts. Locking desk drawers so filled with cross-reference forms that they could not open anyhow. Hiding things beneath other things in Tingles’ baskets. Reynolds had simply appeared at the Director’s office before the hearing and the whole personal disaster seemingly vanished in some bureaucratic puff of violet smoke and a week later Sylvanshine was unpacking his boxes at Systems in Martinsburg under Dr. Lehrl. The whole thing felt like being in a near traffic fatality avoided by inches and later not being able even to think of the whole thing lest you begin shaking and be unable to function, it had been such a near-disaster. The entire Fats Pod had melted down. The small sound of a simulated bell accompanied the overhead glyph of seat belts and cigarettes lighting up or disappearing; Sylvanshine looked up every time without consciously intending to. In obtaining evidential matter in support of financial statement assertions, the auditor develops specific audit objectives in light of those assertions. An infant keened in some aisle behind him; Sylvanshine imagined the mother simply unbuckling and withdrawing to some other aisle and leaving it there. In Philly, after the frenzy surrounding the introduction of inflation indexes that new templates had to be configured for in ’81, he had been diagnosed with a stress-related pinched nerve in his neck and upper back which the enforced unnatural posture of the tiny narrow 8-B and the deathlike claw on the armrest beside him aggravated if he gave it his attention. It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not. Sylvanshine viewed himself as weak or defective in the area of will. Most of what others esteemed or valued in him was unwilled, simply given, like a person’s height or facial symmetry. Reynolds called him weak-minded and it was true. He had a serial memory of their neighbor Mr. Satterthwaite filling in scuffs on his postal uniform’s shoes with a black pen which then before he was aware of it expanded into a whole narrative memory of Mr. and Mrs. Satterthwaite, who were childless and did not if you first met them appear all that friendly or interested in children, nevertheless allowing their backyard to become the de facto HQ for all the children in the neighborhood and even the slapdash and unsound tree house they had allowed Sylvanshine and the Roman Catholic boy with the tic like a chronic wince to try to construct in one of their trees, and Sylvanshine could not recall whether it was because the boy’s family had moved away that the tree house was not completed or whether the move had taken place later and the tree house had simply been too slapdash and sap-soaked to continue with. Mrs. Satterthwaite had had lupus and was often indisposed. Deviation rates, precision limits, stratified sampling. As Dr. Lehrl had explained it, entropy was a measure of a certain type of information that there was no point in knowing. Lehrl’s axiom was that the definitive test of the efficiency of any organization structure was information and the filtering and dissemination of information. Real entropy had zippo to do with temperature. Another effective concentration device was to summon into one’s mind a soothing and low-pressure outdoor scene, either imagined or from memory, which was even more effective if the scene comprised or included a pond lake brook or stream, as water had been proven to have a calming and centering effect on the involuntary nervous system, but try as he might after the buttock exercises Sylvanshine could summon only a jagged primary-color array that looked like a psychedelic poster or something resembling what you see if you’re poked in the eye and then close your eye in pain. The oddness of the word indisposed. Prove that the relation of long-term bond prices to long-term capital gains tax rates is not inverse. He knew who on the plane was in love, who would say they were in love because it was what you were supposed to say, and who would say they were not in love. Reynolds’s own professed take on marriage/family was that from boyhood on he had never liked fathers and had no wish to be one. In three separate venues in today’s various airports Sylvanshine had found himself locking eyes with thirty-year-old men who had infants in high-tech papooselike packs on their backs, their wives with quilted infant-supply bags at their sides, the wives in charge, the men appearing essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers. Reynolds would call it not stoicism but acquiescence to some large and terrible truth. The term dependent includes any person who qualifies as a dependency exemption, or would otherwise qualify as a dependency exemption except that the gross income and joint return tests are not met. Name two standard devices by which fiduciaries may legally shift tax liability to beneficiaries. The term passive losses was not even on the CPA exam. It was vital to divide Service priorities and Exam priorities into two exclusive modules or networks. One of four stated projects was to enhance Peoria 047’s ability to distinguish legitimate investment partnerships from tax shelters whose entire purpose was to avoid taxes. The key was identifying passive vs. active losses. The actual project was to create both a case and a control structure for the automation of crucial Examination functions at the Peoria Center. The goal was to have automation in place by the time Revenue Rulings against certain passive-loss provisions were codified in next year’s tax law. The older lady’s rouge very red and a paperback with a bookmark’s tongue unopened in her lap; the veinous and piebald claw. Sylvanshine’s seat number was right there stamped onto the brushed steel of the armrest, next to the claw. Its nails were deeply, perfectly red. The smell of his mother’s polish remover, of her makeup compact, the way wisps of her hair escaped the bun and curled down the back of her neck in the steam of the kitchen when he and O’Dowd had returned from the Satterthwaites’ backyard with hammered thumbs and sap in their lashes. Wisps and flashes of uncolored cloud flashed past the window. Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all. It just got really foggy. Yaw was way in a mirror, it occurred for no reason. Sylvanshine then spent some time trying to feel the fact that his personal body was traveling at the same speed as the craft he was inside. On a large jet it felt like merely sitting in a loud narrow room; here at least the changes in the seat’s and belt’s pressures against him allowed him to be aware of movement, and there seemed to be some security in the physical candor of this, which partly offset the fragility and spatter-potential of the sound of the propellers, which Sylvanshine tried to think of what the props sounded like but could not except as a gnawingly hypnotic rotary hum so total that it might have been silence itself. A lobotomy involved some kind of rod or probe inserted through the eyesocket, the term was always ‘frontal’ lobotomy; but was there any other kind? Knowing that internal stress could cause failure on the exam merely set up internal stress about the prospect of internal stress. There must be some other way to deal with the knowledge of the disastrous consequences fear and stress could bring about. Some answer or trick of the will: the ability not to think about it. What if everyone knew this trick but Claude Sylvanshine? He tended to conceptualize some ultimate, platonic-level Terror as a bird of prey in whose mere aloft shadow the prey was stricken and paralyzed, trembling as the shadow enlarged and became inevitability. He frequently had this feeling: What if there was something essentially wrong with Claude Sylvanshine that wasn’t wrong with other people? What if he was simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs? The neurology of failure. What if he was simply born and destined to live in the shadow of Total Fear and Despair, and all his so-called activities were pathetic attempts to distract him from the inevitable? Discuss important differences between reserve accounting and charge-off accounting in the tax treatment of bad debts. Surely fear is a type of stress. Tedium is like stress but its own Category of Woe. Sylvanshine’s father, whenever something professionally bad happened—which was a lot—had a habit of saying ‘Woe to Sylvanshine.’ There is an anti-stress technique called Thought Stopping. The excess present value index is the ratio of the present value of future cash inflows to the initial investment. Segment, significant segment, combined segment revenue, absolute combined segment revenue, operating profit. Material price variance. Direct material price variance. He thought of the removable grate over the air duct above his and Ray Harris’s desk in the Rome REC and the sound of the grate being removed and then jammed back into place and driven home with the heel of Harris’s hand, and then recoiled from the thought in a way that made it feel as if the craft were accelerating. The interstate highway below disappeared and then sometimes reappeared at a spot Sylvanshine had to squash his cheek right up against the plastic inner window to see, then as the rain recommenced and he could tell they were beginning descent it reappeared in the window’s center, light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. Sylvanshine tried to envision the small plane as seen from the ground, a cruciform shape against the old-bathwater color of the cloud cover, its lights blinking complexly in the rain. He imagined rain on his face. It was light, a West Virginia rain; he hadn’t heard one unit of thunder. Sylvanshine had once been on a first date with a Xerox rep who had complex and slightly repulsive patterns of callus on her fingers from playing the banjo semi-professionally as her off-time passion; and he remembered, as the overhead bell again rang and the sign lit, the no-cigarette glyph legally redundant, the pads’ calluses deep yellow in the low dinnerlight as he’d spoken to the musician about forensic accounting’s intricacies and the hivelike organization of the Northeast REC, which was only one small part of the Service, and the Service’s history and little-understood ideals and sense of mission and the old joke (to him) about how Service employees in social situations would go to such absurd lengths to avoid telling people that they worked for the IRS because it often cast such a social pall because of popular perceptions of the Service and its employees, all the while watching the calluses as the woman worked her knife and fork, and that he’d been so nervous and tense that he’d yammered on and on about himself and never asked her sufficiently about herself, her history with the banjo and what it meant to her, which was why she hadn’t liked him enough and they hadn’t connected. He’d never given the woman with the banjo a chance, he saw now. That what appears to be egoism so often isn’t. In some ways, Sylvanshine was a whole different person now in Systems. Their descent was mainly a heightening of the specificity of what lay below—fields revealed as plowed and perpendicularly furrowed and silos as adjoined by canted chutes and belts and an industrial park as individual buildings with reflective windows and complicated clumps of cars in the parking lots. Each car not only parked by a different human individual but conceived, designed, assembled from parts each one of which was designed and made, transported, sold, financed, purchased, and insured by human individuals, each with life stories and self-concepts that all fit together into a larger pattern of facts. Reynolds’s dictum was that reality was a fact-pattern the bulk of which was entropic and random. The trick was homing in on which facts were important—Reynolds was a rifle to Sylvanshine’s shotgun. The feeling of a slight trickle of blood from his right nostril was a hallucination and to be ignored absolutely; the feeling simply did not exist. Sinus trouble ran in Sylvanshine’s family in the worst way. Aurelius of ancient Rome. First principles. Exemptions vs. deductions, for AGI vs. from AGI. A loss sustained from a nonbusiness bad debt is always classified as a short-term capital loss and may therefore be deducted on Schedule D as per the following IRC §: One building’s roof had what was either a marked helipad or a complicated visual signal to the planes descending overhead, and the pitch of the propellers’ doubled hum was different and his right sinus was even now ballooning redly in his skull and they really were descending, the term was controlled descent, the interstate now rococo with exits and half-cloverleafs and the traffic denser and with something insistent about it, and the claw rose from the steel armrest as there appeared a body of water below, a lake or delta, and Sylvanshine felt one of his feet was asleep as he tried to recall the peculiar crossed-arm configuration with which the figures on the card held their seat cushions to their chests in the unlikely event of a water landing, and now they did really and truly yaw and their speed became more evident in the rate of passage of things below in what had to be an older district of Peoria qua human city, close-packed blocks of sooty brick and angled roofs and a television antenna with a flag attached, and a flash of a bourbon-colored river that was not the previous body of water but might have been connected to it, nothing like the stately and befrothed stretch of Potomac that obtruded through Systems’ windows on Antietam’s hallowed site, noting that the stewardess in her fold-down seat had her head down and arms about her own legs where at year’s end the aggregate fair value of Brown’s salable securities exceeds the aggregate carrying amount at the beginning of the year as out of nowhere appeared an expanse of pale cement rising to meet them with no warning bell or announcement and his soda can wedged in the seat pocket as the gray death’s-head beside whipped right and left and the propellers’ shimmering sound shifted either pitch or timbre, and the older lady stiffening in her seat and raising her pleated chin in fear and repeating what sounded to Sylvanshine like the word chump as veins stood bluely in the fist before her, in which was enclosed the crushed and bulbous but still unopened foil pack of off-brand nuts.
‘The fifth effect has more to do with you, how you’re perceived. It’s powerful although its use is more restricted. Pay attention, boy. The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what’s wrong, and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you’re off, they’ll think you’re perceptive and understanding. They’ll either be grateful, or they’ll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we’ll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.’
And stood—having squeezed by the powdery older lady, she being the type that waits in her seat until all others have deplaned and then exits alone, with a counterfeit dignity—holding his effects in an aisle whose crammed front portion was all regional business travelers, men of business, willfully homely midwestern men on downstate sales calls or returning from the Chicago HQs of companies whose names end with ‘-co,’ men for whom landings like this yaw-wobbled horror just past are business as usual. Paunched and blotchy men in double-knit brown suits and tan suits with attaché cases ordered from in-flight catalogues. Men whose soft faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing. Men who instruct pocket recorders to take a memo, men who look at their watches out of reflex, men with red foreheads all mashed standing in a metal chute as the props’ hum descends the tonal scale and ventilation ceases, this the type of commuter airplane whose stairs must be rolled up alongside before the door opens, for legal reasons. The glazed impatience of businessmen standing closer to strangers than they would ever choose to, chests and backs nearly touching, suit bags slung over shoulders, briefcases knocking together, more scalp than hair, breathing one another’s smells. Men who cannot bear to wait or stand still forced to stand still all together and wait, men with calfskin Day-Timers and Franklin Quest Time Management certificates and the classic look of unwilled tight confinement, the look of a local merchant on the verge of an SSI-withholding lapse, undercapitalized, illiquid, trying to cover the monthly nut, fish thrashing in the nets of their own obligations. Two eventual suicides on this plane, one forever classed as an accident. In Philly there had been a whole subgroup of implacable metal-minded GS-9s tasked to nothing but going after small businesses who’d fallen behind on SSI withholding, although in Rome for almost a year the only Compliance staff taking SSI alerts from Martinsburg had been Eloise Prout, a.k.a. Dr. Yes, a fortyish GS-9 in a macramé hat who ate lunch at her desk out of a complex system of Tupperware containers and was a dinner whore of the most pathetic sort, the boys in Examinations christening her Dr. Yes after she’d reportedly slept with Sherman Garnett on nothing but the promise—not honored—of a walk around the town commons with the snow stopped and everything crisp and white. The Eloise Prout who came in so low every month on referral and recovery quotas that any other GS-9 would have worn the brown helmet but dim kindly REC Mr. Orkney had kept her on, Prout apparently a car-crash widow with a GS-9 salary that barely bought cat food, Sylvanshine was well aware, his foot pulsing with new blood and excusing himself each time someone bumped his carry-on, his third post in four years and still a GS-9 with a promise of 11 if he passed the CPA exam this spring and acquitted himself well in this post as Systems’ eyes on the ground through the March 15 corporate and then April 15 storms of 1040s and ESTs for Peoria 047 to examine, having sat for the exam twice so far and so far passing only Managerial with a Low Pass, Sylvanshine’s rep in Philly following him to Rome and locking him firmly into Level 1 Returns, not even Fats or Review, which had made him little more than a professional letter-opener, which Soane, Madrid, et al. had not been shy about observing.
Sylvanshine tended to do his deskwork in a kind of frenzy as opposed to the slow, austere, methodical disposition of truly great accountants, his first group supervisor in Rome had told him, a lifetime third-shifter who wore an eccentric coat and always left the REC carrying a little rhomboid carton of delivered Chinese for his wife, who was said to be some kind of shut-in. This GS-11 had early in his career been posted at the St. Louis Service Center, literally in the shadow of the strange scary giant metal arch thing, to which mail came daily in great wheezing eighteen-wheel trailer rigs backing up to the dock’s long conveyor, and on breaks in the break room the group leader had liked to lean back holding his umbrella and blow silvery clouds of cigar smoke up at the fluorescent lights and reminisce about summer in the Midwest, of which region Sylvanshine and the other young eastern GS-9s were ignorant and in whom the group leader somehow planted visions of fishing barefoot on the banks of motionless rivers and a moon you could read the paper by and everyone always saying Hi to everyone else every time they saw them and moving in a kind of cheery slo-mo. Named Bussy, Mr. Vince or Vincent Bussy, who wore a Kmart parka with a hood with a fake fur fringe, and could walk chopsticks over his knuckles like a magician with a shiny coin, and disappeared following Sylvanshine’s second REC Christmas party, when his wife (i.e., Mrs. Bussy) had suddenly appeared in the midst of the revel in an off-white nightie and identical unzipped Kmart parka and approached the Assistant Regional Commissioner for Examinations and, speaking slowly and atonally and with total conviction, told him that her husband Mr. Bussy had said that he (the ARCE) had the potential to be a really truly evil person if he grew a somewhat larger set of balls, Bussy one week thereafter gone so abruptly that his umbrella remained hanging from the Pod’s communal coatrack for almost a quarter until someone finally took it down.
