I set out to create the ultimate birthday card for you. It would be a challenge, an experiment, a token of my sincerity. Knowing the job was a big one, I gave myself five months. I hired Stan, a foreman whose portfolio teemed with praise and education. He seemed the right mix of dreamer and risk-taker. Men arrived on the site. They brought their families in big trucks, towing caravans and trailers. They wore colorful hardhats, high-visibility outerwear and Riga boots. I was impressed.
“I need sand,” Stan said to me after a week, “fine stone—Cotswold would be nice—some wheels, and d’you know those alfresco, free-standing heaters, the ones that look like red-faced midget lampposts wearing sombreros? Well, about a dozen of those, too.”
I satisfied all of Stan’s demands. There would be no compromises on this one, I knew that. Meanwhile, I was wanted in Geneva, Dubai and Hong Kong. I told Stan I’d be back in a month. When I returned, nature was submitting everywhere to autumn—that prima donna of seasons.
“What’s this, Stan?” I turned up at the site one day to find little progress. Great rectangles were plotted about the place but there was no evidence of construction work. Plus it was getting messy. Stan’s team and their families had fixed themselves a cute bivouac situation, churning the turf on my set-aside to mud sores. Lean dogs of a mongrel extraction limped about, one was being ridden by a child with long hair.
“Time, my friend,” Stan said. “I need time and materials—more stone, to be precise.”
I saw to it that Stan got his stone and then I left for Argentina. Another month went by. I fell in love and out of love fourteen times. My heart became a simple, bloody pump that ferried oxygen about my body. Inscrutable grey clouds moved in and made a nothing of each day. I started getting sessions with an expensive palmister, who concealed her baldness beneath a babushka scarf and wore a bindi spot on her forehead.
“These lines,” she said, tracing the deepest creases in my palm with a dry finger, “they are for Jenny.”
“Who’s Jenny?” I asked. What a waste of money.
I went back to the site to check on Stan. My deadline was rapidly approaching and time, unlike a locomotive, cannot be derailed with a wet leaf. I barely recognized the place. A handsome dry-stone wall bounded the perimeter. SCENES VILLE was engraved in gold letters across the entranceway’s architrave. Within, a quaint township sprung up. Beautiful handcrafted clay chimneys exhaled spirals of log smoke atop cedar shingle roofs. Amber light winked through all the cottages’ dinky panes. I’d been done. They’d even built a little village hall. I went inside. The place was stuffed with families chatting happily to their friends and neighbors.
I found Stan surrounded by a group of inkhorns. “The best books,” he said, “are those that put the problem of how to deal with the condition of human loneliness at their center. As a reader of novels and a citizen of the twenty-first century, the idea of linear narrative feels played out to me.” The inkhorns nodded in approval.
“Stan,” I said, interrupting their cozy discourse. For a half second, he regarded me with surprise, as if I were a true stranger. Even in my anger I couldn’t resist: “This wasn’t the plan, Stan.” He came over and put an arm around my shoulder.
“Ah, my friend! I’m so glad you could make it to our little get-together. I presumed you were still in Zurich.”
“Seoul,” I said. ‘I got back this morning. I sent you an email.’
“Yes. The card’s due tomorrow. The birthday’s tomorrow!”
“The card—of course,” Stan seemed to be recalling a far-off detail, a name he hadn’t heard in a while. “The thing is, see, we’ve endured a couple of setbacks there. Unforeseen stuff.”
“Such as the weather, such as the death of little Raoul, such as we ran out of Cotswold.”
“The weather? Little Raoul!?” I could feel my scalp tightening, itching. It happens either when I’ve just eaten curry or when I’m about to get mad. I’d eaten sushi. “Had enough Cotswold to erect yourself a goddamn monopoly village, though, isn’t, Stan. Enough to keep your successors in real estate for a few generations. And is that a fucking Cotswold water feature out front? Who the hell builds a water feature from Cotswold?”
What happened next I recall only in episodes of clarity, like those electrical flashes you sometimes get in the mine-black tunnels of underground trains. I remember using the telescopic truncheon my ex-wife wife bought me for Valentine’s Day on Stan. I remember being restrained by several burly men, breaking free, screaming, blood going everywhere. I remember—at one point—dropkicking a baby I snatched from a downed mother, sending it pinwheeling through a stained-glass window high up near the hall’s rafters. That was regrettable; the window must have cost a fortune.
And perhaps it was a good thing that it went down this way, with Stan doing life for multiple counts of embezzlement and my project in tatters. In the end, I just left Scenes Ville a picturesque ghost town and waited for nature to reclaim it in her gentle, tiptoe-like manner. Speculators told me I could’ve sold it for a huge profit, established a property cocoon while the whole market was going to shit, but I hardly needed the money. The kinds of things I want these days couldn’t be bought anyway. It’s just a shame that I missed a friend’s birthday, a shame I wasn’t able to pull off a crazy, grand scheme to make someone I like that happy, and an awful shame, as Bolaño puts it, that we die and have to leave behind everything that matters. But I am a professional. I’ve read the books, drank the glow-in-the-dark potions, pressed one ear to the door that says STAFF ONLY: KEEP OUT and heard, above the din of a world that looks forever backwards, over its shoulder, “It’s not too late. Something new is possible. Still—surely. Surely. Surely. Surely.”