Chapter One

Anger, the hell of our souls, can bring sweet relief to a troubled mind. And I could use a little rage right now. Some vague devilish thought is beckoning me to my demise. Lord, I know if I just flipped over this table I would feel great. But I have worked so hard on shedding the anger these past years. It would be a shame to relapse. Maybe I can summon a pleasant thought to steady my weary mind? Nah, I don’t think I can, so I take a sip of a Ramos Gin Fizz. Its cloudy boozy breeze steadies me. Ah, alright, maybe I can make it. I take another sip.

I am in a courtyard café in the swampy free-city where I have found refuge. A gentle song, “The City of New Orleans,” is playing on the speakers here. “Good morning America, how are you?” sings Arlo Guthrie. All is well. I should be resting easy. But a torrent of memories unmoors my mind from reality: I see a private jet gliding above a broken nation. I see the Stars and Stripes waving and eagles flying and Toby Keith singing relentlessly and everywhere about beer and guns and Jesus. I see clandestine agents in black SUVs chasing a green Jeep on a winding cliffside road. I see mobs of angry people yelling and just about ready to make the awful, unstoppable turn to violence. I see Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicking my empty stomach. I see a sable-haired woman drinking Lebanese wine and wearing sunglasses at night at a sidewalk café in the Bowery. I hear a song: “The City of New Orleans.” Ah, yes—that song! That’s it! The night when I became a Dangerous Man I heard Willie Nelson singing the same song now playing, a song about a train, a song about a nation hovering between glory and decline. I touch the recollection tepidly, because I am terrified it might open the floodgates of despair.

My shoes clacked importantly on the stones in the great hall of a mountaintop mansion, while Willie sang “Good morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son." I pushed open a mahogany door and entered a grand dark chamber which seemed to vanish into infinity. Bookshelves and beams framed the soaring room. Giant picture windows flanked the right side. In haunting magisterial sequence they revealed the bright-witness of snow-clad mountains under the full moon. At the distant end, I saw the shadowy outlines of the military academy at West Point on the ridge across the river. It was a gothic city on a hill, here in the wilderness of tree and rocks. Far below, on my side of the Hudson, the lights of a train rolled toward New York City. Up close it was chugging and spewing and chortling but I heard nothing because I was high above it all and also because the windows were hurricane- and bullet-proof.

As the train passed, Willie was singing, “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans / And I’ll be gone 500 miles before the day is done.” Everything, all together, as though life was soundtracked and produced by a dream-burdened director. This vast chamber on that night was Polar Express and Fantasia, Le Morte D’Arthur and MacBeth, Patriot Games and Julius Caesar—Tim Burton, Tom Clancy, M. Night Shyamalan, and Hitchcock—all of that, all together.

My mind swirls. But I continue to step into the memory. In the middle of the room, near a massive stone fireplace, squeezed in a leather armchair, sat a fat old man. Despite his shame about it, extreme corpulence was intricately part of his persona and a major element of his world-historical success. His bejowledness gave him a natural commanding presence, like Winston Churchill, Orson Welles, Henry VIII, Gerard Depardieu, or Cowboys Stadium. The globular wideness contributed to his narrative-mystery, like the mystery of the moon, and his narrative-mystery gave him power. Though prone to anger and impatience, he could also be quite jolly. He could live and laugh in a way that lean, treadmill-running individuals, for whom life is one constant stress test, cannot. This aura of jolliness surrounding a bitter, angry, and perhaps fearfully sad core made him absolutely mysterious and hence ferociously powerful.

Across from this Vast Presence sat I, twenty five years old and not yet fat.

And then the old man said the words that introduced me to a dreadful reality from which I could not escape. Thinking of it now, I hear now all the sad-soul music I can imagine: Edvard Grieg’s terrifying Hall of the Mountain King; the screeching strains of Mahler’s Ninth—

The old man glanced about the room and then he spoke.

“It’s time you know the truth, my boy,” he said.

I gulped.

“The President of the United States is a terrorist,” he said.

I gripped my armrests.

“He is ushering in the end of America,” said the old man. “The revolution is here. The civil war has begun. We will be the last stand against tyranny.”

"Good night, America, how are you?” sang Willie.

And to the republic . . .

Last night at a cool dark New Orleans place called Gasa Gasa, I heard a band called Mandolin Orange. Peace is often a phantom for me but I was at ease with a pretty girl and good friends swaying and stomping to the ol’ gentle bluegrassy music. Then the band sang these words: “It should have been different, it could have been easy—”

Ah, yes, it should have been different. It could have been easy. But it wasn’t, and here’s how it was. I am hounded by images, by fears, by phantoms. My head hurts, the café around me spins, my chest tightens. I want to explode, cry, shout, punch. I want to yell like a madman, "What have we wrought!" But I must confine the madness to the page, so I don’t get arrested or, worse, stared at. Even after all the turmoil in the country, people might cast a wary eye upon someone shouting in a café. There is only one good way out. I type one word, then another, each one a stepping stone to a semblance of sanity. I begin to write a narrative plucked and crafted from the scattered files of my dream-laden mind to see if I can separate fake from fact in these frenzied days.

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