Alfie’s Arsehole

Fred was a large man who had retreated into a large beard. He looked like an unemployed pirate. He was in fact as old as my parents but clearly out of work, and it appeared that he had been so for years. How he managed wasn’t known but he seemed to have enough money for endless drinking, the capacity in which I got to know him. Near my office was a pub called Alfie's and in this pub Fred was installed behind a table at the back. He never moved from this table in all the time I knew him. From here he issued insults at passersby and pronounced opinions on whatever he felt like.

“What have you come as?” he once called out to a man with a dense flattop haircut. “A hedgehog?”

On another occasion he loudly declared that no turd stank in the sewer. I took this to be a philosophical reprieve of everyone at Alfie's, and I liked it very much.

Fred was so reliably surly that he’d earned the nickname Alfie's Arsehole, of which the abbreviated AA was a happy side joke. Within the pub he was a kind of reverse guru, someone you sought out with the full understanding that he’d tell you to fuck off. It was expected of everyone at Alfie's to do this as a rite of passage, and it’s indeed how I met Fred.

“Will you live?” he interrupted when I tried to introduce myself. He made a small up-and-down movement with his fingers in my direction. “Like that?”

“I—I guess so—”

“Alright,” he agreed grimly. “Then fuck off.”

Over time I got to know Fred as well as you can know someone whom you only meet on the level playing field of alcohol. Strangely, such relationships are without much pretence and posturing, and I got to know who he was and had wanted to be pretty well. Like most gruff men he was lonely and vulnerable and angry at a world he was no longer a part of. Our last conversation, in particular, is the one I remember to this day.


It was a quiet Tuesday evening when I took a seat at Fred’s table. It had been a hard day and I was upset about something that I cannot now remember. Fred was irritated, as always, but in an expansive mood.

“I had a job once,” he said wryly as he looked at me and then scanned the pub with distaste, “a long time ago. As a copywriter of all things.”

He tugged absently at his beard and seemed for a moment to be absorbed with his memories.

“Where?”

“The Agency,” he said and made a face. “It was a good job, if you allow for such a thing to exist, but I hated the customers and their products.”

Fred signalled for another Scotch with the slightest movement of his eyebrows. Then he turned to me.

“All washing powders are white and make foam,” he said. “So fucking what? Bleach is bleach. Instant coffee is just roasted shit. What the fuck can you say about these things? Only once did we have an account I was even remotely keen on.”

“What was it?”

“Cadbury’s chocolate.”

“What’s better about chocolate?”

Fred narrowed his eyes and leaned a little closer.

“What are your thoughts on mongrels?” he asked.

“Mongrels?”

“I hate mongrels,” he said. “They’re no fucking good, just like Cadbury’s.”

He sat back and slowly gyrated his glass along the rim of its base. As he did, I tried my best to imagine a link between stray dogs and chocolate.

“You know,” he grumbled at my confusion, “mixed things, you know—mongrels.”

Perhaps he was just drunk, I thought.

“What happened?”

When he was given the Cadbury’s account, the client explained that they wanted a TV campaign to relaunch their plain, mint, and almond bars after a change to their wrapper designs. Fred storyboarded an ad that showed an empty stadium after a big match, with thousands of chocolate wrappers flickering in the late afternoon sun, blown about across the green. Two cleaners entered from opposite sides of the field, each with a bag and a poker. For a moment we saw their grim faces as they attempted to out-stare one another. Then they raced to clear the field in time-lapse, the one collecting mint wrappers, the other almond. Exhausted, they sat down at center field and faced off, counting out the wrappers they’d collected, again in time-lapse, one for one—mint, almond, mint, almond. As they discovered that they had exactly the same number of wrappers there was a moment of silence before a single wrapper flitted across the grass in the distance. The cleaners tumbled over one another as they gave chase and pounced on it, together, in deadlock, only to reveal a plain wrapper.

“And guess what the pricks from Cadbury’s said?” Fred asked and signalled for another drink.

“What?”

“That’s nice, they said, but we’d like to stay with the glass and a half concept.”

I frowned at the idea that a glass and a half could qualify as a concept.

“I walked out the room and quit,” Fred nodded, as though he’d read my mind. “I was done with mongrels. Done with mint and almond and a glass and a half.”

He raised his drink in salute.

“Plain Scotch.”

Someone stopped at the table to greet Fred but Fred told him to fuck off. As we watched the man leave I mused on the scenic route Fred had taken to clarify what he’d meant by mongrels, and on the fact that no one had ever managed to make a living from drinking, the single thing he now did. Then Fred leaned closer again.

“What are your thoughts on cocktails?” he asked.

I didn’t want a cocktail and so I said that I didn’t like them.

