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Farewell, Africa

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January 15, 2013

According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea.

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Photo courtesy Nick Anstead

I.

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.”

The pool, which he has named The Pool of African Despair Pool, is his first commissioned work and is the first work he has constructed as a memorial.

Harold Cornish is the artist responsible for The Cube as well as The Barge, both of which are larger installation pieces—respectively, an overlarge cube perched, by some mysterious mechanism, on top of a cube not much larger than an end table and which has been set on its side, and a brushed-steel barge city that floats in the middle of Lake Erie that, for a year, was Cornish’s home and studio and that can easily accommodate, according to Cornish’s estimates, a population of a hundred thousand people. The pool, which he has named The Pool of African Despair Pool, is his first commissioned work and is the first work he has constructed as a memorial. It is also the smallest work he has designed since leaving art school, and it is the first piece of his to utilize hydraulics.

The walls of the pool, which stop at just below the water’s level, are retractable and are set on hydraulic lifts, and should have slowly begun to creep upward so that less and less water could escape over the pool’s edge. The walls would continue to rise, then, until no water could escape, so that soon the pool would fill up and the water level would rise and then cover the sculpture of Africa completely. This was all supposed to happen quite gradually over the course of the entire evening, leading up to the time Owen Mitchell would deliver his speech.

As I made my way through the party, though, I walked by the pool on occasion to check its progress, but couldn’t tell that anything was happening, which I at first attributed to my own ignorance of the mechanism of memorial installations or of art itself. But when I mentioned this to Mitchell, who seemed to be paying as much attention as I was to the pool and then to his watch, he shook his head, sighed, and said, whispering, “The damn thing’s not working.” Then he took a sip of champagne and said, “Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.”

II.

If you were to ask Owen Mitchell about his speech, his most famous speech, the speech often referred to as the “Farewell, Africa” speech, he would tell you that it was a full fifteen minutes too long.

“You look at that speech,” he told me shortly after I met him in his hotel room as he was preparing for the party. “You read the whole thing; I think you’ll agree with me. You can say about twenty minutes, about twenty minutes’s worth of words, real and good words about the sinking of the African continent, and the rest is fluff, is posturing, or you start to see the speech repeat itself or traffic in generalities, which, fine, which, okay, that’s standard practice, that’s not great, but it’s acceptable, for another ten minutes, that’s acceptable, and another ten minutes puts you up to a thirty-minute speech.” Mitchell shook his head and then sighed and said, “The president, however. The president had a time block. Forty-five minutes, he told me. ‘It’s up to you to write me that speech,’ he said. And frankly, forty-five minutes? At least fifteen minutes too long.”

Mitchell has been known to edit the speech down. Whenever he would come across the speech in a bookstore or when he was at someone’s house and saw that they owned a copy of the speech, which was, for a long time, being reprinted in textbooks and on its own, he would pull it off the shelf and turn to the beginning of the speech and then start to cross out words and sentences and, sometimes, entire sections.

“Once,” he told me, “I got carried away and accidentally edited a friend’s copy of the speech down to a five-minute affair. Ten minutes if you read it really slowly.” He laughed and said, “I saw what I’d done and quietly put the book back on the shelf and then, later in the evening, made a show of finding it on the shelf again and pulling it down and then pretended to be shocked at what someone had done to it. My friend was so embarrassed and upset that for a moment I almost told him the truth, but I never did.”

I find his first inauguration speech and the speech he wrote for Jameson when Jameson first proposed the creation of the office of world governor to be both more eloquent and full of more promise and sturdier judgment than the
Farewell, Africa speech

I asked him what he cut out when he edited these, if he had specific passages he always cut out, or if his edits were subject to some kind of whim.

“Whim, mostly,” he said, wrestling with the bow tie that went with his tuxedo. “But there are parts that I will always edit out.”

“Like what?” I asked him.

“The very beginning, those first lines,” he said. “Every time. Those are the worst. No matter what, I always cross out that first part.”

When he told me this, I was surprised and not a little disheartened, for while I am not a huge fan of the Farewell, Africa speech—I find his first inauguration speech and the speech he wrote for Jameson when Jameson first proposed the creation of the office of world governor to be both more eloquent and full of more promise and sturdier judgment than the Farewell, Africa speech—what I liked most about the speech were its beginning lines, which, with their oddly syncopated repetitions, create a verbal space, in my opinion, anyway, of unsettled comfort or discomfiting calm, the only kind of space, in any case, that might prepare the public for the announcement that the African continent was sinking inexorably, inevitably into the sea.

