I know a crazy guy called Sean. When I say that he’s crazy, I don’t mean that he’s reckless. He doesn’t cook in the nude or dive off cliffs. He isn’t stupid—he’s crazy. He isn’t normal crazy either. Normal crazy is the sort of crazy that other people can recognize. If you think you’re Amenhotep III or you have a little voice that tells you what to do, you’re normal crazy. Sean’s brand of crazy is crazy crazy—the sort of crazy that makes other people crazy.
Sean is a large guy with a red beard and icy blue eyes. He leads a kind of double life. At times he can be very logical and structured. When he is, he writes software to earn a living. The rest of the time he’s a cat’s cradle of disconnected ideas, a barrage of words, a looming presence, his face animated by rising eyebrows and widening eyes. He targets people for the fun of it. He envelops them. He overwhelms them with his presence and then he dismantles their basic assumptions about reality.
In reality, of course, Sean holds as sane a number of things that most people would deem to be completely crazy, normal or otherwise. For example, he’s adamant that only those who can pass a series of exams should be allowed to have children. He will personally supervise these exams, he says. He’s convinced that politicians should pass even stricter exams, one of which will ensure that they actually have no desire to be a politician. When he becomes president of the universe, he says, he’ll ban body piercing, tattoos, baggy pants, rap music, themed chess sets, fast cars, slow walkers, and anyone called Dwayne. I asked about Dwayne, but he never explained.
Despite all this, Sean is still alive and outside an asylum because he’s funny and lacks resolve. He drives people crazy and then he stops. People can’t figure out what to make of him in time to get angry or have him locked up.
I recently bumped into him at the mall.
“Where are you going?” Sean asked without greeting.
I’d heard him say those words before. The last time he said them I was on my way to see a movie but we ended up camping in the desert for three days.
“I was planning to buy a pair of jeans,” I sighed.
“Come with me,” he said. “I’m going to return this book.”
We walked toward a shop near the entrance of the mall. It sold guns and crossbows and knives.
“You bought a book there?” I asked.
Sean looked at me as we walked.
“Don’t be silly,” he said and shook his head.
The store was manned by a single attendant, a slovenly young man with pimples. His shirt was half-tucked in and his name tag sat skew. It said Drew. Sean lay a large book about Thai cuisine on the counter and surveyed Drew.
“Can I help you?” Drew asked.
“Perhaps,” Sean said. “You’re not the manager, are you…uhh, Drew?”
“He isn’t here on Saturdays,” Drew said.
“I can see that,” Sean remarked.
“You wouldn’t look like that if he were.”
Sean pointed at Drew’s shirt.
“Make up you mind, my boy!” he barked like a Sergeant Major. “Tuck your shirt into your pants, or your pants into your shirt!”
Drew blinked and blushed with his pimples.
“And stand up straight!”
Drew looked at his shirt and started to fumble with it, but Sean interrupted him.
“Never mind that now,” he said. “I have a complaint. This book,” he said and patted the book, “is shit.”
“Every recipe in it refers to another one in it. I can’t use it. I’d like to return it.”
Drew looked at the book and frowned.
“For example,” Sean said and opened the book, “this recipe for red curry on page four hundred and thirty one—geng sap nok gai of all things—wants me to turn to page two hundred and eighty to make the paste.”
Drew looked dazed.
“We don’t sell books, sir,” he stammered.
Sean closed the book.
“What’s that got to do with it?” he asked. “I’ve got something here that I don’t want, something you don’t have. We should reverse those positions.”
Drew looked at me and then at Sean.
“We don’t sell any books,” he said at length. “At all.”
Sean lowered his voice.
“I’m not saying you do,” he said, “but once you refund me, you’ll have this one. You can sell it if you want.”
Sean opened the book again and motioned at its pages.
“I wouldn’t though, to be honest. It’s really shit.”
Drew tried another angle.
“You couldn’t have bought it here, sir. Perhaps you should try to return it at the shop you bought it at.”
“Where you bought it.”
“Not bought it at—where you bought it.”
“I didn’t buy it, sir,” Drew mumbled. “You did.”
“You see,” Sean said, “now you’re getting us both confused. You’re right. You didn’t buy it. I did. That’s why you’re not trying to return the book to me, see? That’s why I’m returning it to you.”
Drew crumpled an old receipt which lay on the counter.
“Sir,” he whimpered, “we cannot refund things we didn’t sell.”
“Is this is a shop, or what?”
“Does it sell things?”
Drew looked miserable.
“Sometimes,” Sean went on, by now sounding like an orator on a stand, “customers will bring back some of those things, yes? Like that air gun over there perhaps, or this knife—when there’s something wrong with them, of course.”
He pointed at a large hunting knife under the glass counter top.
“Of course, sir,” Drew almost whispered, “but then we refund them because they bought them here.”
Sean beamed at Drew as if a solution was in sight.
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
Drew jumped a little.
“So,” Sean said, “if I brought back a knife like this one here, all bent or fallen apart, you might refund it?”
“If you bought it here, sir.”
“And how would you know that?”
“You’d have a receipt, sir. And I’d recognise the knife.”
Sean waved dismissively.
“Let’s ignore the receipt for now, shall we? Those things can get lost, we all know that.”
Drew made to say something but instead just furrowed his brow.
“What if the knife was so broken that you couldn’t really recognise it? What then?”
“Could the knife be so broken that I’d like to return it while you could hardly recognise it?”
“In fact,” Sean proposed, “it could have fallen apart into a different shape altogether. Don’t you agree?”
This was too much for Drew.
”I’m sure we don’t sell such knives,” he declared.
“But suppose,” Sean insisted. “Just suppose. It’s possible, don’t you think?”
“I guess so—”
Sean leaned closer conspiratorially.
“Drew,” he said.
Drew leaned closer too.
“This is not actually a book.”
Drew blinked and looked at the book.
“It’s actually a knife like this one over here,” Sean said.
He leaned back with satisfaction.
“I didn’t want to tell you that at the beginning,” he continued, “because I wasn’t sure you’d believe me, but now I can be open about it. This knife is so badly broken that it’s ended up looking exactly like a book.”
Sean gestured at the book and the knife as if to equate them. There was a long silence and then he laughed loudly. When Drew joined in, Sean stopped abruptly.
“A book about Thai cuisine,” he said with some menace. “I’d like to return it.”
“And the book?” I asked as we walked away.
“It’s shit,” Sean said, “like I said.”
“Did you come all this way just to mess with that kid?”
“No,” he laughed. “I’m going to return it at the bookstore.”
“I see,” I said.
Sean smiled to himself.
“I’ll tell them it doesn’t cut it.”