money ain't a thang
Can money buy away pain? Can a rich man gain entry through the eye of the needle if he gives it all away? Brian Alessandro's "The Commands of Class and Carnage" paints a maddening portrait of decayed wealth while Austin Howlett's artwork asks whether man is subjugated to nature or vice versa.
The Commands of Class and Carnage
by BRIAN ALESSANDRO
Bourbon and regret had killed Martha.
Westin Hockaday’s eyelids fought to open. The first light, deep yellow with a white aura, seeped through the narrow opening of the heavy drapes. Westin’s moan shifted into a sigh as he drifted back to sleep. Somehow the news—so freighted with scorn these days and carried with a bruising agency—had wormed its way in, colored the dream bleakly. As it was a period of taking stock of ancestral misdeeds, of reparations too costly to afford default, of amends that would always ring hollow, the residue of days filled with post-enlightened criticism had found fertile ground. It was no longer a time for unchecked trespasses. And the terrible knowledge boasted a hefty price tag: guilt, in all its gruesome disfigurement.
Martha had always dismissed his rants about how he had been damned with a perennially sour stomach, interminably jumpy nerves, and endlessly gummed up sinuses. She was convinced that his depressive spells were the symptoms of an unhinged ego, and that his myriad physical ailments were the products of a nervous and culpable mind.
Ah, Martha! What’d you know?!
Upon reawakening, swaddled by his satin sheets, Westin noticed the Beidermeier credenza and matching armoire shuffling toward him in a synchronized gasp. The antique furniture insisted upon a deference. Next came the Aubrey Beardsley originals—deviant monstrosities and luscious beauties conjoined in an ecstatic Dionysian entanglement—dislodged from their sleek poplar frames and flitted with a heightened orneriness at him. The Waterford crystal chandelier, diaphanous and once assuredly dormant, descended in a creeping menace. The lavish bedroom, noted by Cigar Aficionado for its ornate flourishes and nods to Baroque density and sheen, was indeed in the throes of a conspiratorial orgy. Watteau and Fragonard—interchangeable in their relish of old pale worship, fetishistic, fascistic reverence to royal lessons and decorous denouncements—intermingled with the Singer Sergeants and Vermeers. All the oils, acrylics, and water colors in the annals of civilized canvases decided that this was the target worthy of their reanimation and reification. The Renaissance tapestries—mannerism beneath shields and morbidity under swords—eagerly took part, too. Suffocating anxiety, nervous asphyxia had the power to animate the inanimate and flatten the molecules of a room.
From behind the French Tudors there pressed a phantasm of imperials past, of colonists immemorial. Persistent peasants and senescent subalterns squeezed through portals otherwise blocked by centuries of denial and eras of erasure. All of history seemed to weigh on the unfortunate and otherwise unwilling Westin Hockaday, heretofore secure in his fortune and grandstanding in his fortitude.
John Sanchez, Westin’s hunched, but healthy, butler, witnessed the reductive cowering. He had seen such displays in Havana. Men having dark nights of the soul, white knuckling past the self-loathing that came from a lifetime of abuse, of friends betrayed, of colleagues trampled over, of family ignored. John Sanchez was familiar with the viper named fault. And he knew that it still, after all these long, whisky-soaked years, had its fangs deep in Mr. Hockaday’s gut.
The dedication to doom was stark. And Westin saw it all at once. The full span of white invention was hallmarked by a fetid ferocity and frivolous fecundity. Western merit was signed in blood fall, counted in downed bodies. A wave of worry washed over him. Westin—Mr. Hockaday to all who served him, and he was only served, never serving—failed to identify these demons. Their ineffable intrusion was ineluctable; all regrets would be unstoppable. It would be easier if he could pin down a word or a phrase to label the feelings, but, alas, there could be none, for language failed such naked insights. John Sanchez knew this, too.
Though the revelation was sudden, and unwelcome, the deterioration would plod along, cottoning to a slow burn rather than a swift incineration. The Commands were non-negotiable. And the necessity was clear. The materials were expendable. And he would start with the Delft ceramic plate collection he and Martha bought on their thirtieth anniversary in Holland. The Commands instructed him to smash the decadent finery against his brick and mortar fireplace, and Westin complied. He shattered the sixty white and blue china pieces until they lay in a mound of forbidding shards.
