Before Ductape died (for my part I think he is dead and I miss him greatly) he and I were writing something together. For this last year, I’ve been unsure what to do with it. On the one hand, it was part of a correspondence which is clearly private. On the other, it was also a collaboration within that correspondence which both of us had intended to be read by others when it was eventually completed. It wasn’t complete last September. But nor did it break off abruptly: we had got stuck a while before that.
We had encountered changes that needed making and some basic questions that needed answering before we could keep on writing. And events intervened. The Lebanon was being bombed. In retrospect, I think Ductape's health was failing. Also I was not writing much: La belle dame had dropped by and words had become dangerous creatures.
But I think that perhaps had circumstances been otherwise, we might eventually have found a way out of our narrative difficulties. Counterfactuals. As it was, they weren't, we didn’t and I don’t want to change what was written now, since I think some parts of it may be among the last things he wrote. Though not the last.
It’s hard (at least I've found it hard) to know what to do with words that have, if only by default, been entrusted to your keeping, but which – at least at some point – were intended to be read by more than one pair of eyes. I thought about what to do about this over the last year, but have reached no conclusion: I still don’t know whether this is a betrayal of trust or not. We didn’t -- and in particular Ductape didn’t – think that it was finished. But I cannot fix or finish it by myself and some of you were his friends, the people for whom he wrote.
If parts seem clumsy or inept, they are almost certainly mine since Ductape didn't do clumsy or inept.
Where did I find this place? In a memory. Look see? Over here.
A dubious pause and a raised eyebrow.
"Well it's a good enough place to meet isn't it? A place that is no place at all. One can come and go, traceless. Singularly apropos."
You follow the voice over to a rather distressed looking picnic table, there in what passes for a park for the kids to run around during the day, letting off steam. It's darker here, away from the floodlit carpark, from the loglo of McDs and Burger King. The air smells of oil and fumes. Beneath that, the smell of stale cooking fat and old fries. Yet catch that midsummer breeze in just the right way and there's a hint of something not yet vanquished, not yet destroyed utterly.
"Like Ithilien" she mutters beneath her breath, "Yes. This is my memory of it."
Her companion does not hear. He is preoccupied with the discovery of a fire fly, and its periodic hopefully-green glowing.
"What's it's name?" he says, looking up.
"It doesn't have one. But we called it the United States of Generica. "
Out on the highway a military convoy trundles through the night.
"So." she says, "What shall we discuss on this shortest night? Manifest Destiny? The End of Empire?
"Is there a difference?" the old man asks, smiling down at the firefly, with whom he has made friends. It perches comfortably on his finger, blinking companionably in the gathering dusk.
"In their ends, I mean," he eyes his DoodleBurger skeptically. "They have always been symbiotic, like conjoined twins that cannot be separated, that live only a short time, though to their parents, it seems an eternity. The fact is, we are all just people. There is no Master Race, no Manifest Destiny, no Empire. These are more truly fairy tales than fairies and goblins and enchanted forests. Although unlike the fairies and the enchanted forests, they call forth the worst that is in us, worse even than the mischievous goblins."
He nods farewell to the firefly, who makes its blinking way off into the sky, and takes a hesitantbite of the DoodleBurger, nods approvingly. "Good. They remembered the extra pickles."
"I suspect I'd need more pickles still," she replies grinning, picking lazily at a strawberry parfait. Lifting her spoon, She raises an eyebrow towards her companion.
“We are all just people?There is no Master Race, no Manifest Destiny, no Empire?” These things, then, are mere chimeras. Figments of a feverish brain, of paranoid imagining? Will-o-wisps we have been chasing through a forest to our boggy doom.” She smiles. “Windmills. Not giants after all.”
She pushes the half-finished parfait aside, not before having extracted, with care, one last strawberry, though not the last. And looks at her companion seriously.
“In that case, all of our rejections and denials (flawed though they doubtless have been), all our disruptions, disputations and dissolutions (morally compromised to their core though they may be) – all have been truly full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Harsh words hurled at an imagined foe.”
“I wish that were so. I would like to die happy. But it is not. We are not just people.“
She pauses for a moment as a security guard makes her round of the car park.
“We are people, yes,” she continues quietly, once the guard is out of earshot,
“but we are also the things that people make. And to our great misfortune, Master Races, Manifest Destinies and Empires have been among these made things.”
“And are we not so neatly caught between truth and falsehood? For if these things are to be unmade again, we must deny them existence, we must reject them utterly and steadily. Yet if we simply deny their existence – if we say all innocent and unawares, “Oh but there is no such thing as Empire! The Master Race? Who are they? I never heard of them before!” then whether our innocence is sincere or feigned, we cannot help but make invisible its consequences, its damage done.”
