Sweet Crude

A New Short Story

Joseph Bottum

He should have remembered the kid, Wilson realised. Hell, he did remember him, even though it must have been thirty years back. Manchester, wasn’t it? Some damn place, anyway. Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds. Outside of London, those Brit cities all blurred together, till nobody but the natives could tell them apart. Till nobody but the natives would want to. 

But thirty years, yeah, that seemed about right. The days of Reagan and Thatcher, Solidarity and the pope, the great pope, and suddenly everything felt open again: open and ungoverned, the world turned back into the Wild West, for a while. 

Wilson shrugged, working his shoulders against the bind of his suit coat. Getting too damn fat, he knew. When was the last time he’d even been on a horse? His birthday, probably, when Jill had brought the grandkids out to Oklahoma and made him ride some fence-line with her, just like old times. He knew he should exercise, his doctor and Jill always nagging at him. But after his time on the oil rigs — his time of hardscrabble ranching, for that matter, before his father died — exercising for the sake of exercising felt pointless. Round and round, peddling away on some stationary bicycle or elliptical machine, getting nowhere. You’d have to be bored senseless to put up with it.

Anyway, the deal he had come to England for, all those years ago: what was it? Plastics, maybe, or dye; some oil-tar-derivative thing, and it had gone south, he remembered, dying a sudden, last-minute death.

Funny how business with Brits usually did. Even this conference on the Falkland Islands — the “candid discussion” that had brought him back to England; a meeting forced on him by those idiots in Washington — wasn’t going well. Twenty people around a table, pretending to listen while some Harvard wonk droned on about oil-shock prices if Argentina invaded again, and already Wilson could sense the         angry currents under the dull surface. 

The Americans, as near as he could figure, wanted the Brits to give up the Falklands without a fight if Argentina started pushing again. But even the full-bird colonel from the Pentagon, sitting down the table with a look on his face like he needed to piss and didn’t know how — even he wasn’t going to come right out and say it. Too much history in the room, too much hanging on, like the smell of burned-out cigars the morning after a card game.

As for the Brits, they wanted . . . well, God knows what they wanted. Oil, probably, although if any of that South Atlantic crude actually turned up, it would make a Falklands war more likely, and anyway, Wilson was convinced the reserves would never be worth their drilling costs in that rough-water part of the world.

That’s what he was here to say, of course. Here to represent. Oil and the way it worked, the way it flowed. Washington had leaned on Ham and Crockett — probably every major oilman working the North Dakota shale — and after more back-and-forth than Saturday night at a Williston whorehouse, Wilson had agreed to be the one to fly to London: the rodeo clown in the American delegation. 

He folded his hands across his belly and studied under lowered eyelids the American envoy up at the head of the table — some slick banker from Chicago who’d leveraged his political fundraising into a job as the administration’s hatchet man. Jesus, what a life: What did you do in the government, Daddy? I delivered bad news for the president, honey. And I smiled while I did it.

Not that he gave a damn what those smug White House bloodsuckers thought; self-important little ticks, every one of them. But, in truth, Wilson didn’t much care for any politics these days. Oh, he’d ponied up the necessary cash when the conservatives came calling, last election, although that was really just the price of doing his kind of business. And he’d hedged his bets with quiet donations to every oil-state Democrat who looked likely to win a House seat or a governorship when the Republicans went down. As he knew they would. 

As everybody but a blind mule knew, Wilson thought with a grimace. Fools and headless chickens, the lot of them. Not a Reagan or even a good-ole boy like Clinton in the bunch. Or a Thatcher — which, he supposed, was the reason he had been dragooned into this London meeting. The days when America would swing the way the old Iron Lady wanted were long gone. Gone for good and buried deep, isn’t that what Aunt Lucy used to say? 

Anyway, the new-style Democrats in the White House needed an “independent voice” to tell the Brits that the world’s oil money didn’t trust the South Atlantic reserves and was never going to finance serious wells there. The Falklands aren’t worth defending, in other words — that’s the message the Americans were trying to send. So give the meaningless place over to Argentina, ’cause if it comes to blows, this left-handed administration isn’t going to support you. And might even work against you. 

