5.01 / January 2010

The View From “Mr. Rockefeller”

Finding himself imprisoned beneath the ground in Boston-Mass., the conman “Clark Rockefeller” couldn’t help but understand: That {with his own two hands shoved for years down his pants} he’d quite literally diddled away his life up till then.

His massive grand-ma’am had said as much the last time they’d met, quoting one Corinthians:

“All things are lawful for you, but all things edify not. So from your sin already—get lost!”

He thought of what he’d lost instead, now in his solitary cell, cramped legs crossed constrictingly in his denim’s prison-scratch. First and foremost had been what he’d called his “Snooks”; a pet name that’d started out its life in his head as shorthand for what troubled him on his body the most. That Old-Adam flesh. That “It is better for a man to marry than to burn”-snatch. After his beloved toddler-daughter’s birth, though {which brought with it, like a current gushing straight out at him from between his ex-wife’s legs, the simple imperative: “GO STRAIGHT!”}, he’d re-gifted the name to her. Her for whom he did now languish 23 hours a day in a cell on account of “kidnapping,’ for going on the run-slash-lam while refusing to relinquish, no, not his baby girl.

As had become his evening ritual while awaiting trial {after chow, but before bed}, he switched on his old-timey TV cabinet and watched. Pathologically interested in its convex, coke-bottled, hard-glassed screen, warming up like a horizon in washed-out RGB. Tonight it was him waiting for CN&N to finally lead with the Boston Globe interview he’d granted the previous morning {during which he’d refused to confirm or deny his claim to that famous family name, even though it was, quite assuredly, not his}.

On this evening, though, watching in vain {where the deuce was he?, he wanted to know}, “Rockefeller” experienced another in a long line of his “afflictions,” a medically unexplainable, multiply misdiagnosed breakdown—a sputtering, full-on, irrational collapse. As a youth he had taken to feigning just such attacks, to gain sympathy, gratuity, or any number of desired gifts. But at some indiscernible “tipping point” in his personal time/space these afflictions had, from affected fantasy to real drubbing reality, passed. What he used to pretend to suffer, he one day found he could in no way shake. {In an unfinished memoir he’d meant, year after passing year, to have finally finished and ready to “shop around”—in one of its drafts—he described it thus: “A—what I’ve been told is a common descriptor (especially for abused kids)—a phantasmagorical space-time dent. Like a divot or lawn dart directly into my head. Using me for a starting block, the cosmos. It—whatever one might argue—“It” is standing for in this sentence—gouged out my geek head. (You will find, as you and I get more “familiar,” that I’ve no hesitation in admitting the ways for which I should be physically ashamed.) Seeing the evidence as if etched into the concrete blocks of my solitary confinement cell; the writing-on-the-wall cliche: That G-d or His representative had, for the length the cable news report I was watching spanned, chosen to turn His awful, roving eye directly down and on me. That He looked down on me like so many others (in my misunderstood life) had: Hard and without any “give.“}

For the previous 15 minutes it had been wall-to-wall on the recent Russian invasion of poor Georgia. One of the network’s interchangeable, dayside talking heads promising an imminent, in-depth report from their hot older-woman anchor Campbell Brown. {And what a Campbell(!), “Rockefeller” found himself thinkingagain. She who was the exact same age as his wildly successful investment banker ex-wife. While stuck in his cell he’d made it a daily routine, to watch every last scrap of Campbell’s on-air “talent.” As if he were practicing a graft—doing the long, anonymous legwork necessary to set her up for his scheme. In just the past week he’d been able to extract, for his memory, the following things:

{That the gist of Campbell’s on-air “shtick” was her willingness to show off, especially to guests with whom she heartily disagreed, her feisty, fisty “business end.” Both lively and disciplined. Both righteously “hot” and (what he likely would’ve called, over late-night drinks at her local airport’s bar before retiring to a mutual bed) an “unguarded zeal.” A “real,” “authentic” (even sexual) zest.