They deplaned and descended and collected the carry-on bags that had been confiscated and tagged at Midway and now rested in a motley row on the wet tarmac beside the airplane, and stood then briefly en masse on a complexly painted cement expanse while someone with orange earmuffs and clipboard counted them and then crosschecked the count with a previous count undertaken at Midway. The whole operation seemed somewhat ad hoc and slapdash. On the steep and portable staircase, Sylvanshine had derived the usual satisfaction from putting his hat on his head and adjusting its angle all with one hand. His right ear popped and crackled slightly with each swallow. The wind was warm and steamy. A large hose extended from a small truck to the commuter plane’s stomach and appeared to be refueling the craft for its turnaround to Chicago. Up and back again and again all day. There was a strong scent of fuel and wet cement. The older lady, evidently uncounted, now descended the frightening stairs and went to some type of long automobile that Sylvanshine had not noticed parked off the airplane’s starboard side. A wing obtruded, but Sylvanshine could see that she did not open her own door. A distant tree line’s tops bent left in the wind and came straight again. Because of previous problems with accidents traceable to poor snap decisions in Philly, Sylvanshine no longer drove. He was over 75 percent certain that the packet of nuts was now inside the older lady’s handbag. There was some type of consultation between the employee with the clipboard and another person with orange earmuffs. Several of the other passengers were making pointed gestures of looking at their watches. The air was warm and close and well beyond humid or muggy. They were all becoming damp on the sides of themselves that faced the wind. Sylvanshine now noticed that the dark topcoats many of the businessmen wore were quite similar, as were the flares of the upturned collars. No one else wore any type of hat. He was trying to pay close attention to his surroundings as a way to avert thought and anxiety. The administrative or logistical delay was occurring under a baggy sky and a rain so fine it seemed to come sideways with the wind instead of fall. There was no sound of rain on Sylvanshine’s hat. The fur of Mr. Bussy’s hood’s fringe had been dirty in a sort of queasy way that got worse over the two years he served as Sylvanshine’s group supervisor in Returns Processing. Some of the more assertive passengers were walking unguided down the red-lined path that led through the fence’s gate and toward the terminal. Sylvanshine, who had checked bags, was concerned about sanctions for unauthorized departure from the tarmac. On the other hand, he had an assigned schedule to keep. Part of what kept him standing in the restive group of men awaiting authorization to enter the airport was a kind of paralysis that resulted from Sylvanshine’s reflecting on the logistics of getting to the Peoria 047 REC—the issue of whether the REC sent a van for transfers or whether Sylvanshine would have to take a cab from the little airport had not been conclusively resolved—and then how to arrive and check in and where to store his three bags while he checked in and filled out his arrival and Post-code payroll and withholding forms and orientational materials then somehow get directions and proceed to the apartment that Systems had rented for him at government rates and get there in time to find someplace to eat that was either in walking distance or would require getting another cab—except the telephone in the alleged apartment wasn’t connected yet and he considered the prospects of being able to hail a cab from outside an apartment complex were at best iffy, and if he told the original cab he’d taken to the apartment to wait for him, there would be difficulties because how exactly would he reassure the cabbie that he really was coming right back out after dropping his bags and doing a quick spot check of the apartment’s condition and suitability instead of it being a ruse designed to defraud the driver of his fare, Sylvanshine ducking out the back of the Angler’s Cove apartment complex or even conceivably barricading himself in the apartment and not responding to the driver’s knock, or his ring if the apartment had a doorbell, which his and Reynolds’s current apartment in Martinsburg most assuredly did not, or the driver’s queries/threats through the apartment door, a scam that resided in Claude Sylvanshine’s awareness only because a number of independent Philadelphia commercial carriage operators had proposed heavy Schedule C losses under the proviso ‘Losses Through Theft of Service’ and detailed this type of scam as prevalent on the poorly typed or sometimes even handwritten attachments required to explain unusual or specific C-deductions like this, whereas were Sylvanshine to pay the fare and the tip and perhaps even a certain amount in advance on account so as to help assure the driver of his honorable intentions re the second leg of the sojourn there was no tangible guarantee that the average taxi driver—a cynical and ethically marginal species, hustlers, as even their smudged returns’ very low tip-income-vs.-number-of-fares-in-an-average-shift ratios in Philly had indicated—wouldn’t simply speed away with Sylvanshine’s money, creating enormous hassles in terms of filling out the internal forms for getting a percentage of his travel per diem reimbursed and also leaving Sylvanshine alone, famished (he was unable to eat before travel), phoneless, devoid of Reynolds’s counsel and logistical savvy in the sterile new unfurnished apartment, his stomach roiling in on itself in such a way that it would be all Sylvanshine could do to unpack in any kind of half-organized fashion and get to sleep on the nylon travel pallet on the unfinished floor in the possible presence of exotic Midwest bugs, to say nothing of putting in the hour of CPA exam review he’d promised himself this morning when he’d overslept slightly and then encountered last-minute packing problems that had canceled out the firmly scheduled hour of morning CPA review before one of the unmarked Systems vans arrived to take him and his bags out through Harpers Ferry and Ball’s Bluff to the airport, to say even less about any kind of systematic organization and mastery of the voluminous Post, Duty, Personnel, and Systems Protocols materials he should be receiving promptly after check-in and forms processing at the Post, which any reasonable Personnel Director would expect a new examiner to have thoroughly internalized before reporting for the first actual day interacting with REC examiners, and which there was no way in any real world that Sylvanshine could expect himself to try to review and internalize on either a sixteen-hour fast or after a night on the pallet with his damp raincoat as a pillow—he had been unable to pack the special contoured orthotic pillow for his neck’s chronic pinched or inflamed nerve; it would have required its own suitcase and thereby exceeded the baggage limit and incurred an exorbitant surcharge which Reynolds refused to let Sylvanshine pay out of simple principle—with the additional problem of securing any sort of substantive breakfast or return ride to the REC in the morning without a phone, or how without a phone one was supposed even to verify whether and when the apartment phone was going to be activated, plus of course the ominous probability of oversleeping the next morning due to both travel fatigue and his not having packed his traveler’s alarm clock—or at any rate not having been certain that he’d packed it instead of allowing it to go into one of the three large cartons that he had packed and labeled but done a hasty, slipshod job of writing out Contents Lists for the boxes to refer to when unpacking them in Peoria, and which Reynolds had pledged to insert into the Service’s Support Branch shipping mechanism at roughly the same time Sylvanshine’s flight was scheduled to depart from Dulles, which meant two or possibly even three days before the cartons with all the essentials Sylvanshine had not been able to fit in his bags arrived, and even then they would arrive at the REC and it was as yet unclear how Claude would then get them home to the apartment—the realization about the traveler’s alarm having been the chief cause of Sylvanshine’s having to unlock and open all the carefully packed luggage that morning on arising already half an hour late, to try to locate or verify the inclusion of the portable alarm, which he had failed to do—the whole thing presenting such a cyclone of logistical problems and complexities that Sylvanshine was forced to do some Thought Stopping right there on the wet tarmac surrounded by restive breathers, turning 360° several times and trying to merge his own awareness with the panoramic vista, which except for airport-related items was uniformly featureless and old-coin gray and so remarkably flat that it was as if the earth here had been stamped on with some cosmic boot, visibility in all directions limited only by the horizon, which was the same general color and texture as the sky and created the specular impression of being in the center of some huge and stagnant body of water, an oceanic impression so literally obliterating that Sylvanshine was cast or propelled back in on himself and felt again the edge of the shadow of the wing of Total Terror and Disqualification pass over him, the knowledge of his being surely and direly ill-suited for whatever lay ahead, and of its being only a matter of time before this fact emerged and was made manifest to all those present in the moment that Sylvanshine finally, and forever, lost it.
‘Speaking of which, what do you think of when you masturbate?’
Neither had said a word for the first half hour. They were doing the mindless monochrome drive up to Region HQ in Joliet again. In one of the fleet’s Gremlins, seized as part of a jeopardy assessment against an AMC dealership five quarters past.
‘Look, I think we can presume you masturbate. Something like 98 percent of all men masturbate. It’s documented. Most of the other 2 percent are impaired in some way. We can forgo the denials. I masturbate; you masturbate. It happens. We all do it and we all know we all do it and yet no one ever discusses it. It’s an incredibly boring drive, there’s nothing to do, we’re stuck in this embarrassing car—let’s push the envelope. Let’s discuss it.’
‘Just what do you think of? Think about it. It’s a very interior time. It’s one of life’s only occasions of real self-sufficiency. It requires nothing outside you. It’s bringing yourself pleasure with nothing but your own mind’s thoughts. Those thoughts reveal a lot about you: what you dream of when you yourself choose and control what you dream.’
‘You asked me. I’m telling you.’
‘That’s it? Tits?’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Just tits? In isolation from anybody? Just abstract tits?’
‘All right. Fuck off.’
‘You mean just floating there, two tits, in empty space? Or nestled in your hands, or what? Is it always the same tits?’
‘This is me learning a lesson. You ask a question like that and I go what the hell and I answer it and you run a DIF-3 on the answer.’
‘So what do you think about, then, Mr. Envelope Guy?’
From the Peoria Journal Star, Monday, November 17, 1980, p. C-2:
IRS WORKER DEAD FOR FOUR DAYS
Supervisors at the IRS’s regional complex in Lake James township are trying to determine why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right.
Frederick Blumquist, 53, who had been employed as a tax return examiner with the agency for over thirty years, suffered a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with twenty-five coworkers at the agency’s Regional Examination Center on Self-Storage Parkway. He quietly passed away last Tuesday at his desk, but nobody noticed until late Saturday evening when an office cleaner asked how the examiner could still be working in an office with all the lights off.
Mr. Blumquist’s supervisor, Scott Thomas, said, ‘Frederick was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night. He was very focused and diligent, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn’t say anything. He was always absorbed in his work, and kept to himself.’
A postmortem examination by the Tazewell County Coroner’s Office yesterday revealed that Blumquist had been dead for four days after suffering from a coronary. Ironically, according to Thomas, Blumquist was part of a special task force of IRS agents examining the tax affairs of medical partnerships in the area when he died.
It is this boy who dons the bright-orange bandolier and shepherds the lower grades’ kids through the crosswalk outside school. This is after finishing his Meals on Wheels breakfast tour of the charity home for the aged downtown, whose administrator lunges to bolt her office door when she hears his cart’s wheels in the hall. He has paid out of pocket for the steel whistle and the white gloves held palm-out at cars while children who did not dress themselves cross behind him, some trying to run despite WALK, DON’T RUN!!, the happy-face sandwich board he also made himself. The autos whose drivers he knows he waves at and gives an extra-big smile and tosses some words of good cheer as the crosswalk clears and the cars peel out and barrel through, some joshing around a little by swerving to miss him only by inches as he laughs and dances aside and makes faces of pretended terror at the flanks and rear bumpers. (The time that one station wagon didn’t miss him really was an accident, and he sent the lady several notes to make absolutely sure she knew he understood that, and asked a whole lot of people he hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to make friends with to sign his cast, and decorated the crutches very carefully with bits of colored ribbon and tinsel and adhesive sparkles, and even before the minimum six weeks the doctor sternly prescribed he’d donated the crutches to Calvin Memorial’s pediatrics wing in order to brighten up some other less lucky and happy kid’s convalescence, and by the end of the whole thing he’d been inspired to write a very long theme to enter in the annual Social Studies Theme Competition about how even a painful and debilitating accidental injury can yield new opportunities for making friends and reaching out to others, and while the theme didn’t win or even get honorable mention he honestly didn’t care, because he felt like writing the theme had been its own reward and that he’d gotten a lot out of the whole nine-draft process, and was honestly happy for the kids whose themes did win prizes, and told them he was 100-plus percent sure they deserved it and that if they wanted to preserve their prize themes and maybe even make display items out of them for their parents he’d be happy to type them up and laminate them and even fix any spelling errors he found if they’d like him to, and at home his father puts his hand on little Leonard’s shoulder and says he’s proud that his son’s such a good sport, and offers to take him to Dairy Queen as a kind of reward, and Leonard tells his father he’s grateful and that the gesture means a lot to him but that in all honesty he’d like it even more if they took the money his father would have spent on the ice cream and instead donated it either to Easter Seals or, better yet, to UNICEF, to go toward the needs of famine-ravaged Biafran kids who he knows for a fact have probably never even heard of ice cream, and says that he bets it’ll end up giving both of them a better feeling even than the DQ would, and as the father slips the coins in the coin slot of the special bright-orange UNICEF volunteer cardboard pumpkin-bank, Leonard takes a moment to express concern about the father’s facial tic again and to gently rib him about his reluctance to go in and have the family’s MD look at it, noting again that according to the chart on the back of his bedroom door the father is three months overdue for his annual physical and that it’s almost eight months past the date of his recommended tetanus booster.)
He serves as hall monitor for Periods 1 and 2 (he’s half a grade ahead on credits) but gives far more official warnings than actual citations—he’s there to serve, he feels, not run people down. Usually with the warnings he dispenses a smile and tells them you’re young exactly once so enjoy it, and to go get out of here and make this day count why don’t they. He does UNICEF and Easter Seals and starts a recycling program in three straight grades. He is healthy and scrubbed and always groomed just well enough to project basic courtesy and respect for the community of which he is a part, and he politely raises his hand in class for every question, but only if he’s sure he knows not only the correct answer but the formulation of that answer that the teacher’s looking for that will help advance the discussion of the overall topic they’re covering that day, often staying after class to double-check with the teacher that his take on her general objectives is sound and to ask whether there was any way his in-class answers could have been better or more helpful.
The boy’s mom has a terrible accident while cleaning the oven and is rushed to the hospital, and even though he’s beside himself with concern and says constant prayers for her stabilization and recovery he volunteers to stay home and field calls and relay information to an alphabetized list of relatives and concerned family friends, and to make sure the mail and newspaper are brought in, and to keep the home’s lights turned on and off in a random sequence at night as Officer Chuck of the Michigan State Police’s Crime Stoppers public-school outreach program sensibly advises when grown-ups are suddenly called away from home, and also to call the gas company’s emergency number (which he has memorized) to have them come check on what may well be a defective valve or circuit in the oven before anyone else in the family is exposed to risk of accidental harm, and also (secretly) to work on an immense display of bunting and pennants and WELCOME HOME and WORLD’S GREATEST MOM signs which he plans to use the garage’s extendable ladder (with a responsible neighborhood adult holding it and supervising) to very carefully affix to the front of the home with water-soluble glue so that it’ll be there to greet and cheer the mom when she’s released from Critical Care with a totally clean bill of health, which Leonard calls his father repeatedly at the Critical Care ward pay phone to assure him that he has absolutely no doubt of, the totally clean bill of health, calling hourly right on the dot until there’s some kind of mechanical problem with the pay phone and when he dials it he just gets a high tone, which he duly reports to the telephone company’s special 1-616-TROUBLE line, remembering to include the specific pay phone’s eight-digit Field Product Code (which he’d written down all of just in case) as the small-print technical material on the 1-616-TROUBLE line at the very back of the phone book recommends for most rapid and efficient service.
He can produce several different kinds of calligraphy and has been to origami camp (twice) and can do extraordinary freehand sketches of local flora and can whistle all six of Telemann’s Nouveaux Quatuors as well as imitate just about any birdcall that Audubon could ever have thought of. He sometimes writes academic publishers about possible errors of category and/or syntax in their textbooks. Let’s not even mention spelling bees. He can make over twenty different kinds of admiral, cowboy, clerical, and multiethnic hats out of ordinary newspaper, and he volunteers to visit the school’s K–2 classrooms teaching the little kids how, an offer the Carl P. Robinson Elementary principal says he appreciates and has considered very carefully before declining. The principal loathes the mere sight of the boy but does not quite know why. He sees the boy in his sleep, at nightmares’ ragged edges—the pressed checked shirt and hair’s hard little part, the freckles and ready generous smile: anything he can do. The principal fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Stecyk’s bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy facedown behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rough new streets of suburban Grand Rapids. The fantasies come out of nowhere and horrify the principal, who is a devout Mennonite.