He shouldn’t have come, Wilson told himself. Shouldn’t have let himself be used this way. In point of fact, he hoped tired old England would defend those sheep-dip islands, would go to war for their sake. 

Still, the God’s-own truth was that he and his friends didn’t think the Falklands oil would cash out. And if the Brits would fight only when money was involved, then they were going to lose everything, including their money. It’s not even good finance to focus too much on your finances, Wilson knew from hard experience; in the long run, the best way to kill a business is not to have a purpose other than business.

Besides, if he hadn’t come all the way to London to speak his piece, he wouldn’t have met the kid again. Now, wasn’t that something? Thirty years on — which would make the kid, what? Under forty, anyway. And a member of the British delegation, representing the Chancellor, he’d said, which Wilson reckoned was the equivalent of the Treasury secretary. The money side of things.

Anthony Ashton. That’s how he’d introduced himself at the lunch break. Gave a smart little presentation in the morning session, with the sense to keep it short and clean, then came up to Wilson afterward to ask if he remembered that scene in the street, back in the 1980s. “One has followed your career diligently ever since, Mr Brass,” he’d said, and Wilson Brass wasn’t fool enough to miss the little twist in his voice. 

Not that Wilson minded; they wouldn’t be Brits if they didn’t use irony like a stick to poke at Americans. To poke at most everyone. The mistake the only half-smart ones made was believing that foreigners didn’t catch on: you could always tell a Brit meant something, even if you couldn’t figure out exactly what that something was. And Wilson’s usual response was to become even more Western, even more cowboy, using in turn the one American irony that Brits typically didn’t get. “Well, that’s mighty flattering, son,” he’d replied. “Mighty flattering, indeed.” But the kid, this grown-up Anthony Ashton, had caught it, just the way Wilson hoped he would, and they shared a smile — just two natural-born hogwashers, testing each other’s strength.

The Harvard twit in the bowtie seemed to be dribbling toward an end, finally boring even himself into a stupor. A few words from the Foreign Office on the legal status of “Overseas Territories”, according to the programme, and then Wilson’s report on oil. And then he could skip out and head to the airport. 

Meetings are ruled by those who stay till the end: whose line was that? Some bureaucratic genius, anyway. But Wilson never wanted to rule anything, he reminded himself. He only wanted to be free. Free of crap like this meeting, as far as he could. Free to live big, big as houses, and still leave his daughter Jill and the grandkids a little something. Sometimes, he had to admit, he felt a little envy for the builders — Gates and Jobs, nowadays; Rockefeller and Getty, back in the day: the real businessmen who put together empires and tried to build something that would outlive them. If nothing else, working that way would have given him someone to explain it all to, someone to teach. 

He knew it wasn’t going to be Jill. Knew it on her eighteenth birthday, when he’d tried to give her the three old wells on the ranch. Oh, she’d smiled at him and hugged him, even cried a little ’cause she understood what they meant — those wells his daddy never lived to see, the Oklahoma oil that started it all. But, even so, she’d pushed the deeds back across the table unsigned. She had to live her own life, she’d said; she couldn’t, she wouldn’t, follow him into business. And that was that.

More power to her, Wilson supposed, staring down at the cream slowly curdling in his hours-old coffee and tuning out the Foreign Office lawyer who’d finally cleared his throat enough to start talking. A week or two, that’s what it had taken him to come around, to stop himself from doing some damned toss-her-out-in-the-snow act, but eventually he understood. Or said he did. But the other thing he knew that day, the thing Jill didn’t see, was that it would all die with him. All his knowledge, all his sense — his feel for oil and where to find it, how to sell it. 

The sweet light crude, West Texas Intermediate: how it tasted, how it felt on your hands, even the smell. Wilson could watch an hour’s pumping from a test well, put a little on his tongue, rub some between his fingers, and tell within a thousand barrels what the find was worth. Or that’s what they said about him out in the fields. All bull, of course. What he really understood, Wilson thought, was how oil worked. Brent Bend and Bonny Light, Tapis Crude and Dubai Plain. He knew them all, knew them for exactly what they were.