{These giddy glints of her off-air spark—of what he liked to think was approaching her actual “self” (a term he’d quickly acknowledge was, boy didn’t he know it, a blank, blunt placeholder and nothing else)—they came in millisecond bursts. (It greatly pained him that he could not pause or record this live TV.) He’d noted that most often they occurred near the end of her show. Winding down to wander off—he imagined her slipping off her heels beneath the “Campbell Brown: No Bull, No Bias” desk; imagined her scrunching her toes in their hose in sore need of some relax; imagined spotlights blinking out behind and big boom mics nuzzling the air as she exited the set, heading either to an empty, uptown apartment or some seedy, semi-anonymous dive for sex.}

But here she was, as promised, leading with her thin-lipped, soft-grinned grill—standing straight-backed and properly perked in front of enormous screens showing Russian tanks rolling illegally and across borders. {His “nightcap” come dutifully back to him—his viva viva (don’t think you can’t in life) win!} Tonight especially pleasing for what she was wearing, a smartly tailored masculine-feminine pants suit {not to mention specs whose stems disappeared thrillingly into her hair’s auburn pelt}. In them she fully embodied for “R.” one of print and video porn’s most enduring tropes {as seen on TV and in the flesh!}: the dominant-but-playful librarian kink. He wouldn’t have been proud, if pressed to explain in open court, that he enjoyed thinking of her in these terms, but still; he couldn’t help but feel her pulse.

{And, in his head, he began to feel the creeping precursor of one of his nervous attacks: An off-kilter kind of trilling that he hoped in vain wouldn’t continue to mount. That sick sense of something bearing down on, but also from deep within, him. A slow whiff casting wide its net, some chemically imbalanced fisher of men.}

He was distracted from it for the moment by his TV’s louder buzz. Amplified off his cell’s cold stone, this usually indicated that his TV’s signal was about to, for no reason he could understand, be dropped for several seconds. {He imagined it must be the nightguards there outside his cell, bored out of their minds and envying him, finding nothing better to do but “dick around.”} Quick before the TV’s picture decomposed into snow he tried to burn it into his brain {he pictured himself as a kid, bearing down on his adult forehead with a woodburner between his teeth} that last collateral shot of Campbell—pregnant moistened lips, about to talk. He rolled his eyes inside while he tried to will the transition, to forcibly log-flume himself back into his head   {…these moments he “kept score with” while the hours doled   past. Waiting for her, mid-story, to become suddenly   humming and “lit,” her tapering, mascaraed eyes going all jazzy—full of a fine good knowing—her slim nose a sudden slide down her chin. Those moments that wordlessly betrayed the possibility that she could—would, wink-wink, one day—be fully and freely available to him. This matured and maturing full lady, revealing herself to be   inhabited still by college-age and experimental whims. I.e., innocence and experience. Likely more liberal-minded, when it came to ease and frequency of partners and sex. Like a smarty sorority sister portending only further good venture for him…those signals she sent up each night like bright flares;   naughted, naughty winks at what she was, no doubt even now, planning to do to him.}…

When the TV’s picture filled wonkily back in, he was thrilled to see her still there. Though he wanted to {badly, very very badly}, he tried not stare at her blouse as it flounced like a full fox’s tail. He tried not to imagine that same fox’s face, buried to the back of its snout, downstairs in her lap—buried like it was nuzzled and stuck in something overgrown in aroma, some so-called {indeed as it was, even her flaxen own} “bush.” He felt the need to say, even though there was nobody in his cell but him:


On the screen, Campbell was being seated across from a heap of a woman—shoddily attired in a get-up of like scarves and rag-rugs—apparently about to be interviewed. And as the camera zoomed in on the bulk-woman’s face {its sudden telescoping seemed to bulge out even more the TV’s fish-bowl screen}, there was recognition. A shock. “Rockefeller” saw, filling it to the brim, the mannish gamming mug of his adoptive, Russian grand-mom. The same whom he hadn’t heard from—had in fact believed {deeply wished} stone dead—for years.