He followed this dramatic beat by taking another. With a teak-handle boutique butcher knife, Westin tore into the Vermeers, Singer Sergeants, Watteaus, Fragonards, and Renaissance tapestries. Strings, swatches, and shreds of fabric, canvas, and cloth strewn about and strangled his shiny calves and vascular forearms, and he began to take on the aspect of an eighteenth century madman more at home at the Charenton than on Park Avenue. A Marquis de Sade of tony New York lifestyles. Asylum chic.
The last of the effects to go was his wardrobe. Designer suits and sportswear, prohibitive casual threads, and couture shoes were set on fire in the porcelain bathtub with sterling silver legs and then extinguished before the flames had a chance to spread. Embers and ash billowed in charcoal-gray plumes. A soggy, blackened heap of labels and lapels, hems and cuffs, logos and collars, wingtips and soles, seer suckers and cravats filled the formerly bleached white basin. This last Command was especially difficult for Westin as most of his garments were bought by Martha. She had always had a discerning eye for men’s fashion. He even charred the cobalt Hugo Boss pinstripe she picked out for his meeting with the Board of Directors the month before she passed. As he poked the saturated, sooty bundle with a toilet bowl plunger, he realized that it had already been six years.
He thought for a moment about sparing his library. An expansive, multi-tiered den packed with leatherback covers, gold-tipped pages, and deteriorating artifacts. Rarified titles and ancient editions. The books and films and journals had harmed no one. In fact, they provided company and solace, and would perhaps continue to do so for future beneficiaries. He strolled the perimeter, inspecting the spines, recalling the time when each work was attained, the place where each entry was ascertained. He ran through plot summaries, scenes, sections of dialogue, and theses. He traced a line across each, wiping away a portion of dust, leaving his mark.
On his way to the bank to cash out his stocks, bonds, savings, mutual funds, and CDs, Westin snatched a hammer from a tool kit left behind by a carpenter who was working on repairing splintering base molding in his dining room, and struck through the framed Jules Aarons photos of black and Mexican youth from New York City and the Southwest, respectively. The 1950s-era prints were Martha’s favorites, and he had found her inclination distasteful.
While waiting with patience for the banker’s convex glower to subside at his request to expedite the dissolving of his six accounts, Westin was lulled by a cool consolation, a grimy sort of comfort that cuddled him with a downy warmth: if not for the greedy and power-insatiable, the deceitful and merciless, the vile and oppressive, the bigoted and discriminatory, the sovereign and classist, the colonizer and egotistical, the ugly and debased, what would poets and folk writers scribble about? What would activists mewl over? What would the righteous rage against? What would the saviors of the planet do without people like him?
“I know that we’re all a little jumpy these days about banks being untrustworthy and unreliable and whatnot,” said the banker, blushing with a clumsy grin, “but you’re still much better off keeping it all in here than wherever you have planned.”
Westin shrugged as he watched the demonstrative incredulity of the banker vanish with the appearance of the twelve bundles of tender, all of which were assiduously and discreetly carted to the back of a waiting limousine by his old, but able, driver, John Sanchez. A man of too many fedoras, too few Bolivar Belicosos.
During the drive back home, Westin registered relief when he remembered he had fired his financial advisors two summers ago and cashed out on his portfolio, leaving nothing liquid in his wake. All of his capital was visible. The Maoists would see him killed merely because he was of means. No matter how self-made the prestige. Really, though, who got hurt?
To hell with these small, safe people. See my accumulation. Watch it sizzle!
The formidable task of flushing an unfathomable lot of cash down the toilet brought Westin to ruminate on his two grown sons, Charlie and Mickey, who would flush the very conceit of ownership and wealth down figurative toilets, and who had been estranged for close to five years, soon after Martha died. Westin recalled that Charlie was doing volunteer work in Tanzania with some Brooklyn-based “non-profit” organization or another and Mickey had moved to Portland, Oregon, with a male “friend” to open a “green” café. They’d both be well into their thirties by now. And the toilet choked.