The Russians, pumping themselves dry as fast they could, believed oil was just money. The Mexicans thought it was politics, and the Kuwaitis had convinced themselves it was fuel for an endless party: a dreamland, a sandcastle, built by children. Not even the Saudis really understood oil the way he’d learned to: the single flow of it around the world, the mystical unity. It was all connected, a single pool of the rich, black stuff — a dark ocean, just beneath the planet’s skin.

Wilson looked across at the British delegation through lowered eyes. Maybe this Anthony Ashton was looking for a change, he thought. Looking to let ole Daddy Wilson teach him about oil. He surely seemed smart enough, enough on the ball, and God knows, nobody but a fool could be satisfied working for the government. “I trust you will not be giving me half your money today, Mr Brass,” Ashton had mocked, with a wry look in his eye.

Half his money. Funny thing, it was almost true, Wilson remembered, back when he ran into the kid thirty years before. Saw an upset kid on the sidewalk, gave him half of what he had in his pocket, and turned the boy into his talisman. A kid he’d met for maybe two minutes, made into his good-luck charm — the point in life that marked the turn.

Not that he thought about it all that often. It was just one of those memories you’re glad you have, like a memento tucked away in a sock drawer. Wilson had been young himself: twenty-five or so, he guessed. And he’d gone to England full of vim and vinegar, as Aunt Lucy would have said — only to watch one of his first deals collapse in front of him. Oh, yes, he’d been young then, a schoolboy ready for schooling. And when the practised old-timers saw something cooking, they each reached in and took a cupful, till there wasn’t anything left in the pot.

Survey fees and tax liens. Option payments and nonperformance penalties. Wilson had spent the day in a British lawyer’s office signing cheque after cheque to close out the failed deal, emptying his accounts of all the first real money he’d gotten from the Oklahoma wells. And then they’d thanked him real pretty and ushered him out the door, leaving him to stumble back to his hotel in his cowboy boots and Stetson hat, his string tie. He dressed Western in those days, Wilson remembered, not the way he did now — because it drove the East Coast types crazy, made them underestimate him — but because he didn’t know any different. 

And so there he was, walking through the sticky heat of a British summer day with nothing much to see him home but a dodgy credit card and a last cheque he could maybe cash at the hotel, although he’d have to scramble to cover it once he got back to Oklahoma. He could have cadged some money, probably, off one American or another — $50 for cabs and cigarettes to get himself back. But that kind of thing was always a mistake. Borrow big, if you have to, but never borrow small. Ask the bank for a million, and they fall on you like a long-lost cousin. Ask them for a hundred, and they start dialing the sheriff’s office.

It was on the edge of a playground that he’d seen the kid, this Anthony Ashton. A hot, exhausted boy asking his mother for money to buy a drink, and Wilson heard the mother explaining patiently that they’d spent all she had for the day, yes, even a day on which she’d promised him an outing. 

Maybe it was something in her voice that made him stop, as she perched there on a park bench, her purse held tight in her lap; just for a second, even through her soft phrasings and English accent, he thought he heard the kind of tiredness his daddy had towards the end — the tiredness that works its way down into the bone, day after day, and becomes a cancer. Or maybe it was something in the boy’s face as he turned away, something hard and tight that a kid shouldn’t have, if he wasn’t going to be beaten down by it all when his turn came. 

“Excuse me, son,” Wilson had said, the boy and his mother looking up in surprise at the tall American, “but I reckon I need to put in a word here.” He took off his hat, wiped his damp forehead with his sleeve, and reached into his pants pocket. Then he sank down, squatting to sit on his boot heels and meet them at eye level. “I’ve had what you might call a rough day, a good old-fashioned Saturday night of a beating in a business deal, and I’ve lost damn — excuse me, ma’am-darn — near everything. In fact,” he said, holding out in his hand maybe ten or fifteen pounds in loose change and crumpled notes, “this appears to be just about everything I have, right at the moment.”

