The West |

Feather Duster Down

by Stan Apps

There was a fountain in the middle of the traffic-circle, and what seemed to be wealth was rushing out of the top of it and disappearing. The fountain had been built by the colonizers, as part of their project to beautify and irrigate. Looking more closely at the wealth, he saw that it consisted of an effervescent bubbling, an epiphenomenon or superstructure. He could not be certain whether it was an epiphenomenon of the fountain or rather a superstructure of the colonial effort at irrigation. Anyway, a nude child was now bathing in the fountain, and now two were, and soon it was a whole family, mothers, uncles, all naked, big and small and fat and skinny. He would have gotten naked and jumped in the fountain with them if not for the fear of seeming to have been a pervert, his inability to speak their language, and his fear of contracting amoebic dysentery. The wealth bubbled evaporatively around the nude bodies of the extended family who were grinning and smiling at each other as the fountain splashed effervescence all over them. It was like they were being blowdried by a gleam. He sat behind the window of his car and sighed, as the chauffeur carefully turned the wheel to drive the car around the traffic circle around the fountain, periodically honking at any sort of details that seemed to be getting in the way. The details scattered out of the way of the horn, and his personal space exited from the traffic circle and began driving toward the club. The trained staff at the club always exhibited a mastery of the little details: the green crisp leaf of lettuce, the watery thickness of red tomato, the juicy crumbling resistance of ground beef breaking to bits between teeth, the fluffy cloudlike stickiness at the center of a white bun. That would be delightful and would inspire him to take charge of his own mental space. His innerness needed to be more directed. His thoughts and feelings needed to be more forcefully organized and less flabbily organized. The people in this country were lucky enough to be governed by a Hero. As Henry Kissinger said long ago to Chairman Mao, “Your mode of governance is more direct and perhaps more heroic than ours. It is necessary for us to be indirect due to our domestic situation. . . But if our real interests are threatened, we will act vigorously and without regard for public opinion.” The local people in Jakarta were lucky enough to have heroic governance all the time. Coincidentally, this heroic governance was always in the real interests of the United States, for America is a land of heroes, and every true hero has a little America in his or her heart. As we know, the less other Americans are around you, the easier it is to live the American dream, because non-Americans are more cooperative and fulfilling in service roles. The future of this country includes many transformational projects. These include village uplifting, enhancement of people’s skill, clear felling harvest of 0.837 million ha and average reforestation of 10,000 to 8,000 ha. And yet, as a consumerist, he has a present day mindset which finds the idea of the future, and its unavoidable compromises with necessity, both tacky and regrettable and, ultimately, avoidable. Oh well. In this country, everybody has a job. The job of many of the people is to beg for money from other people who have more profitable jobs. The job of begging is a somewhat respectable occupation in this country, due to religious beliefs and the recognition of necessity. This job, begging, is not very useful. The government of a country should try to make the people more useful by arranging for them to do better things with their time, such as operating a chainsaw in a teak forest or walking around dusting objects with a feather-duster. But there is only one way for the people to have these jobs. Other people, who are agreed to be more wealthy, must agree to give away a share of their resources to the workers. It is benevolent of them to agree to share their wealth with poorer people, and there are only two ways to respond to benevolence. You can laugh at it, or else you can be grateful. Successful workers are grateful. And so it was that the great hotel was built, so wealthy people from far away could come to plan the removal of 0.837 million ha from the mouth of the forest, the filling and loading of 1.06 million barrels per day, and the yearly removal of 3.03 trillion cubic feet. To please the wealthy people from far away, every worker at the great hotel must be an expert at pleasing. Gratefulness is rule one. Promptness is rule two. Knowing what to do in situations (rule three) is somewhat harder to achieve. Young men in loin-cloths carrying feather-dusters were wandering aimlessly through the suites, displacing specks of dust which floated glowingly through the brilliant light bosoming through the windows. Specks dislodged from lamp-shades drifted dreamily down to the carpets. Loosening his tie, he felt a sense of security. He gestured to the young-men in loin-cloths to go away, but apparently his gestures were incomprehensible. They stared at him. Their scrawny upper-bodies didn’t have much hair. He waved dismissively, gesturing toward the door. They did not look in the direction his hand was gesturing; they just looked at him, with troubled expressions, the way an illiterate might look at a holy text— a reverentially guilty look. He thought, “Gee my life’s a funny thing. I must seem so exceptional and otherworldly to these people.” He felt dissatisfied with the great hotel. Why hadn’t they prepared these young men appropriately? All they needed to know was how to go away. What was the complexity? Their long pink feather-dusters hung limply in their hands. The only thing he knew how to say in their language was “Where is the bathroom?” But he knew where the bathroom was already. It was right there. He could empty himself whenever he needed to. He thought, “The long pink feather-dusters are kinda classy, if your idea of class is tasteless and alien.” He thought, “I am so sick of explaining this to myself but I can’t stop.” Perhaps if he went into the bathroom the young men in loin-clothes would be gone when he came out? Meanwhile, his wife was nosing around outside the building. She had gone to explore the landscaping around the swimming pool. Some of the rooms out there were stand-alone cottages, which seemed a bit better than the room she and he had been given. She felt a bit jealous of the people who got to stay in little rustic cottages by the pool, while she and he had to stay in a huge opulent suite on the 10th floor. She thought, “Is it worth raising a fuss about? But why not?” Her name was Sita, and this is her story: She had gone a little way from the cottage, when she caught sight of a friendly, professional staff among the trees. These employees were unlike any she had seen before, with courtesies glinting like sapphire, useful suggestions like gems, and exceptionally pleated trousers. The employees spun in circles (one with a critical mind might even have said they “pranced”). They offered her a survey to see if she was satisfied. She was captivated. “A solid business relationship is so beautiful,” she said. ”Do get