Everyone hates the boy. It is a complex hatred, one that often causes the haters to feel mean and guilty and to hate themselves for feeling this way about such an accomplished and well-meaning boy, which then tends to make them involuntarily hate the boy even more for arousing such self-hatred. The whole thing is totally confusing and upsetting. People take a lot of aspirin when he’s around. The boy’s only real friends among kids are the damaged, the handicapped, the fat, the last-picked, the non grata—he seeks them out. All 316 invitations to his eleventh-birthday BLOWOUT BASH—322 invitations if you count the ones made on audiotape for the blind—are offset-printed on quality vellum with matching high-rag envelopes addressed in ornate Phillippian II calligraphy he’s spent three weekends on, and each invitation details in Roman-numeraled outline form the itinerary’s half-day at Six Flags, private PhD-guided tour of the Blanford Nature Center, and Reserved Banquet Area w/ Free Play at Shakee’s Pizza and Indoor Arcade on Remembrance Drive (the whole day gratis and paid for out of the Paper and Aluminum Drives the boy got up at 4:00 A.M. all summer to organize and spearhead, the balance of the Drives’ receipts going to the Red Cross and the parents of a Kentwood third-grader with terminal spina bifida who dreams above all else of seeing the Lions’ Night Train Lane play live from his motorized wheelchair), and the invitations explicitly call the party this—a BLOWOUT BASH—in balloon-shaped font as the caption to an illustrated explosion of good cheer and -will and no-holds-barred-let-out-all-the-stops FUN, with the bold-faced proviso PLEASE—NO PRESENTS REQUIRED in each of each card’s four corners; and the 316 invitations, sent via First-Class Mail to every student, instructor, substitute instructor, aide, administrator, and custodian at C. P. Robinson Elementary, yield a total attendance of nine celebrants (not counting parents or LPNs of the incapacitated), and yet an undauntedly fine time is had by all, and such is the consensus on the Honest Appraisal and Suggestion Cards (also vellum) circulated at party’s end, the massive remainders of chocolate cake, Neapolitan ice cream, pizza, chips, caramel corn, Hershey’s Kisses, Red Cross and Officer Chuck pamphlets on organ/tissue donation and the correct procedures to follow if approached by a stranger respectively, kosher pizza for the Orthodox, designer napkins, and dietetic soda in souvenir I Survived Leonard Stecyk’s 11th Birthday Blowout Bash 1964 plastic glasses w/ built-in lemniscate Krazy Straws the guests were to keep as mementos all donated to the Kent County Children’s Home via procedures and transport that the birthday boy has initiated even while the big Twister free-for-all is under way, out of concerns about melted ice cream and staleness and flatness and the waste of a chance to help the less fortunate; and his father, driving the wood-panel station wagon and steadying his cheek with one hand, avows again that the boy beside him has a large, good heart, and that he is proud, and that if the boy’s mother ever regains consciousness as they so very much hope, he knows she’ll be just awful proud as well.
The boy makes As and enough occasional Bs to keep himself from getting a swelled head about marks, and his teachers shudder at the sound of even just his name. In the fifth grade he undertakes a district collection to provide a Special Fund of nickels for anyone at lunch who’s already spent their milk money but still might for whatever reason want or feel they need more milk. The Jolly Holly Milk Company gets wind of it and puts a squib about the Fund and an automated line drawing of the boy on the side of some of their half-pint cartons. Two-thirds of the school ceases to drink milk, while the Special Fund itself grows so large that the principal has to requisition a small safe for his office. The principal is now taking Seconal to sleep and experiencing fine tremors, and on two separate occasions is cited for Failure to Yield at marked crosswalks.
A teacher in whose homeroom the boy suggests a charted reorganization of the coat hooks and boot boxes lining one wall so that the coat and galoshes of the student whose desk is nearest the door would themselves be nearest the door, and the second-nearest’s second-nearest, and so on, speeding the pupils’ egress to recess and reducing delays and possible quarrels and clots of half-bundled kids at the classroom door (which delays and clots the boy had taken the trouble this quarter to chart by statistical incidence, with relevant graphics and arrows but all names withheld), this tenured and highly respected veteran teacher ends up brandishing blunt scissors and threatening to kill first the boy and then herself, and is put on Medical Leave, during which she receives thrice-weekly Get Well cards, with neatly typed summaries of the class’s activities and progress in her absence sprinkled with glitter and folded in perfect diamond shapes that open with just a squeeze of the two long facets inside (i.e., inside the cards), until the teacher’s doctors order her mail to be withheld until improvement or at least stabilization in her condition warrants.
Right before 1965’s big Halloween UNICEF collection three sixth-graders accost the boy in the southeast restroom after fourth period and do unspeakable things to him, leaving him hanging from a stall’s hook by his underpants’ elastic; and after being treated and released from the hospital (a different one than his mother is a patient in the long-term convalescent ward of), the boy refuses to identify his assailants and later circumspectly delivers to them individualized notes detailing his renunciation of any and all hard feelings about the incident, apologizing for whatever unwitting offense he might have given to provoke it, exhorting his attackers to please put the whole thing behind them and not in any way self-recriminate over it—especially down the line, because the boy’s understanding was that these were the sorts of things that could sometimes really haunt you later on down the line in adulthood, citing one or two journal articles the attackers might have a look at if they wanted documentation on the long-term psychological effects of self-recrimination—and, in the notes, professing his personal hope that an actual friendship might conceivably result from the whole regrettable incident, along which lines he was also enclosing an invitation to attend a short no-questions-asked Conflict Resolution Roundtable the boy has persuaded a local community services outreach organization to sponsor after school the following Tuesday ‘(Light Refreshments Served!),’ after which the boy’s PE locker along with the four on either side are destroyed in an act of pyrotechnic vandalism that everyone on both sides in the subsequent court trial agrees got totally out of hand and was not a premeditated attempt to injure the night custodian or to do anything like the amount of structural damage to the Boys’ locker room it ended up doing, and at which trial Leonard Stecyk appeals repeatedly to both sides’ counsel for the opportunity to testify for the defense, if only as a character witness. A large percentage of the boy’s classmates hide—take actual evasive action—when they see him coming. Eventually even the marginal and infirm stop returning his calls. His mother has to be turned and her limbs manipulated twice a day.
They were up on a picnic table at that one park by the lake, by the edge of the lake with part of a downed tree in the shallows half hidden by the bank. Lane A. Dean Jr. and his girlfriend, both in blue jeans and button-up shirts. They sat up on the table’s top portion and had their shoes on the bench part that people sat on and picnicked in carefree times. They had gone to different high schools but the same junior college, where they had met in campus ministries. It was springtime, the park’s grass was very green and the air suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs both, which was almost too much. There were bees, and the angle of the sun made the water of the shallows look dark. There had been more storms that week, with some downed trees and the sound of chainsaws all up and down his parents’ street. Their postures on the picnic table were both the same forward kind with their shoulders rounded and elbows on their knees. In this position the girl rocked slightly and once put her face in her hands but she was not crying. Lane was very still and immobile and looking past the bank at the downed tree in the shallows and its ball of exposed roots going all directions and the tree’s cloud of branches all half in the water. The only other individual nearby was a dozen spaced tables away by himself, standing upright. Looking at the torn-up hole in the ground there where the tree had gone over. It was still early yet and all the shadows wheeling right and shortening. The girl wore a thin old checked cotton shirt with pearl-colored snaps with the long sleeves down and she always smelled very good and clean, like someone you could trust and deeply care about even if you weren’t in love. Lane Dean had liked the smell of her right away. His mother called her down to earth and liked her, thought she was good people, you could tell—she made this evident in little ways. The shallows lapped from different directions at the tree as if almost teething on it. Sometimes when alone and thinking or struggling to turn a matter over to Jesus Christ in prayer, he would find himself putting his fist in his palm and turning it slightly as if still playing and pounding his glove to stay sharp and alert in center. He did not do this now, it would be cruel and indecent to do this now. The older individual stood beside his picnic table, he was at it but not sitting, and looked also out of place in a suit coat or jacket and the kind of older men’s hat Lane’s grandfather wore in photos as a young insurance man. He appeared to be looking across the lake. If he moved, Lane didn’t see it. He looked more like a picture than a man. There were not any ducks in view.
One thing Lane Dean did was reassure her again that he’d go with her and be there with her. It was one of the few safe or decent things he could really say. The second time he said it again now she shook her head and laughed in an unhappy way that was more just air out her nose. Her real laugh was different. Where he’d be was the waiting room, she said. That he’d be thinking about her and feeling bad for her, she knew, but he couldn’t be in there with her. This was so obviously true that he felt like a ninny that he’d kept on about it and now knew what she had thought every time he went and said it; it hadn’t brought her comfort or eased the burden at all. The worse he felt, the stiller he sat. The whole thing felt balanced on a knife or wire; if he moved to put his arm up or touch her the whole thing could tip over. He hated himself for sitting so frozen. He could almost visualize himself tiptoeing through something explosive. A big stupid-looking tiptoe like in a cartoon. The whole last black week had been this way and it was wrong. He knew it was wrong, he knew something was required of him and knew it was not this terrible frozen care and caution, but he pretended to himself he did not know what it was that was required. He pretended it had no name. He pretended that not saying aloud what he knew to be right and true was for her sake, was for the sake of her needs and feelings. He also worked dock and routing at UPS, besides school, but traded to get the day off after they’d decided together. Two days before, he had awakened very early and tried to pray but could not. He was freezing more and more solid, he felt like, but he hadn’t thought of his father or the blank frozenness of his father, even in church, that once had filled him with such pity. This was the truth. Lane Dean Jr. felt sun on one arm as he pictured in his mind an image of himself on a train, waving mechanically to something that got smaller and smaller as the train pulled away. His father and his mother’s father had the same birthday, a Cancer. Sheri’s hair was colored an almost corn blond, very clean, the skin through the central part pink in the light. They’d sat up here long enough that only their right side was shaded now. He could look at her head, but not at her. Different parts of him felt unconnected to each other. She was smarter than him and they both knew it. It wasn’t just school—Lane Dean was in accounting and business and did all right, he was hanging in there. She was a year older, she was twenty, but it was also more—she had always seemed to Lane to be on good terms with her life in a way age could not account for. His mother had put it that she knew what it was she wanted, which was nursing and not an easy program at Peoria Junior College, and plus she worked hostessing at the Embers and had bought her own car. She was serious in a way Lane liked. She had a cousin that died when she was thirteen, fourteen, that she’d loved and been close with. She only talked about it that once. He liked her smell and the downy hair on her arms and the way she exclaimed when something made her laugh. He had liked just being with her and talking to her. She was serious in her faith and values in a way that Lane had liked and now, sitting here with her on the table, found himself afraid of. This was an awful thing. He was starting to believe he might not be serious in his faith. He might be somewhat of a hypocrite, like the Assyrians in Isaiah, which would be a far graver sin than the appointment—he had decided he believed this. He was desperate to be good people, to still be able to feel he was good. He rarely before had thought of damnation and hell, that part of it didn’t speak to his spirit, and in worship services he more just tuned himself out and tolerated hell when it came up, the same way you tolerate the job you have got to have to save up for what it is you want. Her tennis shoes had little things and items doodled on them from sitting in her class lectures. She stayed looking down like that. Little notes or reading assignments in Bic in her neat round hand on the rubber elements around the sneaker’s rim. Lane A. Dean looking at her inclined head’s side’s barrettes in the shape of blue ladybugs. The appointment was for afternoon, but when the doorbell rang so early and his mother’d called to him up the stairs, he had known, and a terrible kind of blankness had commenced falling through him.
He told her that he did not know what to do. That he knew if he was the salesman of it and forced it upon her that was awful and wrong. But he was trying to understand, they’d prayed on it and talked it through from every different angle. Lane said how sorry she knew he was, and that if he was wrong in believing they’d truly decided together when they decided to make the appointment she should please tell him, because he thought he knew how she must have felt as it got closer and closer and how she must be so scared, but that what he couldn’t tell was if it was more than that. He was totally still except for moving his mouth, it felt like. She did not reply. That if they needed to pray on it more and talk it through, why then he was here, he was ready, he said. He said the appointment could get moved back; if she just said the word they could call and push it back to take more time to be sure in the decision. It was still so early in it, they both knew that, he said. This was true, he felt this way, and yet he also knew he was also trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it. He knew this without admitting to himself that this is what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and a liar. He knew, in some locked-up little part of him, why it was that he’d gone to no one to open up and seek their life counsel, not Pastor Steve or the prayer partners at campus ministries, not his UPS friends or the spiritual counseling available through his parents’ old church. But he did not know why Sheri herself had not gone to Pastor Steve—he could not read her heart. She was blank and hidden. He so fervently wished it never happened. He felt like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society. He felt like he had been brought low by it and humbled and now did understand and believe that the rules were there for a reason. That the rules were concerned with him personally, as an individual. He’d promised God he had learned his lesson. But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve? He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself. He kept thinking also of 1 Timothy 6 and the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words. He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was it so resisted. This was the truth. All the different angles and ways they had come at the decision together did not ever include it, the word—for had he once said it, avowed that he did love her, loved Sheri Fisher, then it would have all been transformed, it would be a different stance or angle but a difference in the very thing they were praying and deciding on together. Sometimes they had prayed together over the phone in a kind of half code in case anybody accidentally picked up another extension. She continued to sit as if thinking, in the pose of thinking like almost that one statue. They were on that one table. He was the one looking past her at the tree in the water. But he could not say he did, it was not true.
But nor did he ever open up and tell her straight out he did not love her. This may be his lie by omission. This may be the frozen resistance—were he to look straight at her and tell her he didn’t, she would keep the appointment and go. He knew this. Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, would not tell her. It felt like a muscle he just did not have. He didn’t know why, he could not do it or even pray to do it. She believed he was good, serious in his values. Part of him seemed willing to more or less just about lie to someone with that kind of faith and trust and what did that make him? How could such a type of individual even pray? What it really felt like was a taste of the reality of what might be meant by hell. Lane Dean had never believed in hell as a lake of fire or a loving God consigning folks to a burning lake of fire—he knew in his heart this was not true. What he believed in was a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through whom this love was enacted in human time. But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle—the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, they could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their faces looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.
When he moved his head, the part of the lake farther out flashed with sun; the water up close wasn’t black now and you could see into the shallows and see that all the water was moving but gently, this way and that, and in this same way he besought to return to himself as Sheri moved her leg and started to turn beside him. He could see the man in the suit and gray hat standing motionless now at the lake’s rim, holding something under one arm and looking across at the opposite side where little forms on camp chairs sat there in a row in a way that meant they had lines in the water for crappie, which mostly only your blacks from the East Side ever did, and the little white shape at the row’s end a Styrofoam creel. In his moment or time at the lake now just to come, Lane Dean first felt he could take this all in whole; everything seemed distinctly lit, for the circle of the pin oak’s shade had rotated off all the way and they sat now in sun with their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass to the left before them. He was looking or gazing again at where the downed tree’s branches seemed to bend so sharply just under the shallows’ surface when he was given then to know that through all this frozen silence he’d despised he had, in truth, been praying all the while, or some little part of his heart he could not know or hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he later would call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace. He was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men. Later on, he believed that what happened was he had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus might see them—as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature. For in that same given moment he saw, quick as light, into Sheri’s heart, and was made therein to know what would occur here as she finished turning to him and the man in the hat watched the fishing and the downed elm shed cells in the water. This down-to-earth girl who smelled good and wanted to be a nurse would take and hold one of his hands in both of hers to unfreeze him and make him look at her, and she would say that she cannot do it. That she is sorry she did not know this sooner, she hadn’t meant to lie, she’d agreed because she wanted to believe she could, but she cannot. That she will carry this and have it, she has to. With her gaze clear and steady. That all night last night she prayed and searched herself and decided this is what love commands of her. That Lane should please please sweetie let her finish. That listen—this is her own decision and obliges him to nothing. That she knows he does not love her, not that way, has known it all this time, and that it’s all right. That it is as it is and it’s all right. She will carry this, and have it, and love it and make no claim on Lane except his good wishes and respecting what she has to do. That she releases him, all claim, and hopes he finishes up PJC and does so good in his life and has all joy and good things. Her voice will be clear and steady, and she will be lying, for Lane has been given to read her heart. To see her. One of the opposite side’s blacks raises his arm in what might be greeting, or waving off a bee. There is a mower cutting grass someplace off behind them. It will be a terrible, make-or-break gamble born out of the desperation in Sheri Fisher’s soul, the knowledge that she can neither do this thing today nor carry a child alone and shame her family. Her values block the way either way, Lane can see, and she has no other options or choice, this lie is not a sin. Galatians 4:16, Have I then become your enemy? She is gambling that he is good. There on the table, neither frozen nor yet moving, Lane Dean Jr. sees all this, and is moved with pity and with also something more, something without any name he knows, that is given to him to feel in the form of a question that never once in all the long week’s thinking and division had even so much as occurred—why is he so sure he doesn’t love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he is just afraid, if the truth is no more than this, and if what to pray for is not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?