“Must we say”—the speech begins—“have we come to that moment when we must finally say, are we now at that final moment when we must say, with sadness in our hearts but determination in our hearts, too.”

“That part?” I asked him. “That’s the part you will cut out no matter what?”

“Every time,” he told me. Then he checked himself and his tie in the mirror, and then he checked his profile, and then he shook his head and looked at me and smiled, and then he said to me, “Tonight, the speech I’m reading tonight? I’ve knocked it down to twenty-five minutes. And that’s without trying to rush through it.”

When the museum’s board of directors first approached Mitchell about the museum opening, he politely declined. He left the administration shortly after the Farewell, Africa speech to run for office himself, hoping the speech would thrust him onto the political stage, but he was handily defeated in an ugly, vicious campaign, and since then, he has done his best to distance himself from his failed foray into politics and the speech. Not because he dislikes the speech, so he explained to me, but because for so long he found himself defined by that speech and that speech alone.

At first, then, he had little interest in resurfacing at a party celebrating the opening of a museum commemorating the sinking of Africa. When the board of directors contacted him again and asked him to reconsider, however, he had a change of heart.

In the past ten years, Owen Mitchell has published a novel to little acclaim and designed various portable housing models, which he has submitted to competitions and to the World Disaster Relief Organization, but, for his troubles, has so far only received letters thanking him for his interest in world disaster relief. He worked briefly as a lobbyist and then as a lawyer. He has taught both graduate students and high school students, and once he was the host of the Academy Awards—“the technical stuff, you know, the part they film and record and show clips of during the real thing,” he told me—but he has yet to rediscover the success or pleasure he had achieved while working as a speechwriter.

“So, after thinking about it for a while,” he told me as we spoke in the museum courtyard, when I asked him what had changed his mind, “I realized, sadly, that this speech was the last good thing I’d done.” He shrugged his shoulders, popped an hors d’oeuvre into his mouth, and looked like he was about to say something else, then thought better of it, and then looked over and past my shoulder and said, “Uh-oh. Looks like they’re draining the pool now.”

III.

When I first met Karen Long, two days before the museum opening party, she had an easy and relaxed air about her. Karen is the events planner for the museum, and she was giving me a tour of the exhibits and party space and laying out for me the itinerary for the opening night celebration. She walked slowly and talked very quickly, and for a while I worried that she would finish telling me about the exhibits long before she had finished showing them to me, and I wondered if she was perhaps more nervous than she had been letting on.

“This is my first big event for the museum,” she told me when she met me in the front hall. Then she laughed and said, “Not that I haven’t done a ton of other big events.” And then, a few minutes later, as she was demonstrating an interactive world model for me (“For the kids, you know, who love this kind of hands-on stuff. See? Here? If you push Japan down with your foot, how it stays down? But if you push Spain down, it pops right back up? We’ll provide galoshes, of course.”), she interrupted herself: “Not that there could be another event I could have planned for the museum, since this is the opening night, right?” Then she slapped me playfully on my shoulder.

“Now I’ll take you to see our exhibit of relief trailers. I think you’ll like it. It’s quite impressive.”

Before she took her current position with the museum, Karen worked in publicity and events planning for the Walt Disney Company, and before that she worked as an intern in the administration’s communications office, where, briefly, she worked for Owen Mitchell before Mitchell left.

She deftly led me through the museum and its exhibits and answered almost all of my questions, knowledgeably and smoothly, but would not confirm or deny the rumor that the museum wasn’t able to find anyone from Old Africa to attend or speak at the opening. Instead, she said, smiling her wide and toothy smile, “We’re very excited, you know, about the delegation from Old Japan. And of course the representatives from Costa Rica. Or maybe it’s Honduras. I’ll have to check my notes.”

The first time I saw Karen the night of the opening, she was standing over the pool next to Cornish, watching as the water drained out of it. I walked over to her, not sure exactly how I would phrase the question I wanted to ask her, namely, How’s it going? Or, for that matter, any other question I might ask her, since the answer to those questions—Is the pool working all right? Is it true that the waitstaff is almost out of Champagne? And Is it true that a number of the bottles of Champagne have gone missing?—seemed either obvious or, in light of the situation, mean-spirited. Not to mention that she would, in each case, I was certain of it, decline to comment.

It didn’t matter as she saw me coming toward her, and before I could even say hello, she asked me, “Do you know anything about fixing hydraulics?” I said no. “Then I can’t use you right now, but thanks for your kind effort to be helpful.”