She looks around the carpark again. The security guard has resumed her post outside Burger King, on the other side of the lot. A worn, sharp vegetable knife has materialised on the table between them. She shakes her head. “Another memory.” She picks it up and rests it carefully in her left hand flat across her palm, fingers folding up and closely over the blade.
“It is tempting to imagine that they do not exist, that these things that people make are in some sense not real because they are made and can therefore be unmade. The knife is relatively simple to regard as real, it is material. We can see it, touch it, guess what its effects might be. From here in Generica? Though no less material, perhaps it is true that Empire is not so visible here as elsewhere. But that – as you observed to Alex – is only because in the eye of the hurricane, there is no wind.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, she puts the knife down between them. “So. What is to be done?” she asks. "How may we escape this snare?"
"Well, yes, they exist in the same way that fat exists on the butt of an insecure and slender young girl, gazing into her mirror."
The old man decides not to tell his companion that those are not strawberries, but chunked and formed vegetable protein, not unlike the DoodleBurger itself, only the extrusion settings are different.
"And so I suppose we make arguments against them for the same reasons we try to reason with the young girl."
The firefly has returned. It seems to like the old man. Or maybe it is hoping for a crumb of DoodleBurger. If so, its hopes are beyond rewarded, as his benefactor decides he has more than achieved his textured vegetable protein requirement for the day,and lays the dubious sandwich down, only a few bites eaten."It is our destiny to fight phantoms," he muses. "All those things that don't exist, with which we seek to destroy ourselves."
He pulls a pair of glasses from a pocket in his garment. His distance lenses. He puts them on and gazes out across the parking lot, and is caught by a billboard "WORLD'S BIGGEST ARTICHOKES KIDS AND SENIORS FREE.""Do you like artichokes?" he asks, pointing at the billboard. "I am a senior." He looks around for a few more seconds, and apparently decides he has had enough distance vision, replaces the glasses.
"The girl, you see, will starve herself. She will pretend nothing is wrong, and eat her meals, but vomit them up in secret. She will do this until one day her mother catches her unawares, in her underclothes, and sees the bony shoulders, the ribs like a concentrationcamp photo, and then, if it is not too late, the whole family will live around the cause of saving her life. But even in the hospital, hooked to her IV pole, when she looks in the mirror, she will see a fat butt.
So it is with Empire, so it is with Manifest Destiny.Just a bunch of white people who think their butts are fat. At least in this particular century, it's white people. A while back it was Persians."He looks quite old enough to have been witness, possibly participant, in events "a while back," but it is with remarkable agility that he springs up from the plastic table, after murmuring his farewell to the firefly in some ancient (or not) language."Let's go see those artichokes!" He rubs his hands together in anticipation, licks his lips. "I hope they will have lemon butter!"
She too gets up, casting a brief surreptitious glance at her backside, choosing a moment when her companion’s attention appears to be fully fixed upon the possibility of artichokes. “But it is fat, there’s just no getting around it.” she thinks ruefully. She shakes herself. After all, there are worse things. She’s not hooked up to an IV. The trick is to try and see clearly what is there, fat or no fat, ghosts or no ghosts. Or both, even, depending on which of one’s mismatched eyes one peers through.
"Looks like it’s still open” she says, staring out across the car park in the late twilight. “See, there’s lights on and they’ve got seats out on the verandah. This wasn’t here last time.”
She picks up the knife – “In case we have to cut the prickly ends off the leaves. Or that pithy stuff” she explains, tucking it out of sight. “I love artichokes. Especially with garlic, but lemon would be good too.”
As they amble across the car park, she regales him with a tale of the time she learned to distinguish between anchovies, artichokes and garbage disposal units and why the remnants of the second should never, ever, be put into the third.
“Green. Stringy. Stuff. Everywhere. ” she concludes, grimacing. “Who’d have thought one artichoke could have so much of it? .”
Taking a seat at a wooden table on the verandah, they take turns looking at a menu and discover a broad assortment of artichoke-devouring options, several of which require thoughtful and detailed investigation, consumption and comparison.
“So it is with Manifest Destiny so it is with Empire – yes, I think that we agree. But listen,” she thinks aloud, as they sit there, replete with artichoke in many delicious forms, contemplating the deep blue evening sky, “The girl on the IV, surrounded by her loving family – she will not recover, I think. She may linger but she will not live, until she sees what is there, the delusion, that it is a delusion, and the harm she does by acting on it. Until she sees that, she will not see a need to end it. And where will she learn to see? And how?