She sat awkwardly {like on her hands except they were clasped, rough and unshod, over her calicoed caps}, talking into a translator that then, to Campbell now off-screen and asking questions, spat it back. The interview appeared to be taking place in a closet-like bedroom that read {to “Rockefeller”} as a near dead ringer for the one she’d once shared with her poverty-struck, defacto, common-law beau back in Soviet Russia. She peered pathetically {a little stupidly, he thought} into the camera as Campbell’s voiceover intoned its frame:

“…our third in a series, in which we attempt to put a human face on these recently political events. Russia’s invasion, six days ago, of the former Soviet satellite has further charged the region’s already tenuous political climate. One in which the 43rd President of the United States quote looked into the soul of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and found him to be good. The same Vladimir Putin whose actions against Georgia—not to mention disastrous skirmishes with Chechynan rebels that have resulted in enormous civilian death—have revived talk of his KGB and Cold War roots… ”

His grand-mama—her almost hairless head deep-set in wrinkles working like gutters to ferry tears down her front'”she remained as she had been, all those years ago when he was a child:

Ponderously fat.

The camera seemed incapable of capturing both Campbell and his grand-nom in the same, single scene—the lighting rigs and Campbell’s seat seeming especially set back from his grand’s rolls and radius of fat {which emanated like rings from her big trunk base; when would these rings stop expanding—when would they succumb to a physical death? “Rockefeller,” at this point in his life, could not guess}.

Except there was more on the screen than just this—just her. The TV’s tuckered-out cathode rays left their light hanging off the screen like moss—close in the air an inert gas—over- and inlaid on top of her chattering in hard wisps. Like slowed frequencies that should be invisible to him. Like pixelated clumps, hard-crusted and extrudant bits of his childhood dreams. It occurred to him—without any rational way to explain if it was true—that the TV’s fetid, fecund signal was being somehow both directly discharged to, and from, him. From the half-articulated or -acknowledged psychic sludge that did continually beat like slurry against the inside channels of his inimitable head. {He knew this made no sense.} A liquid slosh on the screen now growing increasingly slow, hardening into a single shape that had been, for most of his life {his identity, understand}, ridiculously teflon and malleable and resistant “to fix.’ {Was he experiencing it as a physical reality for the first time? That, the longer he dribbled away from himself in cell, totally sans contact with his beloved bobby-tailed kid, the surer it (his identity, him) became sedentary: A tumor, not a head?}

Who could’ve foretold this?

Who could’ve guessed that, after incarceration {awaiting trial each day like inevitable cellular death}, he would find again his adoptive Russian grand-mama via the TV? {The same g-ma whom he’d adolescently spurned three decades ago while attempting, in America, on visa, to “pass.” To shunt himself undeclared and undetected, from one identity to the next. He had been so single-minded in this “shed” that, after she’d threatened to turn him in, he’d done her one better. He’d reported her out-of-date papers to American INS, resulting in getting her drop-shipped back to some—any—Soviet location several thousand miles away from that latest version of him (this being the first year he’d allowed himself to claim “Clark Rockefeller” as his)…and some months later, hearing about her fate: That she’d ended up being denied entry into the country mother proper, had been left to fend in an ever-more-so-impoverished bloc state—that poor Georgia—the very same she’d once wallowed in, in impacted poverty, as a kid. The same one where her consumptive, bad-hipped husband did still then reside; the very, decrepit Djunya for whom she’d sung on street corners to help feed as an urchin kid. What complaint could she possibly have then, against him? Mad that his “ratting her out” had reunited them two lovers?}

So who could’ve? Not even he with his off-the-charts intuitive and advanced grasp of the human “read,” with his deep-tissue understanding and knack of playing people like musical themes {nerdy in his glasses, but still}. To have her wholly blanked from his head all these years until—like that certain kind of peat bog or moss in the upper Midwest that can, growing hundreds of feet underground, ignite and burn undetected for years—she’d suddenly flared up again. His grand-mom so displaced by world events as to be displaced right back to him.

