Smitten Gate (Chapter 15)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
Farmers and fellatio
July 10, 2010
Attacks in years past had forced the Intercontinental Hotel to dig up the exterior vegetation for improved visibility, install security booths and traffic spikes, and post a security guard between the underground parking garage and the hotel. The hills above the hotel were dotted with security positions manned by President Karzai’s army of thugs and thieves so reporters, contractors, and nongovernmental organization representatives could sleep, drink, and sunbathe without having to brave small arms and rocket fire.
The hotel itself was Stalinist architecture, boxy, functional, and soulless. Inside, the décor was a clumsy replica of 1950s Vegas, shiny and smooth, with harsh, high-contrast straight lines and right angles.
The lounge was a twilight zone. Even at high noon on a sunny summer day, like now, the brown parquet floor, the stained wooden walls, the red table settings and the black Afghan macrame hanging from the dark ceiling beams, all maximized the impression of a perpetual dusk. Inevitably, the eye was drawn to one of two places: the bright light over the ranks of shiny liquor bottles behind the bar — arrayed on black shelves, of course — or the view through the gift shop and the lobby out onto the swimming pool. That’s where the five reporters’ eyes returned when they weren’t speaking with each other across the table.
Gaston Villeneuve leaned back to study the brown beer bottle in his hand — a cold, sweating Sim-Sim. He hadn’t changed his starched, blue, short-sleeved, button-down shirt since the press briefing. The sweat stains on his armpits had dried into matching wrinkle zones. The lager’s label depicted a palmed oasis at sunrise under Arabic and Cyrillic script.
Rosemarie Kirby sat next to him with a glass of white wine, trying to ignore his dirty shirt and dusty socks — he wears socks with sandals for Christ’s sake — her body turned away.
Next to her, Connie Mason had two empty glasses of Cabernet before her, another one almost drained, and a fourth on standby. For a skinny woman, she always seemed able to hold her liquor. She hugged the table, crossing her legs crossed sideways and twisting her shoulders to hover around her glass like she was protecting a baby.
George Yowell sat next to Connie, gelled hair still stony enough to bounce a bullet. He nursed a bottle of Amstel and looked a little cornered, because a quarrel had erupted between Rosemarie and Gaston. These two sniped at each other any time they came within range.
Between George and Gaston sat Phillip Ferguson, heir to some vague political fortune in Connecticut. He aspired to be a stringer for TIME but mostly wrote filler for a variety of content mills and blogs. Phillip was thirty, but his bantam frame, moonlike face, and hawser of brown hair made him look eighteen. He’d come to Afghanistan on his own dime, as he had to other conflict zones over the last five years, trying to break into “the business of journalism.” No one doubted his initiative or even his bravery in facing certain risks, but his writing was atrocious: unfocused and sentimental. Phillip was pounding a second Budweiser to wash down some fragrant meat dumplings he’d bought from a cooking stall near Shahr-e Naw Park in town. He was never invited to press briefings, so he trawled Kabul each day looking for fresh human interest stories with his translator-slash-bodyguard, a treacherous looking fellow who demanded the outrageous sum of fifty dollars a day for his services.
“Major Carroll is just doing his job, Gaston,” said Rosemarie. “You treat him like he’s the Grey Goblin. You know what a PAO is?”
“He lacks the drama of a villain. He’s a banal little instrument. As to PAO, it stands for prevaricating his ass off,” retorted Gaston. “Even the title, ‘public affairs officer,’ is cunning, don’t you think? ‘Public affairs?’ It’s an anesthetic. Oblique language to divert the public from his actual role of maintaining America’s acquiescence to this misadventure. Read Uwe Poerksen on plastic words.”
“His actual role,” said Rosemarie, “is public affairs.”
“My God, can you really be that obtuse. His job is to speak lines, like a talking doll or an answering machine.”
George couldn’t resist intervening.
“Why does it have to be an official ‘story,’ why isn’t it the official ‘account.’ You’re editorializing when you frame it that way.”
“‘Framing!’ You people cannot help yourselves. You’ve mastered this bridge-to-power speech until it’s mastered you. No wonder your reporting is shit. So, you believe that combat vignette about the kid killing the ‘terrorists’?” He made finger quotes with one hand still gripping his bottle. “The locals are saying he destroyed a truck full of watermelons and killed a farmer.”
“Gaston,” Rosemarie was back in the game, peeved at George’s attempt to rescue her. “The alleged fact that the truck had watermelons in it doesn’t preclude that it was also carrying the weapon used to attack the base.”
“I’m editorializing?” Gaston laughed, setting down his beer and fishing for his cigarettes in his breast pocket. At George: “You see, she is now his lawyer.” Turning to Rosemarie, who was draining her glass: “Are you his attorney, Rosemarie? Or are you so blinded by your infatuation with him . . . oh,” mocking her, “Good Morning, Will, will you please fill my cup with your knowledge and allow me to fellate you?”
Connie gave a sardonic grin as Phillip and George both blurted out their objections at Villeneuve’s casual sexism.
Rosemarie held her hands up, “That’s okay, boys. I’m a big girl. Perhaps Gaston is jealous that anyone would fellate the good Major — a hotty, no doubt — because Gaston hasn’t been fellated himself since he stopped bathing.”
