I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish fifty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been a hundred and fifty-seven minutes, could have been four hours, six hours. It wore me out, beat me down, I became Jerry’s frenzied double, eyeballs popping out of my head. Sometimes a thing that’s hard is hard because you’re doing it wrong. This was not wrong. But I didn’t want Elster to know about it. Because how would it make him feel, being a successor, a straight man to a rampaging comic.
My wife said to me once, “Film, film, film. If you were any more intense, you’d be a black hole. A singularity,” she said. “No light escapes.”
I said, “I have the wall, I know the wall, it’s in a loft in Brooklyn, big messy industrial loft. I have access pretty much any time day or night. Wall is mostly pale gray, some cracks, some stains, but these are not distractions, they’re not self-conscious design elements. The wall is right, I think about it, dream about it, I open my eyes and see it, I close my eyes it’s there.”
“You feel a deep need to do this thing. Tell me why,” he said.
“You’re the answer to that question. What you say, what you’ll tell us about these last years, what you know that no one knows.”
We were inside, it was late, he wore the old rumpled trousers, a cruddy sweatshirt, his big dumb feet in dressy leather sandals.
“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”
He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.
“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”
He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.
“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”
“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”
He didn’t smoke but his voice had a sandlike texture, maybe just raspy with age, sometimes slipping inward, becoming nearly inaudible. We sat for some time. He was slouched in the middle of the sofa, looking off toward some point in a high corner of the room. He had scotch and water in a coffee mug secured to his midsection.
Finally he said, “Haiku.”
I nodded thoughtfully, idiotically, a slow series of gestures meant to indicate that I understood completely.
“Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count. I wanted a haiku war,” he said, “I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.”
“You used this word. Haiku,” I said.
“I used this word. That’s what I was there for, to give them words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing. In one discussion or another, I probably used this word. They didn’t fall out of their chairs.”
I knew nothing about the men who didn’t fall out of their chairs. But I was getting to know Elster and I wondered about the tactic, not that it mattered in the end. I wasn’t interested in the impression he made on others, only in his feelings about the experience. Let him be wrong, rash, angry, weary. Lines and syllables. Old man’s stale feet / fretful summer night. Et cetera.
“You wanted a war. Just a better one,” I said.
“I still want a war. A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it. But in those rooms, with those men, it was all priorities, statistics, evaluations, rationalizations.”
The liturgical gloom was gone from his voice. He was tired and detached, too separated from events to do justice to his resentment. I made it a point not to provoke further comment. It would come when it mattered, self-generated, on-camera.
He finished his scotch but kept the mug nestled near his beltline. I was drinking vodka with orange juice and melted ice. The drink was at that stage in the life of a drink when you take the last bland sip and fade into rueful introspection, somewhere between self-pity and self- accusation.
We sat and thought.
I glanced over at him. I wanted to go to bed but didn’t think I should leave before he did, not sure why, I’d left him there on other nights. It was dead still in the room, in the house, everywhere out there, windows open, nothing but night. Then I heard a mousetrap being triggered in the kitchen, hammer releasing, trap jumping.
There were three of us now. But Elster didn’t seem to notice.
In New York he used a cane that he didn’t need. He may have been feeling routine soreness in one knee but the cane was an emotional accessory, I was sure of this, adopted soon after his dismissal from the ministries of News and Traffic. He spoke vaguely of a knee replacement, talking more to himself than to me, making an argument for selfpity. Elster tended to be everywhere, in all four corners of a room, gathering impressions of himself. I liked the cane. It helped me see him, it lifted him from public print, a man who needed to live in a protective hollow, womblike and world-sized, free of the leveling tendencies of events and human connections.
In these desert days few things roused him from apparent calm. Our cars had four-wheel drive, this was essential, and after all his years here he seemed to be adjusting, still, to off-road driving, or any driving, anywhere. He asked me to program the GPS unit in his car. He wanted the system to be utilized, dared the system to work. He was grudgingly satisfied when it told him, in a spare male voice, what he already knew, right turn in one point four miles, leading him to the parking lot of the food market in town, twenty-five miles there, twenty-five back. He cooked for us every night, insisted on making dinner, showing no sign of the wariness people his age tend to feel about certain foods and how they affect the body that consumes them.
I took drives of my own looking for remote trailheads and then just sat in the car, conjuring the film, shooting the film, staring out at sandstone wastes. Or I drove into box canyons, over hard dry cracked earth, car swimming in heat, and I thought of my apartment, two small rooms, the rent, the bills, the unanswered calls, the wife no longer there, the separated wife, the crackhead janitor, the elderly woman who walked down the stairs backwards, slowly, eternally, four flights, backwards, and I never asked her why.
I talked to Elster about an essay he’d written a few years earlier, called “Renditions.” It appeared in a scholarly journal and soon began to stir criticism from the left. This may have been his intention but all I could find in those pages was an implied challenge to figure out what the point was.
The first sentence was, “A government is a criminal enterprise.”
The last sentence was, “In future years, of course, men and women, in cubicles, wearing headphones, will be listening to secret tapes of the administration’s crimes while others study electronic records on computer screens and still others look at salvaged videotapes of caged men being subjected to severe physical pain and finally others, still others, behind closed doors, ask pointed questions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
What lay between these sentences was a study of the word rendition, with references to Middle English, Old French, Vulgar Latin and other sources and origins. Early on, Elster cited one of the meanings of rendering—a coat of plaster applied to a masonry surface. From this he asked the reader to consider a walled enclosure in an unnamed country and a method of questioning, using what he called enhanced interrogation techniques, that was meant to induce a surrender (one of the meanings of rendition—a giving up or giving back) in the person being interrogated.
I didn’t read the piece at the time, knew nothing about it. If I had known, before I knew Elster, what would I have thought? Word origins and covert prisons. Old French, Obsolete French and torture by proxy. The essay concentrated on the word itself, earliest known use, changes in form and meaning, zero-grade forms, reduplicated forms, suffixed forms. There were footnotes like nested snakes. But no specific mention of black sites, third-party states or international treaties and conventions.
He compared the evolution of a word to that of organic matter.
He pointed out that words were not necessary to one’s experience of the true life.
Toward the end of the commentary he wrote about select current meanings of the word rendition—interpretation, translation, performance. Within those walls, somewhere, in seclusion, a drama is being enacted, old as human memory, he wrote, actors naked, chained, blindfolded, other actors with props of intimidation, the renderers, nameless and masked, dressed in black, and what ensues, he wrote, is a revenge play that reflects the mass will and interprets the shadowy need of an entire nation, ours.
I stood in a corner of the deck, out of the sun, and asked him about the essay. He waved it away, the entire subject. I asked him about the first and last sentences. They seem out of place in the larger context I said, where crime and guilt don’t get mentioned. The incongruity is pretty striking.
“Meant to be.”
Meant to be. Okay. Meant to unsettle critics of the administration, I said, not the decision makers. Flat-out ironic.
He sat in an old reclining chair he’d found in the shed behind the house, a beach chair out of its element, and he opened one eye in lazy disdain, measuring the fool who states the obvious.
Okay. But what had he thought of the charge that he’d tried to find mystery and romance in a word that was being used as an instrument of state security, a word redesigned to be synthetic, concealing the shameful subject it embraced.
But I didn’t ask this question. Instead I went inside and poured two glasses of ice water and came back out and sat in the chair alongside him. I wondered if he was right, that the country needed this, we needed it in our desperation, our dwindling, needed something, anything, whatever we could get, rendition, yes, and then invasion.