‘New?’ There were agents on each side of him and Sylvanshine thought it a bit odd that it was the one with the pink little timorous face of a hamster who turned as if to address him but the one on the other side looking away who had said it. ‘New?’ They were four rows back from the driver, about whose posture in his seat there was something odd.
‘As opposed to what?’ Sylvanshine’s neck down through his shoulder blade was on fire, and he could feel the start of a jumping muscle in one of his eyelids. Explain the tax treatment of somebody giving appreciated stock to a charity vs. that same person selling the stock and giving the proceeds to the charity. The sides of the rural road looked chewed. The light outside was the sort of light that makes you turn on your headlights but then keeps them from doing any good because technically it’s still light out. It was unclear if this was a van or a max. capacity 24 bus. The one who’d asked had a sideburn and the invulnerable smile of someone who’s had two airport cocktails and nothing but nuts. The driver of the last van, to which Sylvanshine as a GS-9 had been assigned, rode the wheel as if his shoulders were too heavy for his back. As if clinging to the wheel to support himself. What kind of driver wore a white paper cap? A strap was all that held the vertiginous pile of bags in place. ‘I’m the Special Assistant to the new Human Resources Systems Deputy, whose name is Merrill Lehrl, who is coming soon.’
‘New to the Post. Freshly assigned I meant.’ The man’s voice was clear even though he seemed to address the window, which was unclean. Sylvanshine felt hemmed in; the seats were more a cushioned bench and there were no armrests to provide even the illusion or impression of personal space. Plus the van swayed alarmingly on the road, which was either a road or a sort of rural highway, and you could hear the chassis’s springs. The rodential man, whose aura was timid but kind, a sad kind man who lived in a cube of fear, had his hat in his lap. Capacity 24 and full. There was the yeasty smell of wet men. The energy level was low; they were all coming back from something that had consumed a lot of energy. Sylvanshine could almost literally see the small pink man drinking Pepto-Bismol straight out of the bottle and going home to a woman who treated him like an uninteresting stranger. The two men either worked together or knew each other very well; they were talking in tandem without even being quite aware of it. An alpha-beta tandem, which meant either Audit or CID. It occurred to Sylvanshine that the window held a faint oblique reflection of him and that the alpha of the two men was amusing himself slightly by addressing Sylvanshine’s reflection as if it were him, while the hamster affected the facial expression of address but said nothing. Stock donations are disguised capital-gains treatments—there was also a sound, gassy and tinkly like half a bar of calliope, when the driver downshifted or the boxy van swayed hard on a reverse-S next to a billboard that read DOWNSIZE THIS and then a picture Sylvanshine didn’t catch, and while the urbane man was offhandedly introducing them (Sylvanshine didn’t catch the names, which he knew would cause trouble because it was insulting to have forgotten people’s names, especially if you were attached to an alleged wunderkind in Personnel and Personnel was your business, and he would have to go through all sorts of conversational gymnastics in the future to avoid using their names, and God help him if they were climbers and expected one day to come up and have him make introductions to Merrill, although if they were CID this would be less likely because Investigations and Fraud usually had their own infrastructure and office space, often in a separate building, at least in Rome and Philly, because forensic accountants like to think of themselves more as law enforcement than Service, and didn’t as a rule much mix, and in fact the taller man, Bondurant, did identify both himself and Britton as CID GS-9s, which Sylvanshine was too occupied with mortification at missing their names to internalize until much later that evening, when he would recollect the substance of the conversation and experience a moment of relief). The timorous man rarely lied; the more urbane CID agent lied rather a lot, Sylvanshine could feel. The window clicked with a fine rain, the sort of rain that stabs you but doesn’t get you wet. Little drops—tiny drops—peened on the glass, in which the less strictly dependable of the two cupped his chin and let out a sigh that was at least partly for effect. Somewhere behind was the sound of a handheld video game, and the small sounds of other agents watching the game’s progress over the shoulder of the man who was playing the game, who was silent. The van or bus’s wipers made a small shrieking sound on every second pass—it occurred to Sylvanshine that the driver looked as if he was almost resting his chin on top of the wheel because he was leaning way forward to try to get closer to the windshield the way anxious people or people with poor eyesight will do when they’re having trouble seeing. The slicker of the two CIDs in the window had an almost kite-shaped face, both square and pointy at the cheekbones and chin; Bondurant could feel the sharp pressure of his chin in his palm and the way the edge of the window’s casement dug in a straight line between the bones of his elbow. Everyone but Sylvanshine knew where they’d all been and what they’d been doing in Joliet, but none of them were thinking about it in any kind of informative way because that’s not how people think about what they’ve just done. From outside the vehicle it was clear what it was—both the shape and the sway of it, as well as the fact that the top layer of tan paint had been shoddily applied and in places the headlights of the cars behind it picked up flashes of the bright colors beneath, the ballooned letters and icons on sticks at angles that suggested yumminess in some mysterious way only children get. Inside was the sound of the engine and the fluctuant murmur of small conversations melted by anticipation of the end of something—a conference or retreat, perhaps, or maybe an in-service training; Rome personnel had always been going to Buffalo or Manhattan for In-Service Trainings—and the handheld game, and a slight rustle or twitter in the breathing of the pale pink fellow, who Sylvanshine could feel was looking at the right side of his face, and the sound of Bondurant asking Sylvanshine about the Rome post’s CID division, and from one spot ahead and one behind and to the right the tinny whisper of people listening to things on possible headphones—a sure sign of a younger agent, and it occurred to Sylvanshine that the last time he’d seen any sort of black or Latin person had been at the Chicago airport that wasn’t O’Hare but he couldn’t quite seem to lasso the name and felt odd getting his ticket receipt out of his case—while the smaller appeared to be watching him, waiting for him to do something that would betray some sort of inadequacy or deficit in retention. Describe the advantages of Octal Machine Language over Binary Machine Language in designing a Level-2 program for tracking regularities in the cash-flow sheets of related corporations, name two essential advantages for a franchise to filing Schedule 20-50 returns as a subsidiary of its parent company rather than filing as an autonomous corporate entity—and there it was again, the snatch of forced-air music that Sylvanshine couldn’t place but made him want to leave his seat and go chase something on foot in the company of all the children in the neighborhood, all of whom come boiling out of their respective front doors and hotfooting it up the street holding currency aloft, and before he could think, Sylvanshine said, ‘Bizarre as this sounds, can either of you every so often hear—?’
‘Mister Squishee,’ now said the agent to his right in a baritone that didn’t go with his body at all. ‘Fourteen Mister Squishee iterant-route frozen-confection S corp out of East Peoria trucks seized together with office facilities, receivables, and equity holdings of four out of the seven members of the family who owned what the Region’s counsel convinced the Seventh Circuit was de facto a privately held S corp,’ Bondurant said. ‘Disgruntled employee, falsified depreciation schedules for everything from freezers to trucks like this here—’
‘Jeopardy assessment,’ Sylvanshine said, mostly to show he knew the lingo. The seat directly ahead of Sylvanshine was unoccupied, yielding a view of the crossed and meaty neck of whoever sat ahead of that, his head covered by a Busch hat pushed back to communicate relaxation and informality.
‘This is an ice-cream truck?’
‘Wonderful for morale, isn’t it? Like the paint job fools anybody that you’ve got the Post’s cream riding back in something that used to sell Nutty Buddies and was driven by a guy in a big lumpy white outfit and rubber face so he looked like a blancmange.’
‘Driver used to drive this for Mister Squishee.’
‘That’s why we’re going so slowly.’
‘Limit’s fifty-five; take a look at what-all’s stacked up behind us flashing their brights if you want.’
The smaller, pinker man, Britton, had a round, downy face. He was in his thirties and it wasn’t clear if he shaved. The odd thing was that Sylvanshine’s neighborhood in King of Prussia had been a planned community, with speed bumps, whose neighborhood association had prohibited solicitation of any kind, especially with a calliope—Sylvanshine had never in his life chased an ice-cream truck.
‘Driver still bonded—the seizure just went through last quarter, the DD decides that the margin on keeping the trucks and drivers in service through the length of the bond so outweighs what’s realized auctioning them that everybody below G-11 now rides in Mister Squishee trucks,’ Bondurant said. His hand moved with his chin when he spoke, which struck Sylvanshine as awkward-looking and false.
‘Mrs. Short-Run Thinking.’
‘Terrible for morale. Not to mention the PR debacle of kids and their parents seeing trucks they associate with innocence and delicious Caramel Crunch Pushups now seized and as it were shanghaied by the Service. Including surveillance.’
‘We conduct surveillance in these trucks, if you can believe it.’
‘They practically throw stones.’
‘Some of the music’s worse; some of the trucks there’s a snatch of it every time they shift.’
They passed another sign, this out the right side but Sylvanshine could see it: IT’S SPRING, THINK FARM SAFETY.
Bondurant, ass tired from two days in a folding chair, was looking without really looking at a twelve-acre expanse of cornfield—they plowed the cornstalks under just as they were harrowing the fields for seed in April instead of plowing them under in the fall so they’d have all winter to rot and fertilize the ground, which with organophosphate fertilizers and such Bondurant supposed it wasn’t worth the two days in the fall to plow them under, plus for some reason Higgs’s daddy had told him but he’d forgot they liked to have the ground all clodded up in the winter, it protected something about the ground—and without being aware of it found himself thinking about the nubbly field reminiscent of the armpit of a girl who didn’t shave her armpits very often, and without being conscious of any of the connections between the field that now passed and was replaced in the window by a stand of wild oak and the armpit and the girl was thinking in a misdirected way of Cheryl Ann Higgs, now Cheryl Ann Standish and now a data-entry girl at American Twine and a divorced mother of two in a double-wide trailer her ex had apparently been arrested for trying to burn up shortly after Bondurant got GS-9’d over to CID, who’d been his date at Peoria Central Catholic prom in ’71 when they’d both made Prom Court and Bondurant was second-runner-up to king and wore a powder-blue tux and rented shoes too skinny for his feet and she didn’t fuck him that night even at post-Prom when all the other fellows took turns getting fucked by their dates in the black and gold Chrysler New Yorker they’d gone in and rented for the night from the shortstop’s daddy at Hertz and got stains in so the shortstop had to spend the summer out at the airport at the Hertz desk working off the detailing of the New Yorker. Danny something, his daddy died not much later, but he couldn’t play Legion ball that summer because of it and couldn’t stay sharp and barely made the team in college ball at NIU and lost his scholarship and God knows what-all became of him but none of the stains were Bondurant and Cheryl Ann Higgs’s despite all his entreaties. He hadn’t used the bottle of schnapps because if he’d brought her home drunk her daddy’d have either killed him or grounded her. Bondurant’s life’s greatest moment so far was on 5-18-73 as a sophomore and the pinch-hit triple in the last home game at Bradley that drove in Oznowiez the future triple-A catcher to beat SIU-Edwardsville and get Bradley into the Missouri Valley playoffs, which they lost but still hardly a day at the desk with his feet up and clipboards stacked in his lap goes by that he doesn’t see the balloon of the SIU slider hanging and feel the vibrationless thip of the meat of the bat connecting and hear the two-bell clatter of the aluminum bat fall as he sees the ball kind of pinball off the 1.f. fence post by the foul line and twang off the other fence of the foul line and see and he could swear hear both fences jingle from the force of the ball, which he’d hit so hard he’ll feel it forever but can’t summon anywhere near that kind of recall of what Cheryl Ann Higgs felt like when he slipped inside her on a blanket by the pond out back past the stand past the edge of the pasture of the small dairy spread Mr. Higgs and one of his uncountable brothers operated, though he does well remember what each of them had been wearing and the smell of the pond’s new algae near the runoff pipe whose gurgle was nearly brooklike, and the look on Cheryl Ann Higgs’s face as her posture and supine position became acquiescent and Bondurant had known he was home free as they say but had avoided her eyes because the expression in Cheryl Ann’s eyes, which without ever once again thinking about it Tom Bondurant has never forgotten, was one of blank terminal sadness, not so much that of a pheasant in a dog’s jaws as of a person who’s about to transfer something he knows in advance he can never get sufficient return on. The next year had seen them drop into the crazy-obsessive love spiral in which they’d break up and then not be able to stay away from each other, until one time she was able to stay away, and that was all she wrote.
The small light-pink CID agent Britton had, without any sort of throat-clearing or segue, asked Sylvanshine what he was thinking, which seemed to Sylvanshine grotesquely and almost obscenely inappropriate and invasive, rather like asking what your wife looked like naked or what your private restroom functions smelled like, but of course it would be impossible to say any of this aloud, particularly for someone whose job here involved cultivating good relations and uncluttered lines of communication for Merrill Lehrl to exploit when he arrived—to mediate for Merrill Lehrl and to at once gather information on as many aspects and issues involved in the examination of returns as possible, since there were some difficult, delicate decisions to make, decisions whose import extended far beyond this provincial post and any way it went it was going to be painful. Sylvanshine, turning slightly but not all the way (a flare of orange in his left shoulder blade) to meet at least Gary Britton’s left eye, realized that he had very little emotional or ethical ‘read’ on Britton or anyone on the bus but Bondurant, who was having some kind of wistful memory and was cultivating the wistfulness, reclining a bit in it as one would in a warm bath. When something large and oncoming passed, the windshield’s big rectangle was for a moment incandesced and opaque with water, which the wipers heaved mightily to displace. Britton’s gaze—seemed to Sylvanshine more like looking at his right eye than into it. (At this time it moved through Thomas Bondurant’s mind, which tended to be tornadic, as he looked out the window but more back and in at his own memory, that one could look out a window, look in a window as there was the gold ponytail and a flash of creamy shoulder in the window, through a window [close to ‘out’], or even at a window, as in examining the pane’s clarity and whether it was clean.) The gaze nevertheless seemed to be one of expectancy, and Sylvanshine felt again past the emptiness of his stomach and the pinched nerve in his clavicle how opaque the bus’s overall mood was and different from the horror-fraught tension of the Philadelphia 0104’s hundred and seventy agents or the manic torpor of tiny 408’s dozen in Rome. His own mood, the complex hybrid of destination-fatigue and anticipatory fear one feels at the end not of a journey but a move, did not in any way complement the mood of the former Squishee truck nor of the urbane wistful older agent to his left nor of the human blank-spot who’d asked an invasive question whose honest answer would entail acknowledging the invasion, putting Sylvanshine in a personnel-relations bind before he’d even arrived at the Post, which seemed for a moment terribly unfair and flushed Sylvanshine with self-pity, a feeling not as dark as the wing of despair but tinged carmine with a resentment that was both better and worse than ordinary anger because it had no specific object. There seemed no one in particular to blame; something in Gary or Gerry Britton’s aspect made it obvious that his question was some inevitable extension of his character and that he was no more to be blamed for it than an ant was to be blamed for crawling on your potato salad at a picnic—creatures just did what they did.