Gaston smiled at the tablecloth as he tamped his cigarette on it.
“Are you sure your consevative network would approve of your carnal affinity for a black officer?” He put the cigarette between his lips and pulled a Zippo out of his pocket to light it. Exhaling a stream of smoke away from the table in a show of mock-courtesy, he said, “You still haven’t responded to my point about the dead farmer.”
“She did . . .” Phillip started to say, but Rosemarie facepalmed him again.
“I said that these farmers may have had RPGs. They may moonlight as Taliban. You can’t not know that.”
“Precisely my point. Neither can you. So, your default is to reproduce anything your boy-toy says from his perfidious podium. Go ahead now, lockstep to your laptops and do your duty as the hotty’s stenographer? Have you even . . .”
“I’d fuck him,” Connie volunteered, now on her fourth glass of Cabernet. “I’d fuck him like a monkey. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t call him on it if I caught him in a lie.”
Phillip and George squirmed a bit in their seats. Gaston lifted one of Connie’s empties across the table and tipped a half-inch of ash into it.
“To catch him in a lie,” Gaston went on, “you’d have to abandon that presumption that everything that passes his lips is some unassailable fact. But that might entail actually leaving the hotel and the press pool to talk with people who are not on the U.S. payroll.”
“Right,” George interjected. “With our phalanxes of bodyguards and armored vehicles to prevent us becoming the Sunday evening news as a Taliban propaganda video. Do you know how much publicity they could get by kidnapping me?”
“Phillip doesn’t mind touring the town,” rebutted Gaston, almost making Phillip smile. “He has only one bodyguard.” Turning to Phillip, “Where is your estimable thug today, anyway?”
“Rastin’s in the parking garage with the Suburban.”
“Oh, the life of a gunman!” Gaston turned to Rosemarie again, enveloping her in a smog of lager and tobacco. I can even smell his socks, she thought. “I put it to you again, dear Rosemarie. Does this dead farmer merit any inquiries? Do you think he had a mother?”
“I’m not listening to this communist bullshit anymore,” said George abruptly, scratching his chair back over the parquet, tossing back the last of his Amstel, and stalking through the door that led to the lobby, his movements puffy and somehow disarticulated, his hairdo still hard enough to withstand a bomb blast.
Connie signaled the bartender with a raised finger and said, “I love our little back-chats.”
Gaston snickered, pulled on his cigarette one last time and dropped the butt into a wineglass with a hiss.
“One of your chevaliers has quit the field, Rosemarie,” quipped Gaston. “What was all that about communists? Have the Russians landed?”
“Your paper is pretty left-wing, Gaston,” said Phillip, emboldened by his second Budweiser and Gaston’s acknowledgment of his physical courage.
“Phillip, my friend,” replied Gaston, “in the United States, everything west of Richard Nixon is considered left-wing. You probably don’t remember him, but he was a paranoid Cold War lunatic . . .”
“I know who Nixon was!”
Rosemarie fluffed the back of her hairdo with her hand, and said, “Gaston, your paper is consistently anti-American, and while we’re not the stenographers of power you claim we are, I happen to believe that our armed forces ought to be allowed a certain presumption of honesty, at least until evidence to the contrary is discovered. It’s a thankless job they didn’t ask for.”
Gaston laughed aloud.
“You are an American religionist . . . no, no wait a minute, you had your say, let me have mine. You nation is your golden calf, one that demands human sacrifice. It’s not just an American thing. Some of my countrymen do the same for Mère France. And the idea that the American armed forces of the United States are doing anything ‘thankless’ is ludicrous . . . wait, hold on . . . it’s ludicrous, because your culture worships them. You refer to them reflexively as heroes — as ‘our’ heroes — even though the vast majority of them have done nothing that could be construed as heroic. By that I mean simultaneously daring and altruistic. English is my third language, cherie, so I attend closely to meanings, like the way a term like ‘hero’ is pauperized as propaganda.”
“Gaston . . .”
“You just told me that we — meaning, I assume, the press — we owe anyone who wears an American uniform the presumption of honesty. The basis for this claim is that their jobs are thankless . . . a non sequitur, by the way, so even if their jobs were thankless, which is demonstrably untrue . . . they are thanked profusely all the time by people who have no idea what they have or haven’t done . . . this is not evidence of any inhering honesty.”
“So, you want to assume the opposite? That they are all liars?”
“I didn’t say that. Major Carroll is not them. I’m sure troops can be remarkably honest. Major Carroll’s job is one in a thousand, and it is to manage perceptions. Lying is his job.”
“Gaston, that’s just a cynical pose, your little dramatis persona. You’re the one who wants to have a desired effect on the public.”
“It’s skepticism, not cynicism, my friend. And yes, we address our work to the anonymous mass, but that’s not the point. The point is, what is our relation to power?”
“It’s not that simple, Gaston,” interjected Phillip.
“What is not . . .” Gaston started to ask, when Connie chimed in.
“You’re a self-righteous prick, Gaston. But we love you. Anyone want to join me at the pool? I’m headed out there to watch tattooed contractors tan.” She scooted her chair back, almost tipping it over. Gaston watched her walk unsteadily away.
He turned to Phillip.
“We should spend more time together.”