I smiled at this and then asked her if it would be okay if I shadowed her for a few minutes.

“Really?” she asked. “Watching me watch this pool drain is newsworthy?” That was all she said before she turned back to look at the pool, which had almost completely drained, and so I took her non-answer as a yes, and for five more minutes, the three of us—Karen, Cornish, and myself—stood there and waited as the pool dried up. Then Cornish stepped over the wall and got on his hands and knees, the wet spots at the bottom of the pool turning his gray wool trousers black, and he opened a gear box, or something like a gear box, and after another few minutes, he said, “Oh. Okay. I think I’ve got it.”

“You sure?”

“Oh, yeah. Won’t be but another ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Fine,” Karen said. “I’ll leave you to it.” Then she looked at me and shook her head, with disgust or anger or frustration, I couldn’t tell, just as I couldn’t tell if this was directed at me or at the situation or at Cornish or at the world at large. Then she walked past me quickly enough to make me hurry behind her, but not so fast that I couldn’t have kept up.

Over her shoulder, she said, “I’m sure you’ve heard about the champagne by now.”

I feigned ignorance, and she stopped, and I nearly ran into her. She looked me square in the eyes, and the beginnings of a smirk or grin made one side of her mouth twist up. Karen Long has piercing blue eyes and pale, pale blond hair that she often uses to cover her face, which is a soft, oval face brought into sharp relief by a long, not unattractive, angular nose. It seemed for a second, as she stared at me, that she might punch me in the face. That, or lean in to kiss me on the mouth. It was an unsettling look, and then it passed, and then she said, “And you no doubt know that ten bottles of champagne went missing entirely?”

I nodded, afraid of what she might do if I tried lying again.

“Well. That’s what I’m doing right now,” she said, “looking for those bottles or the people who took them. If you’re going to follow me around, you might as well know what I’m doing so you don’t think I’m just wandering aimlessly.” I nodded again and said, “Sure thing,” and said, “After you,” which was when the commotion started, and the three men with the water hose showed up.

“Never mind,” she said. “I think maybe we found our guys.”

IV.

The general consensus, for a long time, was that Africa was too big to sink. By the time Africa sank, we had already lost Central America and some of Australia and all of Japan. I had been in the city only a few months after we lost Japan, and I had started working my first job as a reporter around that time, too. In my office, a few of the reporters and editors started a betting pool, and to make me feel more at home, I suppose, they invited me to join the pool, and before I fully understood what we were betting on, I said okay.

There were screams at first, but only from those few men and women closest to the action, the people, in other words, who had gathered around the now empty pool to see what Harold Cornish was doing to it.

Then they asked me what I thought would go next and how much money I wanted to bet on that. It was fairly crass. I thought so at the time, and I think so now, but at the time, thinking so, I still placed a bet. Most people figured somewhere in Europe. Spain, maybe, or Portugal, or the British Isles. Especially the British Isles, as those seemed ripe for sinking. A couple of people figured Greenland would go next, and one guy put a couple of dollars on North America, or maybe just on any part of North America, Nova Scotia, maybe, or Alaska, because he said the odds were too good to pass up, but even he didn’t put any money on Africa. In fact, when they were making the pool sheet, no one even thought to include Africa on it, not the whole continent, anyway, because everyone knew. To be safe, then, I told them to add Africa and that I’d put money on Africa. They told me I should just bet on South Africa, maybe, or Egypt, or Madagascar, which, at least, was an island. I made them give me odds on Africa, on the whole thing, and then I put down a quarter and that was the only thing I bet, and they rolled their eyes at me, the rest of the reporters and editors in on this pool, and they acted like I was the biggest jackass they had seen, and this made me defensive, and so I said to them, hardly serious at all, “If you think I’m an asshole now, you just wait until after it sinks and I win.”

Sometimes when I think about this, I can’t help but laugh. I want to laugh at the situation and at what I said, which was stupid, and the ridiculous and horrible nature of the thing we were betting on itself, and then at the fact that out of everyone, I won, but it’s not really something to laugh about, is it?

I didn’t think I’d win, of course. Nobody thought I’d win.

It’s a silly thing to think sometimes, but there are times, there are a lot of times when I think about that bet, when I think about the bet and about how Africa sank, how quickly Africa sank after I made that bet. There are times, late at night or if I wake up early in the morning, if a trash truck or my neighbors, the ones above me, who often fight and scream late into the night, if something wakes me up and I find myself lying alone in my bed in the dark, I will remember that bet I made, and I will blame myself for what happened, blame that quarter bet for the way Africa sank right into the sea, and though I know it’s a foolish way to think and to act, I will look back on that bet with great and shuddering regret.