Under the sign erected every May above the outer highway reading IT’S SPRING, THINK FARM SAFETY and through the north ingress with its own defaced name and signs addressed to soliciting and speed and universal glyph for children at play and down the blacktop’s gauntlet of double-wide showpieces past the rottweiler humping nothing in crazed spasms at chain’s end and the sound of frying through the kitchenette window of the trailer at the hairpin right and then hard left along the length of a speed bump into the dense copse as yet uncleared for new single-wides and the sound of dry things snapping and stridulation of bugs in the duff of the copse and the two bottles and bright plastic packet impaled on the mulberry twig, seeing through shifting parallax of saplings’ branches sections then of trailers along the north park’s anfractuous roads and lanes skirting the corrugate trailer where it was said the man left his family and returned sometime later with a gun and killed them all as they watched Dragnet and the torn abandoned sixteen-wide half overgrown by the edge of the copse where boys and their girls made strange agnate forms on pallets and left bright torn packs until a mishap with a stove blew the gas lead and ruptured the trailer’s south wall in a great labial tear that exposes the trailer’s gutted insides to view from the edge of the copse and the plurality of eyes as the needles and stems of a long winter noisomely crunch beneath a plurality of shoes where the copse leaves off at a tangent past the end of the undeveloped cul-de-sac where they come now at dusk to watch the parked car heave on its springs. The windows steamed nearly opaque and so alive in the chassis that it seems to move without running, the boat-sized car, squeak of struts and absorbers and a jiggle just short of true rhythm. The birds at dusk and the smell of snapped pine and a younger one’s cinnamon gum. The shimmying motions resemble those of a car traveling at high speeds along a bad road, making the Buick’s static aspect dreamy and freighted with something like romance or death in the gaze of the girls who squat at the copse’s risen edge, appearing dyadic and eyes half again as wide and solemn, watching for the sometime passage of a limb’s pale shape past a window (once a bare foot flat against it and itself atremble), moving incrementally forward and down each night in the week before true spring, soundlessly daring one another to go get up close to the heaving car and see in, which the only one who finally does so then sees naught but her own wide eyes reflected as from inside the glass comes a cry she knows too well, which wakes her again each time across the trailer’s cardboard wall.
There were fires in the gypsum hills to the north, the smoke of which hung and stank of salt; then the pewter earrings vanished without complaint or even mention. Then a whole night’s absence, two. The child as mother to the woman. These were auguries and signs: Toni Ware and her mother abroad again in endless night. Routes on maps that yield no sensible shape or figure when traced.
At night from the trailer’s park the hills possessed of a dirty orange glow and the sounds of living trees exploding in the fires’ heat did carry, and the noise of planes plowing the undulant air above and dropping thick tongues of talc. Some nights it rained fine ash which upon contacting turned to soot and kept all souls indoors such that throughout the park every trailer’s window possessed of the underwater glow of televisions and when many were identically tuned the sounds of the programs came clear to the girl through the ash as if their own television were still with them. It had vanished without comment prior to their last move. That last time’s sign.
The park’s boys wore wide rumpled hats and cravats of thong and some displayed turquoise about their person, and of these one helped her empty the trailer’s sanitary tank and then pressed her to fellate him in recompense, whereupon she promised that anything emerging from his trousers would not return there. No boy near her size had successfully pressed her since Houston and the two who put something in her pop that made them turn sideways in the air and she could not then fight and lay watching the sky while they did their distant business.
At sunset then the north and west were the same color. On clear nights she could read by the night sky’s emberlight seated on the plastic box that served as stoop. The screen door had no screen but was still a screen door, which fact she thought upon. She could fingerpaint in the soot on the kitchenette’s rangetop. In incendiary orange to the deepening twilight in the smell of creosote burning in the sharp hills upwind.
Her inner life rich and multivalent. In fantasies of romance it was she who fought and overcame thereon to rescue some object or figure that never in the reverie resolved or took to itself any shape or name.
After Houston her favorite doll had been the mere head of a doll, its hair prolixly done and the head’s hole threaded to meet a neck’s own thread; she had been eight when the body was lost and it lay now forever supine and unknowing in weeds while its head lived on.
The mother’s relational skills were indifferent and did not include truthful or consistent speech. The daughter had learned to trust actions and to read sign in details of which the run of children are innocent. The battered road atlas had then appeared and lay athwart the counter’s medial crack opened to the mother’s home state over whose representation of her place of origin lay a spore of dried mucus spindled through with a red thread of blood. The atlas stayed open that way nigh on one week unreferred to; they ate around it. It gathered wind-drift ash through the torn screen. Ants vexed all the park’s trailers, there being something in the fire’s ash they craved. Their point of formication the high place where the kitchenette’s woodgrain paneling had detached in prior heat and bowed outward and from which two vascular parallel columns of black ants descended. Standing eating out of cans at the anodized sink. Two flashlights and a drawer with different bits of candles which the mother eschewed for her cigarettes were her light unto the world. A little box of borax in each of the kitchenette’s corners. The water in buckets from the coinwash tap, the trailer a standalone with sides’ wires hanging and its owner’s whereabouts unreckoned by the park’s elders, whose lawn chairs sat unmolested by ash in the smoke tree’s central shade. One of these, Mother Tia, told fortunes, leathery and tremorous and her face like a shucked pecan fully cowled in black and two isolate teeth like a spare at the Show Me Lanes, and owned her own cards and tray on which what ash collected showed white, calling her chulla and charging her no tariff on terms of the Evil Eye she claimed to fear when the girl looked at her through the screen’s hole with the telescope of a rolled magazine. Two ribby and yelloweyed dogs lay throbbing in the smoke tree’s shade and rose only sometimes to bay at the planes as they harried the fires.
The sun overhead like a peephole into hell’s own self-consuming heart.
Yet one more sign being when Mother Tia refused then to augur and doing so in terms of pleading for clemency instead of bare refusal to the reedy laughter of the shade’s other elders and widows; no one understood why she feared the girl and she would not say, lower lip caught behind one tooth as she traced the special letter over and over on nothing in the air before her. Whom she would miss, and whose memory in trust therefore the doll’s head also would carry.
The mother’s relational skills being indifferent to this degree since the period of clinical confinement in University City MO wherein the mother had been denied visits for eighteen business days and the girl had evaded Family Services during this period and slept in an abandoned Dodge vehicle whose doors could be secured with coat hangers twisted just so.
The girl looked often at the open atlas and the city thereon marked with a sneeze. She had herself been born there, just outside, in the town that bore her own name. Her second experience of the kind her books made seem sweet through indifferent speech had occurred in the abandoned car in University City MO at the hands of a man who knew how to dislodge one coat hanger with the straightened hook of another and told her face beneath his fingerless mitten there were two different ways this right here could go.
The longest time she had ever subsisted wholly on shoplifted food was eight days. Not more than a competent shoplifter. Their time at Moab UT an associate once said that her pockets had no imagination and was soon thereafter pinched and made to spear litter by the highway as she and the mother had passed in the converted camper driven by ‘Kick,’ the seller of pyrite and self-made arrowheads around whom the mother said not ever one word but sat before the radio painting each nail a different color and who had once punched her stomach so hard she saw colors and smelled up close the carpet’s grit base and could hear what her mother then did to distract ‘Kick’ from further attentions to this girl with the mouth on her. This being also how she learned to cut a brake line so the failure would be delayed until such time as the depth of the cut determined.
At night on the pallet in the ruddled glow she dreamt also of a bench by a pond and the somnolent mutter of ducks while the girl held the string of something that floated above with a painted face, a kite or balloon. Of another girl she would never see or know of.
Once on the nation’s interstate highway system the mother had spoken of a headless doll she herself had kept and clung to through the hell on earth years of her Peoria girlhood and her own mother’s nervous illness (her profile bunched up as she pronounced it) during which the mother’s mother had refused to let her outside the house over which she had engaged itinerant men to nail found and abandoned hubcaps to every inch of the exterior in order to deflect the transmissions of one Jack Benny, a rich man whom the grandmother had come to believe was insane and sought global thought control by radio wave of a special pitch and hue. (‘ “Nobody that mean’s going to let the world go” ’ was an indirect quotation or hearsay when driving, which the mother could do while simultaneously smoking and using an emery board.) The girl made it her business to read signs and know the facts of her own history past and present. To beat broken glass into powder requires an hour with a portion of brick on a durable surface. She had shoplifted ground chuck and buns and kneaded powdered glass into the meat and cooked it on a windowscreen brazier at the rear of the abandoned Dodge and had left such painstaking meals of sandwich on the front seat for days running before the man who had pressed her used his coat hanger tool to jimmy the vehicle and steal them whereupon he returned no more; the mother then released into the girl’s care soon. Imbrication by disk is impossible, but the grandmother’s specifications were that each hubcap touch those on every possible side. Thus the electrification of one became the charge of all, to counter the waves’ bombardment. The creation of a lethal field which jammed radios all down the block. Twice cited for diverting the home’s amperage, the old woman had found a generator someplace that would run if noisily on kerosene and bounced and shook beside the bomb-shaped propane tank outside the kitchen. The young mother was sometimes permitted outside to bury the sparrows that alit on the home and sent up their souls in a single flash and bird-shaped ball of smoke.
The girl read stories about horses, bios, science, psychiatry, and Popular Mechanics when obtainable. She read history in a determined way. She read My Struggle and could not understand all the fuss. She read Wells, Steinbeck, Keene, Laura Wilder (twice), and Lovecraft. She read halves of many torn and castoff things. She read a coverless Red Badge and knew by sheer feel that its author had never seen war nor knew that past some extremity one floated just above the fear and could blinklessly watch it while doing what had to be done or allowed to stay alive.
The trailer park’s boy who had pressed her there in the hanging smell of their own sewage now assembled his friends outside the trailer at night there to lurk and make inhuman sounds in the ashfall as the daughter’s daughter drew circles within circles about her own given name on the map and the arteries leading thereto. The gypsum fires and the park’s lit sign were the poles of the desert night. The boys burped and howled at the moon and the howls were nothing like the real thing and their laughter was strained and words indifferent to the love they said swelled them and would visit upon her past counting.
In these the mother’s absences with men the girl sent for catalogues and Free Offers which daily did arrive by mail with samples of products that people with homes would buy to enjoy at their leisure like the girl, who considered herself home tutored and did not ride the bus with the park’s children. These all possessed the stunned smeared look of those who are poor in one place; the trailers, sign, and passing trucks were the furniture of their world, which orbited but did not turn. The girl often imagined them in a rearview, receding, both arms raised in farewell.
Asbestos cloth cut carefully into strips one of which placed in the pay dryer when the mother of the would-be assailant had deposited her load and returned to the Circle K for more beer caused neither the boy nor mother to be seen anymore outside their double-wide, which rested on blocks. The boys’ serenades ceased as well.
A soup can of sewage or roadkill carcass when placed beneath the blocks or plasticized lattice of a store-bought porch attachment would fill and afflict that trailer with a plague’s worth of soft-bodied flies. A shade tree could be killed by driving a short length of copper tubing into its base a handsbreadth from ground; the leaves would commence to embrown straightaway. The trick with a brake or fuel line was to use strippers to whet it to almost nothing instead of cutting it clean through. It took a certain feel. Half an ounce of packets’ aggregate sugar in the gas tank disabled all vehicles but required no art. Likewise a penny in the fuse box or red dye in a trailer’s water tank accessible through the sanitation panel on all but late-year models of which the Vista Verde park had none.
Begat in one car and born in another. Creeping up in dreams to see her own conceiving.
The desert possessed of no echo and in this was like the sea from which it came. Sometimes at night the sounds of the fire carried, or the circling planes, or those of long-haul trucks on 54 for Santa Fe whose tires’ plaint had the quality of distant surf’s lalation; she lay listening on the pallet and imagined not the sea or the moving trucks themselves but whatever she right then chose. Unlike the mother or bodiless doll, she was free inside her head. An unbound genius, larger than any sun.
The girl read a biography of Hetty Green, the matricide and accused forger who had dominated the Stock Market while saving scraps of soap in a dented tin box she carried on her person, and who feared no living soul. She read Macbeth as a color comic with dialogue in boxes.
The performer Jack Benny had cupped his own face with a hand in a manner the mother, when lucid, had told her she’d seen as tender and pined for, dreamt of, inside the home and its carapace of electric shields while her own mother wrote letters to the FBI in code.
Near sunrise the red plains to the east undimmed and the terrible imperious heat of the day bestirred in its underground den; the girl placed the doll’s head on the sill to watch the red eye open and small rocks and bits of litter cast shadows as long as a man.
Never once in five states worn a dress or leather shoes.
At dawn of the fires’ eighth day her mother appeared in a vehicle made large by its corrugated shell behind whose wheel sat an unknown male. The side of the shell said LEER.
Thought blocking, overinclusion. Vagueness, overspeculation, woolly thinking, confabulation, word salad, stonewalling, aphasia. Delusions of persecution. Catatonic immobility, automatic obedience, affective flattening, dilute I/Thou, disordered cognition, loosened or obscure associations. Depersonalization. Delusions of centrality or grandeur. Compulsivity, ritualism. Hysterical blindness. Promiscuity. Solipsismus or ecstatic states (rare).
This Girl’s D./P.O.B.: 11-4-60, Anthony IL.
Girl’s Mother’s D./P.O.B.: 4-8-43, Peoria IL.
Most Recent Address: 17 Dosewallips Unit E, Vista Verde Estates Mobile Home Park, Organ NM 88052.
Girl’s H.W.E./H.: 5' 3", 95 lbs., Brown/Brown.
Mother’s Stated Occupations, 1966–1972 (from IRS Form 669-D [Certificate of Subordination of Federal Tax Lien, District 063(a)], 1972): Cafeteria Dish and Food Area Cleaning Assistant, Rayburn-Thrapp Agronomics, Anthony IL; Skilled Operator of Silkscreen Press Until Injury to Wrist, All City Uniform Company, Alton IL; Cashier, Convenient Food Mart Corporation, Norman OK and Jacinto City TX; Server, Stuckey’s Restaurants Corp., Limon CO; Assistant Adhesive Product Mixing Scheduling Clerk, National Starch and Chemical Company, University City MO; Hostess and Beverage Server, Double Deuce Live Stage Night Club, Lordsburg NM; Contract Vendor, Cavalry Temporary Services, Moab UT; Canine Confinement Area Organization and Cleaning, Best Friends Kennel and Groom, Green Valley AZ; Ticket Agent and Substitute Night Manager, Riské’s Live XX Adult Entertainment, Las Cruces NM.
They drove then once more at night. Below a moon that rose round before them. What was termed the truck’s backseat was a narrow shelf on which the girl could sleep if she arranged her legs in the gap behind the real seats whose headrests possessed the dull shine of unwashed hair. The clutter and yeast smell bespoke a truck that was or had been lived in; the truck and its man smelled the same. The girl in cotton bodice and her jeans gone fugitive at the knees. The mother’s conception of men was that she used them as a sorceress will dumb animals, as sign and object of her unnatural powers. Her spoken word aloud for these at which the girl gave no reproof, familiar. Swart and sideburned men who sucked wooden matches and crushed cans with their hands. Whose hats’ brims had sweatlines like the rings of trees. Whose eyes crawled over you in the rearview. Men inconceivable as ever themselves being children or looking up naked at someone they trust, with a toy. To whom the mother talked like babies and let them treat her like a headless doll, manhandle.
At an Amarillo motel the girl had her own locked room out of earshot. The hangers were affixed to the closet’s rod. The doll’s head wore lipstick of pink crayon and looked at TV. The girl often wished she had a cat or some small pet to feed and reassure as she stroked its head. The mother feared winged insects and carried cans of spray. Mace on a chain and melted cosmetics and her faux-leather snap case for cigarettes and lighter at once in a handbag of imbricate red sequins the girl had produced for Christmas in Green Valley with only a very small tear near the base where the electronic tag had been forced with a file and then used to carry out the same bodice the girl now wore, on which stitched pink hearts formed a fenceline at breast level.
The truck smelled also of spoilt provision and had a window with vanished crank he rolled up and down with pliers. A card taped to one visor proclaimed that hairdressers teased it till it did stand up. His teeth were missing at one side; the glovebox was locked. The mother at thirty with face commencing to display the faint seams of the plan for the second face life had in store for her and which she feared would be her own mother’s and in University City’s confined time sat with knees bunched up rocking and scratched at herself essaying to ruin the face’s plan. The sepia photo of the mother’s mother at the girl’s own age in a pinafore on horsehair seat rolled into the doll’s head and carried with soapscraps and three library cards in her given name. Her diary in the round case’s second lining. And the lone photo of her mother as a child outdoors in winter dazzle in so many coats and hats that she and the propane tank might be kin. The electrified house out of view and the circle of snowmelt around its base and the mother behind the little mother holding her upright; the child had had croup and such a fever she was feared not to live and her mother had realized she had no pictures of her baby to keep if she died and had bundled her up and sent her out into the snow to wait while she begged a snapshot with a neighbor’s Land Camera so her baby might not be forgotten when she died. The photo distorted from long folding and no footprints in view anywhere in the picture’s snow that the girl could see, the child’s mouth wide open and eyes looking up at the man with the camera in trust that this made sense, this was how right life occurred. The girl’s plans for the grandmother, much refined with age and accrued art, occupied much of the latest diary’s first third.