The remainder of the millions burned quickly in the fireplace, and Westin stepped carefully over the shards of busted-up china as he shoveled the twelve burlap bundles worth of bills into the smoking pit.
John Sanchez had watched silently from the threshold into the living room, eating his outrage and swallowing his grief, wondering how much he would be able to snatch before his employer noticed, calculating what his annual salary would look like in terms of bundles, until Westin noticed, gifted him one bag of bills, and thanked him for his twenty five years of loyal service. It was a far cry from being fed grilled cheese sandwiches in the bathtub by his adoring childless aunts as a boy.
Westin elected homelessness. He chose the gutter to the high-rise. The slums to the penthouse. It felt organic, the decision. It was right. The immediate comfort was arresting. And as he curled up in a junkyard between two metal trash bins and atop three layers of grease-stained and shit-smeared cardboard boxes, he thought about the stories he read in the New Yorker while waiting for doctors and lawyers to manage his affairs, mortal and immortal, respectively. One was about an old married couple who lost their home to the bank in a foreclosure they failed to forestall and so decided to drive their car into the pond in their backyard instead of burdening their five children, none of whom wanted to take in either one of them—let alone both!—anyway. The other was an excerpt from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, the journey of a nameless vagrant, an intellectual, who’d sooner starve himself in the streets before deigning to take a job, as an uncommonly skilled and highly principled thinker, he was naturally above the necessities that plague the common and the desperate. There was also a critique of the Ermanno Olmi film, Legend of The Holy Drinker, in which a Parisian alcoholic is bequeathed two hundred francs by a stranger under the condition that he eventually repay the loan to a local church when capable, setting into motion a series of frustrations as the man endeavors to do so. And then he thought of one from his collection, Huysmans’ Against Nature, the late 19th century tale of an aristocrat who chucks it all to live in the wild, only to fall victim to familiar needs, craving old luxuries. Westin found affirming themes in these four works and recycled the narratives and character developments for the sake of galvanization.
And then he realized that he had been wrong to draw parallels between his actions as dictated by The Commands and the works of the artists whose stories had touched him. They were not the same. Westin took the decision to destroy his property and flush and burn his money. Had the crisis of conscience been clearer he could have—should have—donated his assets to charity. He was as delusional as the unnamed protagonist in Hamsun’s novel. His desecration was not merely external, though. And so this final self-abasing epiphany was par for the course on which he set out. Though he always favored Don Quixote, he never wished to turn out like him. Idealistic to a self-immolating degree. A fool who allowed asinine vagaries to lead him to ruin. Care, but to a sensible degree. Pursue your soul’s delight, but do so within reason.
Too many of his dreams had flayed the flesh off the face of a cruel scowl. Too many excuses had been upended. Masks were cracked open. He could no longer abide by the pool of pretenders who sought to assuage his self-doubt. The nakedness of his behavior was almost unbearable. And the raw, chapped quality of the decisions he took prevented him from turning away. He had woken up, and the indictments lingered, followed him into a cold yearning for atonement.
The bystanders to his success appeared with the fanfare of a Grand Guignol production. Their silhouettes shape-shifted into warped stick figures and fell down, tumbled out of sight. People got sick from his emissions and runoff. Went poor trying to pay his rent. Incurred addiction on his drugs. Racked up debt funding his scams. Lost their own businesses partnering with him. And the ones without the means to be scammed and extorted felt the great heft of his steamrolling ambition. And the politicians were expensive.
Bourbon and regret had killed Martha. The same ailments that sent her mother to an early grave. The weaker uncles and aunts, the unsteady cousins, nieces, and nephews succumbed to similar assaults. And Westin breathed easy, knowing himself responsible for only the access to the spirits, never the catalyst of the inner dismantling. A steely interiority provided him a private salvation.
And his thoughts became vivid and excited. If you truly love the planet the best thing you can do for it is slaughter your family and kill yourself. Nature does not need you.
Sewer fauna and junkyard wildlife surrounded him with gay greetings. The roaches, rats, flies, pigeons, fleas, and spiders welcomed and warned. Though the loneliness had knocked his soul out of shape, this steady solitude might go some way in reforming what had been disfigured. The new life would be long, but at least the days would be short. And only the nights would be cold.