V.

There were screams at first, but only from those few men and women closest to the action, the people, in other words, who had gathered around the now empty pool to see what Harold Cornish was doing to it. Otherwise, the rest of the party seemed oblivious to what was going on by the pool. If you knew him or if you’d heard him speak, you could maybe pick out the brittle, nasal sound of Harold Cornish among those first voices, but maybe not. Apparently, the guys—three of them, all drunk on stolen champagne and holding, as if they were firemen, an average-sized water hose—didn’t know that Cornish was inside the pool working on fixing the hydraulics, and when he lifted his head up to see what the hell was going on, he received a faceful of water. This struck the gentlemen with the hose as extremely funny. One or all of them then doubled over in laughter, sending, for a brief moment, a spray of water up and out over the crowd, so that soon those who had had no idea that anything was happening were quite focused on the pool and the men and the hose.

Mitchell looked out at us and he shaded his eyes, and then he looked down at the notes in his hand, and he folded them and stuffed them inside his jacket pocket, and we waited for him to begin his speech.

I turned to Karen to see what, if anything, might be playing across her face as this all transpired, but she had left my side, and after quickly scanning the courtyard, I spotted her kneeling down and leaning into a row of shrubs planted against one of the far walls. She had hiked her black, sparkling dress up over her knees, and her left hand dug into the bushes in search of the water spigot, which she found, and, after briefly turning the nozzle hard to the left and jetting more water into the crowd, she managed to shut the hose down. By the time I turned back to look at the men with the hose, security had confiscated the water hose, and the three drunks—who later turned out to be interns with the bright idea of speeding along the process of sinking the model of the African continent—were being escorted into the museum proper.

Then Karen was at my side again and she said, shaking her head, “You’re taking me out for a drink after all of this.” I looked at her, not a little surprised, and she said, “I deserve a drink after all of this, and so someone’s taking me out for one, and it might as well be you.”

Before I could say anything to this, the speakers let out a high-pitched whine that hurt our ears, and everyone in the courtyard turned to the stage, where Owen Mitchell was now standing, his finger tapping against the microphone. At the time, I thought that someone had made a mistake and told him it was now time for him to speak, that he had quietly protested, the commotion only just ending, that an overeager employee of Karen Long’s or someone from the board, nervous about the way this party had begun spiraling out of control, had practically shoved him onto that stage to give his speech, whether we were ready to hear it or not. Later, I found out this was not the case. Mitchell stepped up to the microphone of his own accord, he told me. “Things had gotten out of hand,” he said, smiling. “No one seemed to remember why we were there.”

He cleared his throat. The whining stopped. He tapped the microphone again and cleared his throat again. The crowd, those of us still left in the courtyard, fell silent. I turned to look at Karen again, and she was looking up at the stage. Mitchell looked out at us and he shaded his eyes, and then he looked down at the notes in his hand, and he folded them and stuffed them inside his jacket pocket, and we waited for him to begin his speech.

It was a short speech, shorter, maybe, than even he had planned. It was not the speech we knew. Mitchell had managed somehow to boil it down to its essence, or maybe he made it into something entirely new. I can’t remember it now, not its specifics, not past those first few words, and Mitchell hadn’t written it down, had abandoned, at the last moment, his own notes, and cannot remember it himself. It spoke of tragedy, I think. I think, too, that it spoke to the enormous loss of life, to the sense that this world had been pushed to the brink, but in truth, the speech might not have been about any of that. It was not the speech we knew, yet by the end of the speech, I felt as if I weren’t listening to Mitchell as he spoke in front of us, as if the words weren’t coming from him, but had been borne inside my own head, had always been part of my own thoughts, that Mitchell was simply reminding me of something I already knew and had somehow forgotten. Judging by the soft sighs escaping Karen’s lips as she stood to my right, the way her lips moved as if she were reciting the speech along with Mitchell, I was not alone in this.

“They told us the center will not hold,” he began, and there seemed to be no other sound but the sound of his voice. “If we lose this, they said, the center will not hold and we will not survive, yet here we are.” He smiled. “Here we are.”

G

Author Image

Manuel Gonzales is a graduate of the Columbia University graduate creative writing program. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children.

Author photo courtesy Jessica Gonzalez

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