Her mother and not the male was at the wheel when she woke to the clatter of gravel in Kansas. A truck stop receded as something upright ran in the road behind them and waved its hat. She asked where they were but did not ask after the man who through three states had driven with the same offending hand on the mother’s thigh that had touched her, a hand studied through the seats’ gap by the doll’s head held just so and its detachment and airborne flight seen in the same dream the lurch and sounds first seemed part of. The daughter thirteen now and starting to look it. Her mother’s eyes were distant and low-lidded in the company of men; now in Kansas she made faces at the rearview and chewed gum. ‘Ride up front up out of there up here why don’t you.’ The gum smelt cinnamon and its folded foil could make a glovebox pick by wrapping round to smooth a file’s emery at the point.
Outside a Portales rest stop, under a sun of beaten gold, the girl supine and half asleep in a porous nap on the little back shelf had suffered the man to hoist himself about behind the truck’s wheel and form his hand into an unsensual claw and send it out over the seatback to squeeze her personal titty, to throttle the titty, eyes pale and unprurient, she playing dead and staring unblinking past him, the man’s breathing audible and khaki cap pungent, manhandling the titty with what seemed an absent dispassion, leaving off only at the high heels’ sound in the lot outside. Still a stark advance over the previous year’s Cesar, who worked at painting highway signs and had green grains forever in the pores of his face and hands and required both mother and girl to keep the washroom door open no matter what their business inside, himself then in turn improved over Houston’s district of warehouses and gutted lofts whereat had fallen in with them for two months ‘Murray Blade,’ the semiprofessional welder whose knife in its forearm’s spring clip covered a tattoo of just that knife between two ownerless blue breasts the squeeze of a fist made swell at the sides which amused him. Men with leather vests and tempers who were tender when drunk in ways that made your back’s skin pebble up.
The 54 highway east was not federal and the winds of oncoming rigs struck the truck and its shell and caused yaw the mother steered against. All windows down against the man’s stored smell. An unmentionable thing in the glovebox the mother said to shut she couldn’t look. The card with its entendre made French curls in their backwash and disappeared against the past road’s shimmer.
West of Pratt KS they purchased and ate Convenient Mart burritos heated in the device provided for that purpose. A great huge unfinishable Slushee.
Behind her carapace of disks and foil the mother’s mother held when madman Jack Benny or his spiral-eyed slaves came for them the best defense at hand was to play dead, to lie with blank eyes open and not blink or breathe while the men holstered their ray guns and walked about the house and looked at them, shrugging and telling one another they were too late because look here the woman and her nubile daughter were already deceased and best left be. Forced to practice together in the twin beds with open bottles of pills on the table betwixt and hands composed on their chests and eyes wide and breathing in such a slight way that the chest never rose. The older woman could hold her open eyes unblinking a very long time; the mother as child could not and they soon enough closed of their own, for a living child is no doll and does need to blink and breathe. The older woman said one could self-lubricate at will with the proper application of discipline and time. She said her decade on a carnival necklace and had a small nickel lock on the mailbox. Windows covered with foil in the crescents between the caps’ black circles. The mother carried drops and always claimed her eyes were dry.
Riding up front was good. She did not ask about the truck’s man. It was his truck they were in but he was not in the truck; it was hard to locate something to complain about in this. The mother’s relatings were least indifferent when the two faced the same; she made small jokes and sang and sent small looks the daughter’s way. All the world beyond the reach of the headlamps’ beams was much obscured. Hers was her grandmother’s maiden name, Ware. She could put her soles against the truck’s black dash and look out between her knees, the whole of the headlights’ tongue of road between them. The broken centerline shot Morse at them and the bone-white moon was round and clouds moved across it and took shape as they did so. First fingers then whole hands and trees of lightning fluttered on the west horizon; nothing came behind them. She kept looking for following lights or signs. The mother’s lipstick was too bright for the shape of her mouth. The girl did not ask. The odds were high. The man was either the species of man who would file a report or else would essay to follow like a second ‘Kick’ and find them for leaving him waving his hat in the road. If she asked, the mother’s face would go saggy as she thought of what to say when the truth was she hadn’t thought at all. The girl’s blessing and lot to know their two minds both as one, to hold the wheel as Murine was again applied.
They had a sit-down breakfast in Plepler MO in a rain that foamed the gutters and beat against the café’s glass. The waitress in nurse-white had a craggy face and called them both honey and wore a button which said I have got but one nerve left and you are upon that nerve and flirted with the workingmen whose names she knew while steam came out of the kitchen over the counter above which she clipped sheets from her pad, and the girl used their toothbrush in a restroom whose lock had no hasp. The front door’s hung bell sounded on use to signal custom. The mother wanted biscuits and hashbrowns and mush with syrup and they ordered and the mother sought a dry match and soon the girl heard her laughing at something the men at the counter said. Rain rolled through the street and cars passed slowly and their truck with its shell faced the table and still had its parking lights on, which she saw, and saw also within her mind the truck’s legal owner still there in the road outside Kismet holding his hands extended into claws at the space where the truck had receded from view while the mother beat the wheel and blew hair from her eyes. The girl dragged toast through her yolk. Of the two men who entered and filled the next booth one had similar whiskers and eyes beneath a red cap gone black with rain. The waitress with her little stub pencil and pad said unto these:
‘What are you settin’ in a dirty booth for?’
‘So as I can be closer to you, darling.’
‘Why you could have set over right there and been closer yet.’
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829–deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
I obviously need to explain. First, please flip back and look at the book’s legal disclaimer, which is on the copyright page, verso side, four leaves in from the rather unfortunate and misleading front cover. The disclaimer is the unindented chunk that starts: ‘The characters and events in this book are fictitious.’ I’m aware that ordinary citizens almost never read disclaimers like this, the same way we don’t bother to look at copyright claims or Library of Congress specs or any of the dull pro forma boilerplate on sales contracts and ads that everyone knows is there just for legal reasons. But now I need you to read it, the disclaimer, and to understand that its initial ‘The characters and events in this book…’ includes this very Author’s Foreword. In other words, this Foreword is defined by the disclaimer as itself fictional, meaning that it lies within the area of special legal protection established by that disclaimer. I need this legal protection in order to inform you that what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.
This might appear to set up an irksome paradox. The book’s legal disclaimer defines everything that follows it as fiction, including this Foreword, but now here in this Foreword I’m saying that the whole thing is really nonfiction; so if you believe one you can’t believe the other, & c., & c. Please know that I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too—at least now that I’m over thirty I do—and that the very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher. That’s why I’m making it a point to violate protocol and address you here directly, as my real self; that’s why all the specific identifying data about me as a real person got laid out at the start of this Foreword. So that I could inform you of the truth: The only bona fide ‘fiction’ here is the copyright page’s disclaimer—which, again, is a legal device: The disclaimer’s whole and only purpose is to protect me, the book’s publisher, and the publisher’s assigned distributors from legal liability. The reason why such protections are especially required here—why, in fact, the publisher has insisted upon them as a precondition for acceptance of the manuscript and payment of the advance—is the same reason the disclaimer is, when you come right down to it, a lie.
Here is the real truth: What follows is substantially true and accurate. At least, it’s a mainly true and accurate partial record of what I saw and heard and did, of whom I knew and worked alongside and under, and of what-all eventuated at IRS Post 047, the Midwest Regional Examination Center, Peoria IL, in 1985–86. Much of the book is actually based on several different notebooks and journals I kept during my thirteen months as a rote examiner at the Midwest REC. (‘Based’ means more or less lifted right out of, for reasons that will doubtless become clear.) The Pale King is, in other words, a kind of vocational memoir. It is also supposed to function as a portrait of a bureaucracy—arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life—at a time of enormous internal struggle and soul-searching, the birth pains of what’s come to be known among tax professionals as the New IRS.
In the interests of full disclosure, though, I should be explicit and say that the modifier in ‘substantially true and accurate’ refers not just to the inevitable subjectivity and bias of any memoir. The truth is that there are, in this nonfiction account, some slight changes and strategic rearrangements, most of these evolving through successive drafts in response to feedback from the book’s editor, who was sometimes put in a very delicate position with respect to balancing literary and journalistic priorities, on the one hand, against legal and corporate concerns on the other. That’s probably all I should say on that score. There is, of course, a whole tortuous backstory here involving the legal vetting of the manuscript’s final three drafts. But you will be spared having to hear much about all this, if for no other reason than that relating that inside story would defeat the very purpose of the repetitive, microscopically cautious vetting process and of all the myriad little changes and rearrangements to accommodate those changes that became necessary when, e.g., certain people declined to sign legal releases, or when one mid-sized company threatened legal action if its real name or identifying details of its actual past tax situation were used, disclaimer or no.
In the final analysis, though, there are a lot fewer of these small, identity-obscuring changes and temporal rearrangements than one might have expected. For there are advantages to limiting a memoir’s range to one single interval (plus relevant backstories) in what seems to us all now like the distant past. People don’t much care anymore, for one thing. By which I mean people in this book. The publishing company’s paralegals had far less trouble getting signed legal releases than counsel had predicted. The reasons for this are varied but (as my own lawyer and I had argued ahead of time) obvious. Of the persons named, described, and even sometimes projected into the consciousness of as so-called ‘characters’ in The Pale King, a majority have now left the Service. Of those remaining, several have reached levels of GS rank where they are more or less invulnerable. Also, because of the time of year when drafts of the book were presented for their perusal, I am confident that certain other Service personnel were so busy and distracted that they did not really even read the manuscript and, after waiting a decent interval to give the impression of close study and deliberation, signed the legal release so that they could feel they had one less thing they were supposed to do. A few also seemed flattered at the prospect of someone’s having paid them enough notice to be able, years later, to remember their contributions. A handful signed because they have remained, through the years, my personal friends; one of these is probably the most valuable, profound friend I’ve ever made. Some are dead. Two turned out to be incarcerated, of which one of these was someone you never would have thought or suspected.
Not everyone signed legal releases; I don’t mean to suggest that. Only that most did. Several also consented to be interviewed on-record. Where appropriate, parts of their tape-recorded responses have been transcribed directly into the text. Others have graciously signed additional releases authorizing the use of certain audio-visual recordings of them that were made in 1984 as part of an abortive IRS Personnel Division motivational and recruitment effort. As an aggregate, they have provided reminiscences and concrete details that, when combined with the techniques of reconstructive journalism, have yielded scenes of immense authority and realism, regardless of whether this author was actually corporeally right there on the scene at the time or not.
The point I’m trying to drive home here is that it’s still all substantially true—i.e., the book this Foreword is part of—regardless of the various ways some of the forthcoming §s have had to be distorted, depersonalized, polyphonized, or otherwise jazzed up in order to conform to the specs of the legal disclaimer. This is not to say that this jazzing up is all just gratuitous titty-pinching; given the aforementioned legal-slash-commercial constraints, it’s ended up being integral to the book’s whole project. The idea, as both sides’ counsel worked it out, is that you will regard features like shifting p.o.v.s, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities, & c. as simply the modern literary analogs of ‘Once upon a time…’ or ‘Far, far away, there once dwelt…’ or any of the other traditional devices that signaled the reader that what was under way was fiction and should be processed accordingly. For as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there’s always a kind of unspoken contract between a book’s author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e., whether it’s made up vs. true. And these codes are important, because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction. What I’m trying to do right here, within the protective range of the copyright page’s disclaimer, is to override the unspoken codes and to be 100 percent overt and forthright about the present contract’s terms. The Pale King is basically a nonfiction memoir, with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c. Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.
Plus there’s the autobiographical fact that, like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an ‘artist,’ i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike. My specific dream was of becoming an immortally great fiction writer à la Gaddis or Anderson, Balzac or Perec, & c.; and many of the notebook entries on which parts of this memoir are based were themselves literarily jazzed up and fractured; it’s just the way I saw myself at the time. In some ways, you could say that my literary ambitions were the chief reason I was on hiatus from college and working at the Midwest REC at all, though most of that whole backstory is tangential and will be addressed only here in the Foreword, and very briefly, to wit:
In a nutshell, the truth is that the first pieces of fiction I was ever actually paid for involved certain other students at the initial college I went to, which was extremely expensive and highbrow and attended mainly by graduates of elite private schools in New York and New England. Without going into a whole lot of detail, let’s just say that there were certain pieces of prose I produced for certain students on certain academic subjects, and that these pieces were fictional in the sense of having styles, theses, scholarly personas, and authorial names that were not my own. I think you get the idea. The chief motivation behind this little enterprise was, as it so often is in the real world, financial. It’s not like I was desperately poor in college, but my family was far from wealthy, and part of my financial aid package involved taking out large student loans; and I was aware that student-loan debt tended to be very bad news for someone who wanted to pursue any sort of artistic career after college, since it’s well known that most artists toil in ascetic obscurity for years before making any real money at their profession.
On the other hand, there were many students at that college whose families were in a position not only to pay their whole tuition but apparently also to give their kids money for whatever personal expenses came up, with no questions asked. ‘Personal expenses’ here refers to things like weekend ski trips, ridiculously expensive stereo systems, fraternity parties with fully stocked wet bars, & c. Not to mention that the entire campus was less than two acres, and yet most of the students had their own cars, which it also cost $400 per semester to park in one of the college lots. It was all pretty incredible. In many respects, this college was my introduction to the stark realities of class, economic stratification, and the very different financial realities that different sorts of Americans inhabited.
Some of these upper-class students were indeed spoiled, cretinous, and/or untroubled by questions of ethics. Others were under great family pressure and failing, for whatever reasons, to work up to what their parents considered their true grade potential. Some just didn’t manage their time and responsibilities well, and found themselves up against the wall on an assignment. I’m sure you get the basic picture. Let’s just say that, as a way of positioning myself to pay off some of my loans at an accelerated rate, I provided a certain service. This service was not cheap, but I was quite good at it, and careful. E.g., I always demanded a large enough sample of a client’s prior writing to determine how he tended to think and sound, and I never made the mistake of delivering something that was unrealistically superior to someone’s own previous work. You can probably also see why these sorts of exercises would be good apprentice training for someone interested in so-called ‘creative writing.’ The enterprise’s proceeds were invested in a high-yield money market account; and interest rates at that time were high, whereas student loans don’t even start accruing interest until one leaves school. The overall strategy was conservative, both financially and academically. It’s not as if I was doing several of these commissioned fictional pieces a week or anything. I had plenty of my own work to do too, after all.
To anticipate a likely question, let me concede that the ethics here were gray at best. This is why I chose to be honest, just above, about not being impoverished or needing the extra income in order to eat or anything. I was not desperate. I was, though, trying to accumulate some savings against what I anticipated to be debilitating post-grad debt. I am aware that this is not an excuse in the strict sense, but I do believe it serves as at least an explanation; and there were also other, more general factors and contexts that might be seen as mitigating. For one, the college itself turned out to have a lot of moral hypocrisy about it, e.g., congratulating itself on its diversity and the leftist piety of its politics while in reality going about the business of preparing elite kids to enter elite professions and make a great deal of money, thus increasing the pool of prosperous alumni donors. Without anyone ever discussing it or even allowing themselves to be aware of it, the college was a veritable temple of Mammon. I’m not kidding. For instance, the most popular major was economics, and the best and brightest of my class all seemed obsessed with a career on Wall Street, whose own public ethos at the time was ‘Greed is good.’ Not to mention that there were retail cocaine dealers on campus who made a lot more than I ever did. Those were just a few of what I might, if I chose, offer as extenuating factors. My own attitude about it was detached and professional, not unlike a lawyer’s. The basic view I held was that, whereas there may have been elements of my enterprise that might technically qualify as aiding or abetting a client’s decision to violate the college’s Code of Academic Honesty, that decision, as well as the practical and moral responsibility for it, rested with the client. I was undertaking certain freelance writing assignments for pay; why certain students wanted certain papers of a certain length on certain topics, and what they chose to do with them after delivery, were not my business.