{And for what? Revenge?}

Campbell’s voice piped up:

“…this wretched, everyday example of thermonuclear politics. I think all of our viewers join me in applauding you for your strength—and pitying you for your fate at the hands of power-hungry men…”

{In his memoir “Rockefeller” would’ve said it like this: “Surely it was my grand”-non‘s fault that, …[s]ince the millennium’s turn, Putin and Co. had been gesticulating like stupid-mad Ursa Majors, threatening with their Siberian-sized paw-cum-fists, photo-opped while fly-fishing as KGB and brusque as ever—broad- and bare-chested—apparently unconcerned that their bodies were so effeminately without hair even while they acted, on an international stage, like such obvious—what she would have called them even to their shorn faces—such obvious “dicks”.}

It turned out, he learned as he listened, that as a result of this revived Cold War jockeying, tank shells had been routinely blowing closet-sized chunks out of civilian Georgian digs—including of course, he suddenly understood, his grand’s dreary apartment. Indeed exploding into particulate bits her husband, asleep in it and still. Campbell clearly pitied her for this. {Which made “Rockefeller” sniff. Made him sniff like Georgia’s beleaguered president in the first days after the attack, at the empty words of the then-American career political hack—the late, great candidate formerly known as J. McCain—when he’d cloyingly and pointlessly claimed at his own photo-op: “We are all Georgians now.” And then proceeded to do nothing but bupkis to stop the international event. “Rockefeller,” just like the Georgian president in the face of that pronouncement, sniffed: “Yes, so nice. But where are your American tanks?”}

And she played it up, his g-ram did, altering her harder, more-severe face and vocal tics the same way she used to when social workers would come to snoop around their house. To appear conciliatory—a simple peasant transplanted by hard circumstances to this land of plenty and none—to appear all the more noble and strengthened by the strife through which she’d been. She projected herself to be at a loss over these most recent, and gratuitously cruel, events. Her translator said:

“She wants you to know, Ms. Campbell, that she was already terribly, terribly poor before all of this. Before her husband went up—went up, she says, like so much firework. She wants you to know, Ms. Campbell, that she doesn’t know: what the deuce to do now.”

The sighs from her body said as much. Him watching his grand {though,   he’d quickly insist, not his on either his father’s or mother’s side} milk it like a cow who couldn’t speak contrary to this. And in his head more trilling, this time focused like a laser pointer, pointing something out to him:

If her dear Djunya‘d indeed been dynamited out of his pants—if their shared {ugh} “love nest” had been blown to kingdom’s come and existed now only as a gaping literal hole in their third-floor walk-up brick—then what was this room she was being interviewed in?

As the camera shot-reversed-shot, he couldn’t help but see all sorts of   tell-tale, granular details singing out: The stool she sat on being the same three-legged one {he was sure} she’d used to discipline him over as a kid; the enormous, rough-hewn end of the bed behind her surely the same one from which she’d hung her variously cup-sized girdles and slips; the rustic, Russian rendition of a severed John the Baptist’s head {which she’d insisted should reside in his room}—there was no mistaking the authenticity of what he read.

Except how could that be? Could the cable news network have decided it made sense to use their considerable production budget—to stick-by-stick and painstakingly re-create his grand-ma’am‘s bedroom that was blown-to-bits? As an unbelievably elaborate live set? A 1:1 scale reproduction built in the basements of their Atlanta, Ga., studio, to every last whit?

Why bother, he wondered; why bother to puff her up anymore than she herself already did?

And not to mention the further disturbing thing that she was now doing there on the screen {the laserlike trill in his head expanding out into a net that was going to, as it always did once it ramped up its “derangement,” envelop him}:

He saw, as the camera pulled back, that on the reconstituted bed his nana had meticulously arranged one of her husband’s empty suits. The clothes, a full regalia, were missing only their master’s body’s heft. He saw her suddenly   smoothing the air around the suit’s empty neck, her stump hands in rude strokes describing what she obviously still saw as the current location of his currently missing head.

As she answered the next question from off-screen, instead of looking toward Campbell she kitty-cooed down into her Djunya not-existing-right-then; her lips wrinkling about where his ear would have been; her nose balking at being tickled by his phantom, whiskered chin. Even across the ether through this satellite-link feed, “Rockefeller” could tell. That she imagined her life post-these-attacks as consisting only of her always waiting—for her emptied, rubbed-out husband to one day reverse course, to succeed in unemptying their bed.

The screen rolled for a moment, and, when it regained its hold, his gram appeared suddenly aware—she hooked her elbow at something like she was pointing it out, playfully to him: The fact that his gramp’s queer, disembodied double was pointed in the wrong direction on the bed.