me one with thatched roofs near the pool area, and we will pay reasonable prices for it,” she said. “And he may write a brief letter acknowledging good service, and we will come back again and again.” ”My love, you will have this good service you need,” her husband said. “And if, as we have been warned, these employees turn out to be unhelpful, if their enthusiasm does not prove infectious, if we don’t feel we’re getting our money’s worth, if they make me sick. . .” “Then I will take up a comment card,” he sternly vowed, “and I will write the truth. And I will make the truth be public!” He followed the employees, to test them. He tried to get their attention, to order a brochure, a beer, a fact—but they hurried away through lush tropical gardens, through the kitchens full of fatted flames, through 71 superior rooms. Growing uneasy he filled out the card, and handed it, like a flaming arrow, to the concierge. His condemnation was so general, so fierce, that it struck to the core of the hotel. The hotel shed its illusory shape and revealed itself to be a lousy dump with poor maintenance. “Do look,” he said. “Look and know that vigilance is right!” “This is no real hotel—it is an illusion, an effort by marginal operators to lure tourist dollars right down the drain. They practice this deception to lure guidebook users and acceptors of bogus recommendations.” “They have suckered some suckers this way,” he said. “They have taken many a man away from his coin. The credit cards have slip-slided away.” But she said, “But dear, I think you are forgetting elements of value that are subtle, that cannot be precisely priced. These employees have something—it’s not exactly what you’d call performance—but it’s resonating.” “Oh,” he said. “Well. . . if I have to pick up the god damn sense of reality around here, and carry it until doomsday, that’s okay. That’s just fine.” “But the point is, I am paying THEM to carry it,” he said. “That’s the point. They are supposed to fool me, to my specifications, so I’m pleased. And they haven’t. They let me see the true contempt bred by market relations, and uglied up all these experiences. And what can you give the man who has everything? Experiences, and now these are bad!” “And now,” he continued, “I just feel upset, and powerless, and I just want to give my credit card information to someone else. I can only hope that the next people who take my credit card will be honest enough to fool me in the way that our relationship demands. . . I’m tense and I need a real resort level of being fooled by the smiling surface level of service relationships.” And Sita said, “Husband, I disagree. You feel that these employees mean too much, that they insulted you with a sense of having meaning. You feel they hold their meaning over you. But to me they mean absolutely only ornamental social elaboration all-the-way. If there is sweat on their hands, in their armpits, on their faces, well then I say it is the weather, or it is a tribute to you. For they do not fear you out of anger at you, but rather their fear is an adornment of your power, your puissance that intimidates all underlings and out-negotiates all men, o great one, husband, you.” That is the story of the fuss they made, which almost led to tragedy. But finally they received a lower room rate, and were put in a poolside cottage with a thatched roof, which they preferred to the huge opulent suite, and all veneers were restored, as if no guest had ever had emotions, other than good ones like wonder, awe, superiority, and having seen it all. The clerk who handled them was very very anxious when it was all over; there was sweat on his hands, in his armpits, and on his face. They were powerful people, and they had used their power effectively to intimidate him. He felt as bad as if he had carried a wooden dresser on his back up a steep cliff of treacherously small, sharp rocks. The clerk had been a young man in a loin-cloth with a feather-duster once—those had been lean but beautiful years. A heaping plate of fried rice with an egg on it in the evening had been all the reward for his hard work. Now he owned a motor vehicle and would soon drive home past the immense and glorious malaria-spreading fountains of the colonial days, honking with the traffic around the roundabouts looking at the naked villagers washing their whole families in the neo-Renaissance ambience. . . He would drive past the corrugated steel shacks with mud wattle roofs in which displaced villagers lived. He would go to his own home where his own wife, children, and servant waited for him. He wasn’t really what you would call rich yet but servants were cheap; you could keep a couple for the price of air-conditioning and a small fridge. He intended for his whole family to be proud of him. Their purpose was to be proud of him, and if they slacked off they were going to get it! Sometimes, a poor man in a loin-cloth with a purple feather-duster becomes a real man. This is a symptom of progress and material development. Meanwhile, Islamic prayers were filling the entire city with an eerie ambience. A vast masculine keening sawed at the air; this collective voice represented a brotherhood with more than enough strength to tear away the illusion of the economy and of the state and to replace them with a new illusory economy and a new illusory state. Such a move might do a lot of good. Elsewhere a young man in a loin-cloth put his feather-duster down and prayed loudly. There is nothing wrong with living a luxurious life while the people are starving and suffering, as long as you do it in the spirit of brotherhood. But, if you do it in the wrong spirit, brotherhood may turn on you, knock down the doors of your home, and beat you and your dependents into a bloody pulp. That is the main idea of politics. Another political idea is young men in loin-cloths with long purple feather-dusters staring at businessmen with loosened ties in huge opulent 10th floor suites while nosy wives sniff out the funkier poolside accommodations, pining jealously for thatched rusticity. This idea rubbed its feathers down the side of the cold white vase. Touching her long heavy tingling legs, the executive’s wife found herself cold to the touch, as if her blood had left circulation and had been invested in a 401k to reach maturation upon retirement. The penalties for early withdrawals from this account were quite considerable. When he got home, he found that his garage was full of details. A servant had moved all of the details of his house into the garage, to make way for the power of literary fiction. The power of literary fiction to create truly unreal people really opens life wide open, removing the coercive specificities that made things hard to understand. In this way, a story from a magazine or website paved the way for our foreign policy. There are servants and more servants. The servants are looking very good now that our satisfied attention slips right off of them. The impoverished families bathing in the fountain are reforested at an average rate of 10,000 to 8,000 ha a gleam. An immense actual country looks like how you look at it. There is just something so convincing about explanations. All of them are great, especially the simplest ones.