I saw you on television the other night, Mr. President, and so we certainly know a few things about you. I just thought I should let you know a few things about me. You know, make it kind of even. And to tell you I am leaving your country and going to another. I thought I’d try Colombia. I like my violence overt. Perhaps if I’d been better at math, I would have stayed closer, perhaps have a brick house in Georgetown, perhaps moor a Herreshoff sloop in some tidal creek in Maryland, swept by the flight of herons.
I am not a bad person. I suppose you could say I am a weak person. If something comes along that makes me famous once-removed for a moment, what’s the harm in it?
And so, to the reason why I am writing you, Mr. President: Renal Lauswald was my roommate in the Fifth Form, at the Regency School, in Bristol, England. My father designed war ships for His Majesty’s Navy. And then for your Navy.
That was more than forty years ago, and I know someone like you might spot it right away, and say that I am an unreliable witness, because of all the time lapsed. And then there’s all the added information your people will pick up eventually, namely that I was repeating the Fifth Form. Still, keep in mind, my mother was an American, and I am therefore also a citizen of your country.
The point is, you just appointed Renal Lauswald–also a citizen, I may point out–to the point of the most secret of secret agencies in your government. (How would I know this? An article in the New York Time’s culture section)—no, not the one we hear about, with three letters. The other one, with five letters. And better that you appointed Renal, rather than me. He was so smart at this school on the sheep-tinkling knoll, with its bees waxed floors and gas wall lamps, and he fretted so much about getting anything less than one hundred percent on everything, that they made him an instructor in math, chess, Monopoly, and, for fun and relaxation, the game Battleship.
I, on the other hand, fell into crisis every time I was faced with a verbal arithmetic question. You know, a train is approaching a stalled car, somebody’s parents, at a crossing, and the woman is pregnant and very much in love (looking like photos of my mother in her thirties), her whole life in front of her, and the question is: how much time will he have, my father, to get her (and the beginnings of me) out of the 1941 Hillman, if the train is going such and such a speed.
Or, like in modern terms, if a Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile at a terrorist wedding, and the missile approaches at 1,400 feet per second, and 3.8 miles away the twenty-year old Toyota pickup truck—the one that’s carrying the bride and groom and is all filled up with flowers and children and garlic and three kabob-bleating lambs—is bouncing along from the other direction at 37.5 mile per hour, and the bride groom, grinning, already singing her the traditional song “I gave you my heart, now I leave it to God”—if he shows his white teeth every nine seconds, how many times can he smile before the wedding is 100% called off and the garlic is overdone?
The point is, Mr. President, Renal would be able to solve that problem in a few seconds, without using any paper, and without displaying even one of the frowns you and I use when confronted by baffling information, such as the Constitution or the Geneva Convention.
In strictest confidence, there is something regarding Renal I should warn you about. After all, he slept two beds away from me, on the other side of Ping Pong Pawley, there under the medieval rafters. His stomach was in constant turmoil over, I suppose, his father’s expectations of him (Isn’t that usually the case; it was in my own), and his breath was so sour because of it, that I was glad to sleep next to the window, which I opened quietly—after his breathing had slowed and his mouth turned to dried snake skin and he tried to force air through his stress-pinched nostrils. How do I know this? Because I would ghost past him at night on the way to the common lavatory)
Mr. President, this is petty, I know, but Renal stretched his blankets and top sheet very tightly, military style, as if in unconscious preparation for his looming career. Then, sitting on his pillows, he would worm his feet, then his legs, then the rest of his body, under the sheet and blankets, like a larva returning to its cocoon. He did this with great precision, so as not to loosen the tuck. (How do I know this? I could look right across Ping Pong Pawley’s bed and see Renal’s rituals) Then he lay on his back, his arms folded behind his head with his elbows out, constrained as if by straightjacket, rigid. Then the vapors began to rise out of his cracked-open mouth, rigor mortis et somni, and I would get up to open the window and let in the night air. While he lay on his back making dry strangling sounds, I lay on my side breathing in fresh black winter air, listening to the last dying pings of the hot water radiator, and trying to remember the principal parts of irregular Latin verbs, fero, ferre, tuli, latus (to carry). Or, in the variation I now prefer: defero, deferre, detuli, delatus (to inform against, betray).
I have no memory of him in the morning when he rushed hollow-eyed out of the room, in his usual state of morning panic.
But the most important the thing, Mr. President, is the conspiracy of his nose and upper lip—the likes of which you can confirm the next time you do a white couch sit-down with him. The package curves out and down, as prehensile as a tapir’s snout, and suggests a generalized tumescence—like something on a mad Roman emperor, or on various members of the House.
I do not go so far as to say that this is a red flag, Mr. President, a warning about character. Plenty of good citizens have big brains and tumescent snouts, but still approve of water boarding and chip away at those things that could restrain us from war. Not that Renal Lauswald has ever taken a public position on any of these patriotic pursuits.
I hope I’m not coming off as a tell-all, Mr. President. I’m not really that type of person.
Renal left no other impressions on me, so he may be okay—and may not have demanded an investigation of Abu Ghraib or opposed the 9/11 Commission—and I like that in a man. He is probably one hundred percent behind you, Mr. President—which is the way it should be. Lock step when it comes to terrorism.
Maybe I ought to have written this letter earlier, Mr. President, but you must be a very busy, as I am, getting ready to go off to Colombia. That’s Colombia, South America, Mr. President, not the university in Manhattan.
In closing, Mr. President, let me thank you for your attention and wish you much success with your new head of the Other Agency. I know it’s curious, getting this information from someone like me, but if you just stand upwind when you make joint appearances at functions, you should have no trouble leading this country the way you have been right up to this point.
One further matter, Mr. President. Because of the underlying confessional nature of this letter, and because I must have seen something of the confidant in you, let me rhetoricize a bit more and ask, as a matter of conscience, was it me, then, finally, who opened the window at night, against his haunted breath, and began the long process of exposing him to things out beyond the lead-puttied window, where darkness conspires to suspend useless law and break the socialist social contract?
Or was it when I crept to his bedside each night after he had fallen asleep, and tightened the bed clothes still more, and lay his extra pi
llow across his mouth, so that he struggled for breath, gasping and calling out in tongues, for the next eight hours, possibly incubating, in part, the very demons we have now let loose across the earth—in the end making myself instrumental in the application of God’s will, such as to visit upon all the wedding parties of Afghanistan our own Divine and Collective Justice?
Hotel Langley Porter
401 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143