Suffice it to say that this view was not shared by the college’s Judicial Board in late 1984. Here the story gets complex and a bit lurid, and an SOP memoir would probably linger on the details and the rank unfairnesses and hypocrisies involved. I’m not going to do that. I am, after all, mentioning all this only to provide some context for the ostensibly ‘fictional’-looking formal elements of the non-SOP memoir that you have (I hope) bought and are now enjoying. Plus, of course, also to help explain what I was even doing in one of the most tedious and dronelike white-collar jobs in America during what should have been my junior year at an elite college, so that this obvious question isn’t left to hang distractingly all through the book (a type of distraction I personally despise, as a reader). Given these limited objectives, then, the whole Code-of-AH debacle is probably best sketched in broad schematic strokes, to wit:
(1a) Naive people are, more or less by definition, unaware that they’re naive. (1b) I was, in retrospect, naive. (2) For various personal reasons, I was not a member of any campus fraternity, and so was ignorant of many of the bizarre tribal customs and practices in the college’s so-called ‘Greek’ community. (3a) One of the college’s fraternities had instituted the phenomenally stupid and shortsighted practice of placing behind their billiard room’s wet bar a two-drawer file cabinet containing copies of certain recent exams, problem sets, lab reports, and term papers that had earned high grades, which were available for plagiarism. (3b) Speaking of phenomenally stupid, it turned out that not just one but three different members of this fraternity had, without bothering to consult the party from whom they’d commissioned and received them, tossed papers that were not technically their own into this communal file cabinet. (4) The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it. (5a) The type of spoiled, cretinous frat boy who goes into a communal file cabinet for a term paper on the use of implicit GNP price deflators in macroeconomic theory is also the type who will not know or care about the paradoxical extra work that good plagiarism requires. He will, however incredible it sounds, just plunk down and retype the thing, word for word. (5b) Nor, even more incredibly, will he take the trouble to verify that none of his fraternity brothers is planning to plagiarize the same term paper for the same course. (6) The moral system of a college fraternity turns out to be classically tribal, i.e., characterized by a deeply felt sense of honor, discretion, and loyalty to one’s so-called ‘brothers,’ coupled with a complete, sociopathic lack of regard for the interests or even humanity of anyone outside that fraternal set.
Let’s just end the sketch there. I doubt you need a whole diagram to anticipate what came down, nor much of a primer in US class dynamics to understand, of the eventual five students placed on academic probation or forced to retake certain courses vs. the one student formally suspended pending consideration of expulsion and possible referral of the case to the Hampshire County District Attorney, which one of these was yours truly, the living author, Mr. David Wallace of Philo IL, to which tiny lifeless nothing town neither I nor my family were at all psyched about the prospect of having me return and sit around watching TV for the at least one and possibly two semesters that the college’s administration was going to take its sweet time considering my fate. Meanwhile, by the terms of the 1966 Federal Claims Collection Act’s §106(c-d), the repayment clock on my Guaranteed Student Loans started running, as of 1 January 1985, at 6¼ percent interest.
Again, if any of that seems vague or ablated, it’s because I am giving you a very stripped down, mission-specific version of just who and where I was, life-situation-wise, for the thirteen months I spent as an IRS examiner. Moreover, I’m afraid that just how I landed in this government post at all is a background item that I can explain only obliquely, i.e., by ostensibly explaining why I can’t discuss it. First, I’d ask you to bear in mind the above-cited disinclination to have me return and serve out my limbo at home in Philo, which mutual reluctance in turn involves a whole lot of issues and history between my family and me that I couldn’t get into even if I wanted to (see below). Second, I would inform you that the city of Peoria IL is roughly ninety miles from Philo, which is a distance that permits general familial monitoring without any of the sort of detailed, close-quarters knowledge that might confer feelings of concern or responsibility. Third, I could direct your attention to Congress’s 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act §1101, which turns out to override the Federal Claims Collection Act’s §106(c-d) and to authorize deferment of Guaranteed Student Loan repayments for documented employees of certain government agencies, including guess which one. Fourth, I am allowed, after exhaustive negotiations with the publisher’s counsel, to say that my thirteen-month contract, posting, and GS-9 civil service paygrade were the result of certain sub-rosa actions on the part of a certain unnamed relative with unspecified connections to the Midwest Regional Commissioner’s Office of a certain unnamed government agency. Last and most important, I am also permitted to say, albeit in language not wholly my own, that members of my family were almost unanimous in declining to sign the legal releases required for any further or more specific use, mention, or representation of the aforesaid relatives or any likeness thereof in any capacity, setting, form, or guise, inclusive of references sine damno, within the written work heretofore entitled The Pale King, and that this is why I can’t get into anything more specific about the overall hows and whys. End of explanation of absence of real explanation, which, however irksome or opaque it may come off, is (again) still preferable to having the question of why/how I was working at the Midwest Regional Examination Center just hang there huge and unaddressed through the whole text to follow, like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Here I should also probably address one other core-motivation-type question that bears on the matter of veracity and trust raised several ¶s above, viz., why a nonfiction memoir at all, since I’m primarily a fiction writer? Not to mention the question of why a memoir restricted to a single, long-past year I spent in exile from anything I even remotely cared about or was interested in, serving out time as little more than one tiny ephemeral dronelike cog in an immense federal bureaucracy? There are two different kinds of valid answer here, one being personal and the other more literary/humanistic. The personal stuff it’s initially tempting to say is just none of your business… except that one disadvantage of addressing you here directly and in person in the cultural present of 2005 is the fact that, as both you and I know, there is no longer any kind of clear line between personal and public, or rather between private vs. performative. Among obvious examples are web logs, reality television, cell-phone cameras, chat rooms… not to mention the dramatically increased popularity of the memoir as a literary genre. Of course popularity is, in this context, a synonym for profitability; and actually that fact alone should suffice, personal-motivation-wise. Consider that in 2003, the average author’s advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction. The simple truth is that I, like so many other Americans, have suffered reverses in the volatile economy of the last few years, and these reverses have occurred at the same time that my financial obligations have increased along with my age and responsibilities ; and meanwhile all sorts of US writers—some of whom I know personally, including one I actually had to lend money to for basic living expenses as late as spring 2001—have recently hit it big with memoirs, and I would be a rank hypocrite if I pretended that I was less attuned and receptive to market forces than anyone else.
As all mature people know, though, it’s possible for very different kinds of motives and emotions to coexist in the human soul. There is no way that a memoir like The Pale King could be written solely for financial gain. One paradox of professional writing is that books written solely for money and/or acclaim will almost never be good enough to garner either. The truth is that the larger narrative encompassing this Foreword has significant social and artistic value. That might sound conceited, but rest assured that I wouldn’t and couldn’t have put three years’ hard labor (plus an additional fifteen months of legal and editorial futzing) into The Pale King if I were not convinced it was true. Have, e.g., a look at the following, which was transcribed verbatim from remarks by Mr. DeWitt Glendenning Jr., the Director of the Midwest Regional Examination Center during most of my tenure there:
If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.
To these qualities that Mr. Glendenning ascribed to the code I would respectfully add one more: boredom. Opacity. User-unfriendliness.
This all can be put another way. It might sound a bit dry and wonkish, but that’s because I’m boiling it down to the abstract skeleton:
1985 was a critical year for American taxation and for the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement of the US tax code. In brief, that year saw not only fundamental changes in the Service’s operational mandate, but also the climax of an involved intra-Service battle between advocates and opponents of an increasingly automated, computerized tax system. For complex administrative reasons, the Midwest Regional Examination Center became one of the venues in which this battle’s crucial phase played out.
But that’s only part of it. As alluded to in an FN way above, subtending this operational battle over human vs. digital enforcement of the tax code was a deeper conflict over the very mission and raison of the Service, a conflict whose fallout extended from the corridors of power at Treasury and Triple-Six all the way down to the most staid and backwater District office. At the highest levels, the struggle here was between traditional or ‘conservative’ officials who saw tax and its administration as an arena of social justice and civic virtue, on the one hand, and those more progressive, ‘pragmatic’ policymakers who prized the market model, efficiency, and a maximum return on the investment of the Service’s annual budget. Distilled to its essence, the question was whether and to what extent the IRS should be operated like a for-profit business.
Probably that’s all I should say right here in terms of summary. If you know how to search and parse government archives, you can find voluminous history and theory on just about every side of the debate. It’s all in the public record.
But here’s the thing. Both then and now, very few ordinary Americans know anything about all this. Nor much about the deep changes the Service underwent in the mid-1980s, changes that today directly affect the way citizens’ tax obligations are determined and enforced. And the reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. Despite the IRS’s well-documented paranoia and aversion to publicity, secrecy here had nothing to do with it. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it. Keep in mind that the period we’re talking was only a decade after Watergate. Had the Service tried to hide or cover up its conflicts and convulsions, some enterprising journalist(s) could have done an exposé that drew a lot of attention and interest and scandalous fuss. But this is not at all what happened. What happened was that much of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view, e.g., in open hearings of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Treasury Procedures and Statutes Subcommittee, and the IRS’s Deputy and Assistant Commissioners’ Council. These hearings were collections of anaerobic men in drab suits who spoke a verbless bureaucratese—terms like ‘strategic utilization template’ and ‘revenue vector’ in place of ‘plan’ and ‘tax’—and took days just to reach consensus on the order of items for discussion. Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why? If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue-ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue. No FOIA filing even required. But not one journalist seems ever to have checked them out, and with good reason: This stuff is solid rock. The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth ¶. You just have no idea.
Fact: The birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues’ monumental dullness. Whether this PR discovery is to be regretted for its corrosive effect on the democratic ideal or celebrated for its enhancement of government efficiency depends, it seems, on which side one takes in the deeper debate over ideals vs. efficacy referenced on p. 82, resulting in yet another involuted loop that I won’t tax your patience by trying to trace out or make hay of.
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year. And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in recreation and time with friends and even the intimacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull. Why this silence? Maybe it’s because the subject is, in and of itself, dull… only then we’re again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it… as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.
Notwithstanding Justice H. Harold Mealer’s famous characterization, included in the Fourth Appellate Circuit’s majority opinion on Atkinson et al. v. The United States, of a government bureaucracy as ‘the only known parasite larger than the organism on which it subsists,’ the truth is that such a bureaucracy is really much more a parallel world, both connected to and independent of this one, operating under its own physics and imperatives of cause. One might envision a large and intricately branching system of jointed rods, pulleys, gears, and levers radiating out from a central operator such that tiny movements of that operator’s finger are transmitted through that system to become the gross kinetic changes in the rods at the periphery. It is at this periphery that the bureaucracy’s world acts upon this one.
The crucial part of the analogy is that the elaborate system’s operator is not himself uncaused. The bureaucracy is not a closed system; it is this that makes it a world instead of a thing.
From Assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue for Human Resources, Management & Support’s Office of Employee Assistance & Personnel Overview Internal Memorandum 4123-78(b)
Conclusion of ACIRHRMSOEAPO Survey/Study 1-76—11-77: AMA/DSM(II)-authorized syndromes/symptoms associated with Examinations postings in excess of 36 months (average term of posting on report: 41.4 months), in reverse order of incidence (per medical/EAP service claim per IRSM §743/12.2(f-r)):
Temporary paralysis agitans
Phobic anxiety (numerical)
Cantor’s sign (dextral)
Kern-Børglundt syndrome (radial)
Low startle threshold
Cantor’s sign (sinistral)
Stecyk started at the end of the block and came up the first flagstone walkway with his briefcase and rang the bell. ‘Good morning,’ he said to the older lady who answered the door in what was either a robe or very casual housedress (it was 7:20, so bathrobes were not only probable but downright appropriate) whose collar she was holding tightly closed with one hand and was looking through the door’s crack at different points over Stecyk’s shoulders as if certain there must be someone else behind him. Stecyk said, ‘My name is Leonard Stecyk, I go by Leonard but Len is also perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve recently had the opportunity to move in and set up housekeeping in 6F in the Angler’s Cove complex just up the street there, I’m sure you’ve seen it either leaving home or returning, it’s just right up the street there at 121, and I’d like to say Hello and introduce myself and say I’m pleased to be part of the neighborhood and to offer you as a token of greetings and thanks this free copy of the US Post Office’s 1979 National Zip Code Directory, listing the zip codes for every community and postal zone in each state of the United States in alphabetical order, and also’—shifting the briefcase under his arm to open the directory and hold it out open to the woman’s view—something seemed wrong with one of the lady’s eyes, as if she were having trouble with a contact lens or perhaps had some foreign matter under the upper lid, which could be uncomfortable—‘additionally listing here on the back of the last page and inside the rear cover, the cover’s the continuation, the addresses and toll-free numbers of over forty-five government agencies and and services from which you can receive free informational material, some of which is almost shockingly valuable, see I’ve put small asterisks next to those, which I know for a fact are helpful and an extraordinary bargain, and which are of course after all when you come right down to it paid for with your tax dollars, so why not extract value from the contributions if you know what I mean, though of course the choice is entirely up to you’—the lady was also turning her head slightly in the way of someone whose hearing wasn’t quite what it used to be, noting which Stecyk put the briefcase down to ink one or two extra asterisks by numbers that in this case might be of special help. Then making a large motion of handing it over and letting the postal directory hang there in midair just outside the door while the lady had her face screwed up and seemed to be deciding whether to disengage the door’s chain in order to accept it. ‘Maybe I’ll just be leaning it up here against the milkbox’—pointing down at the milkbox—‘and you can peruse it at leisure at your own convenience later in the day or really whatever you might choose to do,’ Stecyk said. He liked to make a small jest or sally of employing a motion as if he were tipping his hat even though his hand never made contact with the hat; he felt it was both courtly and amusing. ‘Hidey ho, then,’ he said. He proceeded back down the walkway, missing all the cracks and hearing the door behind him close only as he reached the sidewalk and made a sharp right and took eighteen strides to the next walkway and a sharp right to the door, which had a wrought-iron security door installed before it and at which there was no answer after three rings and shave-and-haircut knock. He left his card with his new address and the gist of his greeting and offer and another 1979 zip code directory (the 1980 directory would not be out until August; he had an order in) and proceeded down the walkway, a spring to his step, his smile so wide it almost looked like it hurt.
It was in public high school that this boy learned the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to. He learned it in a way whose very ridiculousness was part of what made it so terrible. And terrible it was.
At age sixteen and a half, he started to have attacks of shattering public sweats.
As a child, he’d always been a heavy sweater. He had sweated a lot when playing sports or when it was hot, but it didn’t especially bother him. He just wiped himself off more often. He couldn’t remember anyone ever saying anything about it. Also, it didn’t seem to smell bad; it’s not like he stank. The sweating was just something particular about him. Some kids were fat, some were unusually short or tall or had crazy teeth, or stuttered, or smelled like mildew no matter what clothes they wore—he just happened to be someone who sweated heavily, especially in the humidity of summertime, when just riding his bike in dungarees around Beloit made him sweat like crazy. It all barely even registered on him, so far as he could remember.
In his seventeenth year, though, it started to bother him; he became self-conscious about the sweating thing. This was surely related to puberty, the stage where you suddenly get much more concerned about how you appear to other people. About whether there might be something visibly creepy or gross about you. Within weeks of the start of the school year, he became both more and differently aware that he seemed to sweat more than the other kids did. The first couple months of school were always hot, and many of the old high school’s classrooms didn’t even have fans. Without trying to or wanting to, he started to imagine what his sweating might look like in class: his face gleaming with a mixture of sebum and sweat, his shirt sodden at the collar and pits, his hair separated into wet little creepy spikes from his head’s running sweat. It was the worst if he was in a position where he thought girls could maybe see it. The classrooms’ desks were all crammed together. Just the presence of a pretty or popular girl in his sight line would make his internal temperature rise—he could feel it happening unwilled, even against his will—and start the heavy sweating.
Except at first, as autumn of that seventeenth year deepened and the weather cooled and dried and the leaves turned and fell and could be raked for pay, he had reason to feel that the sweating problem was receding, that the real problem had been the heat, or that without the muggy summer heat there would now no longer be as much occasion for the problem. (He thought of it in the most general and abstract terms possible. He tried never to let himself think of the actual word sweat. The idea, after all, was to try and be as unself-conscious about it as possible.) Mornings now were chilly, and the high school’s classrooms weren’t hot anymore, except near the rears’ clanking radiators. Without letting himself be wholly aware of it, he had started hurrying a little bit between periods to get to the next class early enough that he wouldn’t get stuck in a desk by a radiator, which was hot enough to jump-start a sweat. But it involved a delicate balance, because if he hurried too fast through the halls between periods, this exertion could also cause him to break a light sweat, which increased his preoccupation and made it easier for the sweating to get more severe in the event that he thought people might be noticing it. Certain other examples of balancing and preoccupation like this existed, most of which he tried to keep from conscious thought as much as possible without being wholly aware of why he was doing this.