I.e., the empty depression of his suit’s stiff neck rested not on pillows—not “just so” next to some imitation-rustic stands—but at the mattress’s foot and opposite end. Not anywhere near where his consumptive, cough-stained g-pa would’ve, in real life, laid his head. Not anything like the rigid, routine everydayness his superstitious old grand would’ve insisted on. To tempt Providence-slash-Fate with such an indecorous—even sacrileged—honoring of such war dead? Maybe others wouldn’t notice, but “Rockefeller” knew his na-na to her very core—knew her abiding devotion for ritual’s sake, for orthodox, for the lack of understanding she was tirelessly willing to amend and take.

{This off flavor in the scene reminded him, fleetingly, of when marauding U.S. troops used a tank to topple the bronze statue of displaced madman Hussein. How, conspiracy bloggers and late-night AMs were quick to point out that the American flag draped over the crown-metal-molded head (in an American gesture of “eff-you” triumph—of literally rubbing this despot’s deposed face in his shame) had been hung reversed and wrong. With its union down. The flag over Hussein’s head placed in a way that every soldier who’d ever served (or taken simple civics) would instantly know was meant to signal, in code, an extreme distress. To inaudibly say: “YOU ARE RIGHT TO FIND SOMETHING WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE.” (At the time, “Rockefeller’d” wondered why the media-savvy soldier who’d been hand-picked for this pre-arranged op—he who, “R.” could tell just by looking at him, fancied himself as all four famous Iwo Jima soldiers rolled into one—would display the spangles in such a way so clearly verboten…)}

Back on TV his grand-ma was now manically mugging, mwah-mwah-mwah-ing her kisser her pan her puss across the screen. He struggled to hear what she said with all the feedback racket reverberating off the inside of his head:

“Oh, Ms. Campbell. My lady wants you to know that without her abiding belief in her Savior G-d—the same One who has, even now, in His infinite-good wisdom allowed her and her husband so—” the translator indicated something untranslatable with his hand—“so in tandem to live. She cannot adequately express her thanks—he whom she’s sure must be right now watching—to him.”

Campbell seemed slightly bewildered; off-script. Looking tentatively up at her producer she said:

“Who must be watching? Did I—did I misunderstand you when you said? Who do you mean is watching? Her—”

Her translator grinned big into the camera.

“Yes, oh yes. We meant him.”

“Rockefeller” felt synapses misfiring in his head; his temples being snapped like gum while he tried to process his grand-ma planting his grand-pa like a bizarro-world flag as a secret message to him. From this hag to her not-kid. She was telling him in their shared colors: That no matter what he was calling himself these days, she would always insist—to always be that singular thing so wildly wrong with—

On the screen “Rockefeller” saw her suddenly lurch forward, ramming her right breast into her translator, wiping him like with a wrecking ball clean off the screen. Her densely plowed hands, swiping at the air as if for balance, seemed to also pick up steam. Suddenly not smoothing “nice” along the imagined folds of her husband’s blanking head, but slapping. Like she was sick of waiting for him to wake up or reappear and would, by G-d, expedite his return from the dead.

“Rockefeller” felt these slaps first as gusts of wind {had his glasses just been nudged?}, then corporeally—across the thousands of miles of “signal” and “multiply” to be there in the room with him—something like a rubber mallet insistently paddling his head. His grandma—HIS!—beating him across transponded time and space with her broad, chapped hands.

He remembered kids at school, teasing:

“Why are you hitting yourself?”

“Why are you hitting yourself?”

“Why are you hitting yourself?”

He had no answer. Reeling, battered, almost “THE END,” he found himself abruptly on his knees, his forehead being rammed into the TV like the flat of her hand. Like on the other side of the screen was his grandma with a magnet that was “magic” for him—occult in its ability to make “Rockefeller” smite himself against it, over and over again.

Smoke began to plume from the thick glass dull-cracking {someone was bleeding he could see} and there was her face a leer in the screen, grinning while her greased eyes shrieked:

“Give us a kiss-give us a kiss-give us a kiss—oh, yes!—now my missing Djunya our lives together can finally BEGIN!”