He wiped his forehead again, looking down at the sidewalk for a moment. “But here’s what we’re going to do, as sure as my name is Wilson Brass. I’m splitting it with you, son, right down the middle, ’cause it looks like you’re in pretty much the same place.”

To this day, Wilson wasn’t sure why he’d done it. Even as a young man, thirty years ago, he hadn’t been as much of a Western figure as he was trying to appear to that English family, and he sure as hell didn’t normally talk in that formal cowboy way, like a character straight out of a bad John Ford movie. The kid and his mother, sure, they could have used the cash, right at that moment, but the truth was that some part of Wilson himself, some need inside him, demanded it.

So he quickly sorted through his change, then took the boy’s hand and put in it half the money. “Rich and poor, son, they’re just states of mind,” he said, looking straight and hard at the kid till he caught his eye, “and you and I, we’re never going to fall into them again, are we? Sometimes a man’s got stacks of the stuff, swelling his wallet, and sometimes he’s stony broke, without a dime in his jeans. But always he’s got himself, doesn’t he? Walking here on this green earth and taking on the responsibility for himself.” Wilson glanced over to nod at that quiet English mother. “Himself and those God gave him to care for.”

He squinted off into the distance like he was trying to see the land’s true horizon through the city buildings. “So when we’re knocked down, when the horse has thrown us, well, we just dust ourselves off, get back up, and try to ride him again. ‘Cause that’s the only way to live. The only road that leads to freedom.” Then Wilson had stood, tipping his hat to the mother as he put it back on, and left without another word, his boots loud on the pavement as he walked away.

The dry stick from the Foreign Office seemed to be coughing his way to an end. The Falkland Islands are an Overseas Territory of the Queen’s, and Great Britain takes with the utmost seriousness the islanders’ expressed determination to retain their historical ties with the mother country. Got it. What is it about Brits and stripes? Or a certain class of Brits anyway, Wilson wondered. Pin-stripe suits with striped ties over striped shirts, like mismatched pieces of old prison clothes.

Even the kid wore the uniform to this meeting. “I have rather dined out on the tale, Mr Brass,” he’d said as they stood by the lunch buffet. “‘The lovely American gentleman,’ mother would always call you, and she watched for your appearances in the newspaper over the pipelines and the North Sea and whatnot.”

Then Ashton had set down his plate and turned to face Wilson directly. “When I saw on the agenda that I was to meet you again today, Mr Brass, I had hoped for an opportunity to ask you if you thought you had finally become wealthy. Do you imagine you climbed back up on that horse you described so eloquently? Are you rich now, Mr Brass?”

“Moderately so, son. Moderately so. I manage to scrape by,” Wilson had answered, wondering what was in the kid’s mind. “But you and I, we know that rich and poor aren’t really the point, now are they?”

“They rather seemed so at the time, I must admit,” Ashton had said, turning a little away. “And you should know that we were not poor, Mr Brass. We did not require your charity.”

“It wasn’t about charity,” Wilson had started to answer, but the American envoy had slipped between them, drawing Wilson away to make sure, one last time, that he was on message, and the afternoon session had started again before he’d had a chance to talk more with Ashton.

He wouldn’t stay in London after his talk, Wilson decided while the head of the British delegation mumbled thanks to the Foreign Office. He was up next; just another minute or two before he told them about the finances of South Atlantic drilling, and then he could go home. As always, he felt the temptation to try to explain to them about oil. The connection of all crude, its tie to money and freedom. But no, Wilson thought with a grimace, he’d learned his lesson, time and time again. No group like this was going to understand. Only individuals, and damn few of them, could see it. 

Maybe once he got back to America he’d drop this Ashton a note, inviting him out for a visit. He hadn’t seemed completely happy when they’d spoken, but how could he be, when he hadn’t made his way yet? The scrublands of Oklahoma didn’t offer much in the way of vistas, Lord knows, but those empty spaces sometimes let you see people a little clearer. Wilson could get him up on a horse, find out what he was made of. Find out if he could grasp the truth about oil. Find out if he wanted to come along for the ride. And why not? Hell, they had started out together thirty years ago. Maybe the kid was ready to finish it.

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