For there were, by this time, degrees and gradations of public sweating, from a light varnish all the way up to a shattering, uncontrollable, and totally visible and creepy sweat. The worst thing was that one degree could lead to the next if he worried about it too much, if he was too afraid that a slight sweat would get worse and tried too hard to control or avoid it. The fear of it could bring it on. He did not truly begin to suffer until he understood this fact, an understanding he came to slowly at first and then all of an awful sudden.
What he thought of as easily the worst day of his life so far followed an unseasonably cold week in early November where the problem had started to seem so manageable and under control that he felt he might actually be starting to almost forget about it altogether. Wearing dungarees and a rust-colored velour shirt, he sat far from the radiator in the middle of a middle row of student desks in World Cultures and was listening and taking notes on whatever module of the textbook they were covering, when a terrible thought rose as if from nowhere inside him: What if I all of a sudden start sweating? And on that one day this thought, which presented mostly as a terrible sudden fear that washed through him like a hot tide, made him break instantly into a heavy, unstoppable sweat, which the secondary thought that it must look even creepier to be sweating when it wasn’t even hot in here to anyone else made worse and worse as he sat very still with his head down and face soon running with palpable rivulets of sweat, not moving at all, torn between the desire to wipe the sweat from his face before it actually began to drip and someone saw it dripping and the fear that any kind of wiping movement would draw people’s attention and cause those in the desks on either side of him to see what was happening, that he was sweating like crazy for no reason. It was by far the worst feeling he had ever had in his life, and the whole attack lasted almost forty minutes, and for the rest of the day he went around in a kind of trance of shock and spent adrenaline, and that day was the actual start of the syndrome in which he understood that the worse his fear of breaking into a shattering public sweat was, the better the chances that he’d have something like what happened in World Cultures happen again, maybe every day, maybe more than once a day—and this understanding caused him more terror and frustration and inner suffering than he had ever before even dreamed that somebody could ever experience, and the total stupidity and weirdness of the whole problem just made it that much worse.
Dating from that day in World Cultures, his dread of it happening again, and his attempts to avert or avoid or control this fear, began to inform almost every moment of his day. The fear and preoccupation only happened in class or lunch at school—not in last-period PE, since sweating in PE wouldn’t be seen as all that weird and so didn’t inspire the special kind of fear that primed him for an attack. Or it also happened at any crowded function like Scout meetings or Christmas dinner in the stuffy, overheated dining room of his grandparents’ home in Rockton, where he could literally feel the table’s candles’ extra little dots of heat and the body heat of all the relatives crowded around the table, with his head down trying to look like he was studying his plate’s china pattern as the heat of the fear of the heat spread through him like adrenaline or brandy, that physical spread of internal heat that he tried so hard not to dread. It didn’t happen in private, at home in his room, reading—in his room with the door closed it often didn’t even occur to him—or in the library in one of the little private carrels like an open cube, where no one could see him or it would be easy to just get up anytime and leave. It happened only in public with people around him and crowded in rows or around a well-lit table where you had to wear your new red Christmas sweater and your shoulders and elbows were almost actually touching the cousins crammed in on both sides and everyone all trying to talk at the same time over the steaming food and all looking at each other so there was every chance that people could see even the first flushed little pinpricks of it on his forehead and upper face that then, if the fear of it getting out of control grew too great, would swell to shining beads and soon start to visibly run, and it was impossible to wipe his face off with a napkin because he feared that the weird sight of wiping his face in wintertime would draw all his relatives’ attention to what was going on, which is what he would have traded his very soul not to have happen. It could basically happen anyplace where it was hard to leave without drawing attention to himself. To raise your hand in class and ask for a bathroom pass as heads turned to look—just the thought of it filled him with total dread.
He could not understand why he was so afraid of people possibly seeing him sweat or thinking it was weird or gross. Who cared what people thought? He said this over and over to himself; he knew it was true. He also repeated—often in a stall in one of the boys’ restrooms at school between periods after a medium or severe attack, sitting on the toilet with his pants up and trying to use the stall’s toilet paper to dry himself without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead, squeezing thick pads of toilet paper onto the front of his hair to help dry it—Franklin Roosevelt’s speech from US History II in sophomore year: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He would mentally repeat this to himself over and over. Franklin Roosevelt was right, but it didn’t help—knowing it was the fear that was the problem was just a fact; it didn’t make the fear go away. In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. He started to sometimes catch himself talking to himself about the sweating thing and fear in a kind of very fast faint whisper that he’d been doing without being aware of it, and now he began to really consider that he might be going crazy. Most of the craziness he’d seen on TV involved people laughing maniacally, which now seemed totally bizarre to him, like a joke that wasn’t only not funny but made no sense at all. Imagining laughing about the attacks or the fear was like imagining trying to come up to somebody and start trying to explain what was going on, like his Scoutmaster or the guidance counselor—it was unimaginable; there was no way.
High school became a daily torment, even as his grades improved even more, due to the increased reading and studying he did because it was only when he was in private and totally absorbed and concentrating on something else that he was OK. He also got into word search and number puzzles, which he found absorbing. In class or the lunchroom, it was a constant preoccupation to not think about it and not let the fear reach the point where his temperature went up and his attention telescoped to where all he could feel was the uncontrolled heat and sweat starting to pop out on his face and back, which, the minute he felt the sweat popping out and beading, his fear went through the roof and all he could think of was how he could get out of there to the restroom without drawing attention. It only happened sometimes, but he dreaded it all the time, even though he knew all too well that the constant dread and preoccupation were what primed him to have these attacks. He thought of them as attacks, though not from anything outside him but rather from some inner part of himself that was hurting or almost betraying him, as in heart attack. Similarly, primed became his inner code word for the state of hair-trigger fear and dread that could cause him to have an attack at almost any time in public.
His main way of dealing with being constantly primed and preoccupied with the fear of it all the time at school was that he developed various tricks and tactics for what to do if an attack of public sweating started and threatened to go totally out of control. Knowing where all the exits were to any room he entered wasn’t a trick, it became just something he now automatically did, like knowing just how far the nearest exit was and if it could be got to without drawing much attention. The school’s lunchroom was an example of someplace that was easy to get out of with no one really noticing, for instance. Leaving the classroom during an attack in a class was out of the question, however. If he just got up and ran out of the room, as he always yearned to do during an attack, there would be all kinds of disciplinary problems, and everyone would want an explanation, including his parents—plus when he came back to that class the next day, everyone would know he’d run out and would want to know what had made him freak out, and the net result would be a lot of attention on him in the class, and the fear that everyone would be noticing him and looking at him, which would prime him all over again. Or if he ever actually raised his hand and asked the teacher for a restroom pass, it would draw all the bored students in the rows’ attention to who’d spoken up, and their heads would all turn to look and there he would be, sweating and dripping and looking bizarre. His only hope then would be that he’d look sick, people would think he was sick or about to maybe throw up. This was one of the tricks—to cough or sniff and feel uncomfortably at his glands if he feared an attack, so if it got out of control he could hope people would maybe just think he was sick and shouldn’t have come to school that day. That he wasn’t weird, he was just sick. It was the same with pretending he didn’t feel well enough to eat his lunch at lunch period—sometimes he wouldn’t eat and would bus the full tray and then leave and go eat a sandwich he brought from home in a baggie in a restroom stall. That way, people might be more apt to think he was sick.
Other tactics included sitting in a row as far back in the classroom as he could, so most people would be in front of him and he didn’t have to worry about them seeing him if he had an attack, which only worked in classes without a seating chart, and could also backfire in the nightmare scenario he tried so hard not to think about. And also avoiding the hot radiators, naturally, and desks between girls, or trying to secure the desk at the very end of a row so that in case of emergency he could avert his head from the rest of the row, but in a subtle way that didn’t look weird—he’d just swing his legs out from the row into the aisle and cross his ankles and lean out that way. He stopped riding his bike to the high school because the exercise of riding could warm him up and prime him with anxiety before first period had even started. Another trick, by the start of third quarter, was walking to school without a winter coat in order to get cold and sort of freeze his nervous system, which he could only do when he was the last one to leave the house, because his mother would have a spasm if he tried to leave without a coat. There was also wearing multiple layers that he could remove if he felt it coming on in a class, although removing layers could look weird if he was also coughing and feeling his glands—in his experience, sick people didn’t normally remove layers. He was somewhat aware he was losing weight but didn’t know how much. He also began to cultivate a habitual gesture of brushing his hair back from his forehead, which he practiced in the bathroom mirror in order to make it look like just an unconscious habit but was really all designed to help brush sweat from his forehead out of sight into his hair in the event of an attack—but this too was a delicate balance, because past a certain point the gesture was no longer helpful, since if the front part of his hair got wet enough to separate into those creepy little wet spikes and strands, then the fact that he was sweating became even more obvious, if people were to look over. And the nightmare scenario that he dreaded more than anything was for him to be in the back and to start having such a shattering, uncontrollable attack that the teacher, all the way up at the front of the room, noticed he was soaked and running with visible sweat and interrupted class to ask if he was all right, causing everyone to turn way around in their chairs to look. In the nightmares there was a literal spotlight on him as they all turned in their seats to see who the teacher was so worried and/or grossed out by.
In February his mother made a breezy, half-joking comment about his love life and if there were any girls he especially liked this year, and he almost had to leave the room, he almost burst into tears. The idea now of ever asking a girl out, of taking a girl out and having her looking at him from right there close up, expecting him to be thinking about her instead of how primed he was and whether he was going to start sweating—this filled him with dread, but at the same time it made him sad. He was bright enough to know there was something sad about it. Even as he gladly quit Scouts just four badges short of Eagle, and turned down a shy, kind of socially anonymous girl from College Algebra and Trigonometry’s invitation to the Sadie Hawkins dance, and faked being sick at Easter so he could stay home by himself reading ahead in Dorian Gray and trying to jump-start an attack in the mirror of his parents’ bathroom instead of driving down with them to Easter dinner at his grandparents’, he felt a bit sad about it, as well as relieved, plus guilty about the various lies of the excuses he gave, and also lonely and a bit tragic, like someone in the rain outside a window looking in, but also creepy and disgusting, as though his secret inner self was creepy and the attacks were just a symptom, his true self trying to literally leak out—though none of all this was visible to him in the bathroom’s glass, whose reflection seemed oblivious to all that he felt as he searched it.
It’s an IRS examiner in a chair, in a room. There is little else to see. Facing the tripod’s camera, addressing the camera, one examiner after another. It’s a cleared card-storage room off the radial hall of the Regional Examination Center’s data processing pod, so the air-conditioning is good and there’s none of summer’s facial shine. Two at a time are brought in from the wiggle rooms; the examiner on deck is behind a vinyl partition, for prebriefing. The prebriefing is mostly just watching the intro. The documentary’s intro is represented as coming from Triple-Six via the Regional Commissioner’s HQ up in Joliet; the tape’s case has the Service seal and a legal disclaimer. The putative working title is Your IRS Today. Possibly for public TV. Some of them are told it’s for schools, civics classes. This is in the prebriefing. The interviews are represented as PR, with a serious purpose. To humanize, demystify the Service, help citizens understand how hard and important their job is. How much at stake. That they’re not hostile or machines. The prebriefer reads from a series of printed cards; there’s a mirror in the near corner for the on-deck subject to straighten his tie, smooth out her skirt. There’s a release to sign, specially crafted—each examiner reads it closely, a reflex; they’re still on the clock. Some are psyched. Excited. There’s something about the prospect of attention, the project’s real purpose. It’s DP Tate’s baby, conceptually, though Stecyk did all the work.
There’s also the VCR monitor for letting them see the provisional intro, whose crudeness is acknowledged up front in the prebriefing, the need for tweaking. It’s all set pieces and shots from photo archives whose stylized warmth does not fit the voiceover’s tone. It’s disorienting, and no one is sure what is up with the intro; the prebriefers stress it’s just for orientation.
‘The Internal Revenue Service is the branch of the United States Treasury Department charged with the timely collection of all federal taxes due under current statute. With over one hundred thousand employees in more than one thousand national, regional, district, and local offices, your IRS is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation. But it is more. In the body politic of the United States of America, many have likened your IRS to the nation’s beating heart, receiving and distributing the resources which allow your federal government to operate effectively in the service and defense of all Americans.’ Shots of highway crews, Congress as seen from the Capitol’s gallery, a porch’s mailman laughing about something with a homeowner, a contextless helicopter with the archive code still in the lower right corner, a Welfare clerk smiling as she hands a check to a black woman in a wheelchair, a highway crew with their hardhats raised in greeting, a VA rehab center, & c. ‘The heart, too, of these United States as a team, each income earner chipping in to share resources and embody the principles that make our nation great.’ One of the prebriefers’ cards directs her here to lean in and insert that the voiceover script is a working draft and that the final product’s voiceover will have real human inflections—to use their imagination. ‘The lifeblood of this heart: the men and women of today’s IRS.’ Now a number of shots of what may be real but unusually attractive Service employees, mainly GS-9s and -11s in ties and shirtsleeves, shaking hands with taxpayers, bent smiling over the books of an auditee, beaming in front of a Honeywell 4C3000 that is in fact an empty chassis. ‘Far from faceless bureaucrats, these [inaudible] men and women of today’s IRS are citizens, taxpayers, parents, neighbors, and members of their community, all charged with a sacred task: to keep the lifeblood of government healthy and circulating.’ A group still of what’s either an Exams or Audit team arranged not by grade but by height, all waving. A shot of the same incised seal and motto that flank the REC’s north facade. ‘Just like the nation’s E pluribus unum, our Service’s founding motto, Alicui tamen faciendum est, says it all—this difficult, complex task must be performed, and it is your IRS who roll up their sleeves and do it.’ It’s laughably bad, hence its intrinsic plausibility to the wigglers, including of course the failure to translate the motto for an audience of TPs who all too often actually misspell their names on returns, which the Service Center systems catch and kick over to Exams, wasting everyone’s time. But are presumed to know classical Latin, it seems. Perhaps really testing whether the prebriefed examiners catch this error—it’s often hard to know what Tate’s up to.
The chair is unpadded. It’s all very spartan. The light is the REC’s fluorescence; there are no lamps or bounces. No makeup, though in the prebriefing examiners’ hair is carefully combed, sleeves rolled up exactly three flat turns, blouses opened at the top button, ID cards unclipped from the breast pocket. No director per se in the room; no one to say to act natural or tell them about the loopholes of editing. A technician at the tripod’s camera, a boom man with headphones for levels, and the documentarian. The Celotex drop ceiling’s been removed for acoustical reasons. Exposed piping and four-color bundles of wire running above the former ceiling’s struts, out of the frame. The shot is just the examiner in the folding chair before a cream-colored screen that blocks off a wall of blank Hollerith cards in cardboard flats. The room could be anywhere, nowhere. Some of this is explained, theorized in advance; the prebriefing is precisely orchestrated. A tight shot, they explain, from the torso up, extraneous movements discouraged. Examiners are used to keeping still. There’s a monitor room, a former closet, attached, with Toni Ware and an off-clock tech inside, watching. It’s a video monitor. They are miked for the earplug that the documentarian/interlocutor stops wearing when it turns out to emit a piercing feedback sound whenever the Fornix card reader across the wall runs a particular subroutine. The monitor is video, like the camera, with no lighting or makeup. Pale and stunned, faces’ planes queerly shadowed—this is not a problem, though on video some of the faces are a drained gray-white. Eyes are a problem. If the examiner looks at the documentarian instead of the camera, it can appear evasive or coerced. It’s not optimal, and the prebriefer’s advice is to look into the camera as one would a trusted friend’s eyes, or a mirror, depending.
Excerpted from The Pale King by Wallace, David Foster Copyright © 2011 by Wallace, David Foster. Excerpted by permission.
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