“We may reason with her – as you said – tell her that she is, in fact, not only slender but dangerously emaciated. We may place the mirror before her face. We may drag her from her bed to measure her height, weigh her body and show her the BMI index, but what she will hear is that we, being fat, lazy and undisciplined are jealous of her determination, her self-control, her wholehearted desire to be thin, her willingness to do whatever it takes to reach that goal. Her single-mindedness. And if we acknowledge this as well – if we say to her that this – our fat, lazy and undisciplined jealousy of your determination – is what she will hear when we say this and it this is a predictable symptom of this illness? Well, sophistry can be added to that list easily enough.”
“I remember sitting in a room with someone who had once been a friend, holding my hands tightly together so that I would not hit her with them and realising for the first time that although I had the strength to bodily pick her up and hurl her to the other end of the room – and for that matter, the necessary rage to make such a choice seem attractive – it was not in my power to move her conscience one single inch.”
And so beloved ancestor, with the irritating persistence of an uncooperative and childish descendant sitting in the back seat of a car, asking every two minutes “Are we there yet?” I shall repeat my question: what is to be done?
He gestures to indicate that he cannot answer just yet, he is still finishing up his Artichokes Rockefeller, wondering whether there really is a difference between anchovies and garbage disposals, he is not fond of either. He smiles to himself as best he can, under the artichoke-stuffed circumstances, at the array of empty dishes at the girl's place, waiting to be collected.
Woman, he corrects himself, but he cannot help but think of her as a child, when they cross busy streets, he takes her hand protectively in his own, careful to let her think she is assisting his aged self make the journey safely.
He is glad to see her eat. She is too thin. "How to move a conscience," he finally mumbles, almost to himself. "There really should be a pamphlet orsomething. A website. With easy steps and a diagram." "I think it is like teaching," he continues, pushing back his dish, reluctantly acknowledging that he has reached his personal limit of artichoke consumption, and a bit concerned that his astonishing capacity for same may cause the restaurant's management to revise their "SENIORS FREE" policy, at least on the All-U-Can-Eat buffet.
"No one ever teaches anyone anything, really. You just make the resources available and sit back and watch them learn."
"Where y'all from?" asks the cashier as the girl - the woman - hands her a plastic card. "Y'all ain't from round here," she pops her bubblegum to emphasize her remarkable perceptive powers. "Yourn's free, youknow," she shouts at the old man, unaware that at this moment, he can hear the slurp as a child over at the BurgerDoodle finishes his WildBerryFreeze. "Seniors is free," she explains to the woman, voice lowered to a normal decibel level, swiping the plastic card through a machine, waiting for another machine, somewhere, to respond, and agree that the impressively low sum of $7.99 US may be safely deducted from or charged to, yet another machine somewhere else.
"You know who he looks like?" she asks conversationally, as they all wait for the hiss and clicks that will indicate that the electronic question and answer session has concluded,
"He looks like the feller they got on the television set, th'terst, you know, that blew up the nine-a-leven? With all them people in it? Oh I know he ain't, he's way too old, plus he's one o' th' nice ones. I c'n tell th' nice ones." She leans toward the old man, grins. "You ain't fixin t' blow up nothin', is ya?" she shouts.
"Could we have some bubble gum like yours?" the old man places a coin on the counter, takes the little squares from her astonished hand. It jumps at his touch, as if from an electric shock.
"He speaks English real good." The cashier is, after all, a professional, who must be able to recover quickly from shocks to the system. "You speak English real good," she shouts in the direction of the old man's ear. He inclines his head to her graciously. "You will permit me to return the compliment."
Sometimes we must lie to be kind, he thinks to himself, as they settle into the car, leaving the cashier to stare at her hand where the ancient fingers brushed it as they took the gum, as if looking for some kind of mark.
"Pay-gy," she calls to a waitress, " You got smora them pills like you gimme that night Misty got th' po-leesecalled on Dwayne?" Peggy nods obligingly and goes off to get her purse. The cashier looks as if she might burst into tears.
"So it is with moving consciences. We cannot do it, they must move themselves. At best, we can make vehicles available." The old man blows a bubble and pops it, quite pleased with himself, undisturbed by the fact that he is no match for his companion's skills in this department.
"The Americans like to say, you know, that Uncle Tom's Cabin changed peoples' hearts, and was the real catalyst for the re-framing of slavery. Even Abraham Lincoln himself is alleged to have indicated as much to Ms. Stowe. But I think this is a myth. The real reasons were economic, as they always are. But the public is always encouraged to attribute such things to something less mundane, more emotionally uplifting, a book, Gandhiji, Patrice Lumumba, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela. Not to take away from any of them. All were the vehicles for moving many consciences, and this is a good thing. But we must not deceive ourselves, and if we look about Soweto today, or the projects a few miles from Dr. King's tomb, if we leave the big city and observe the plight of Dalits in almost any village, we must acknowledge that on the whole, only a small percentage of consciences have been moved."