“I hate them,” Fred declared. “Only people who can’t appreciate gin and rum and vodka and tequila by themselves will go and mongrel them together and call it a goddamned Californication. The same goes for spiced wine. And cappuccinos, and lattes and macchiatos and all that shit. Drink espresso or have a milkshake.”

A man I hadn’t seen before sidled up to the table.

“I was told to join the AA,” he wavered.

“Is that so?” Fred growled. “Said who?”

The man gestured at his friends who were watching us from the bar and smiling broadly.

“You must be a special kind of stupid to go where those idiots send you,” Fred observed. “Now fuck off.”

The man scuffed away while his friends laughed, and Fred turned to me once more.

“And musicals?” he asked in the same tone he’d used to introduce cocktails.

“Uh—” I began.

“I hate them,” he announced, “categorically. Operas too. If you need to see music you don’t understand music. If you want to sing a story then you don’t understand stories. It’s all bullshit.”

He held up a finger in stipulation.

“And so is ballet. If you have to dance, dance. What’s with swans and a stupid lake?”

“I hate newspapers,” I ventured, “and anything written by more than one person.”

“They have no heart,” Fred added and nodded ruminatively.

He stared into his drink before he continued.

“I hate all things like that,” he said, “medleys, compilations, background music, variety shows—all that shit. They make it hard to find the real stuff.”

"What about sport?”

Fred drained his glass and put it carefully onto the surface of the table, fitting it into the faint outline of a ring it had made, and then signalled for another one.

“I hate team sports,” he said at length. “I want to root for someone, someone I can imagine being, not a bunch of fucking cretins running around and hugging one another.”

“I hate bridge,” I confessed after we’d sat for a minute thinking about cretins. “I can’t even play but I hate it all the same.”

“For me it’s backgammon,” Fred said after a moment’s reflection. “People say, the element of chance doesn’t really matter—it’s all about strategy. Bullshit! If you want strategy, play chess for fuck’s sake! If you want chance, play snakes and ladders.”

I actually liked backgammon but I didn’t want to tell him.

“I also hate Californians,” he murmured and shrank a little deeper into his beard.

“Californians—?” I asked and wondered about cocktails.

“Yes,” he said and looked at me the way he had the night he asked me whether I’d live. “You know, people from California?”

“Oh—but what’s mongreled about them?”

“My brother lives in California.”

“Go on—”

Just after Fred was born, his father went off to fight Rommel in North Africa. When he returned Fred was five. A few months later, Fred’s mother died in an accident. His father swiftly remarried and as swiftly constructed a baby half-bother on whom he doted. Fred grew up in the shadow of this half-brother, alone and resentful of the way the world timed things. His half-brother was now an engineer who prospered in California.

“It’s not that I hate him, you see?”

“I know.”

“It’s just that I’ve never loved him.”

“I guess I wouldn’t have either—”

“I went to visit him and his family last year,” Fred offered, “for the first time.”

While Fred signalled for another drink with a nanometer displacement of his eyebrows, I tried to imagine him being somewhere other than behind the table we sat at, but I couldn’t.

“Our father died when I was in my late twenties. That was thirty-five years ago. That’s when I last saw my brother.”

“And?”

“Well,” Fred said and leaned a little closer still, “he came to LAX with his wife and their son and his kids.”

I waited a while but it seemed that Fred saw this as an appropriate end to his story.

“What did it feel like,” pushed on, “seeing him after all that time?”

“I guess I’d made my peace with him on the way over,” Fred sighed and took a generous sip of his new Scotch. “It was a long flight.”

“But what happened?”

“When I met those Californian mongrels” Fred said and spread his fingers on the table before him, “you won’t believe how superior I felt.”


The next week I returned to Alfie's after a few days away to find Fred’s table empty. There were two waiters on the floor whom I’d never seen before. Everything seemed different.

“Where’s Fred?” I asked one of them.

“Who?”

“The guy who always sits at that table.”

“Oh,” he said, “the owner’s had a stroke. He’s in hospital.”

“The owner?”

“I’m new,” the guy said. “The manager told me the owner always watches things from back there.”

Dazed, I walked outside to get some air. In all the time I’d known Fred—it must be Alfred, I realised—he had never let on that he’d found a way to make a living from drinking. It had been his career, and not just a job. He had done what he wanted to do, pure and simple, with no mixing. Over the next few days, as news reached Alfie's of Fred’s worsening condition, I wondered whether I could visit him in hospital. Perhaps, I thought, I could joke as I walked in and ask him if he’d live, but I didn’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t strong enough to tell me to fuck off.

A few days later he was gone.



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The half-life of simplicity

My father made hard things simple. He had a gift for that. He complicated his own affairs beyond understanding but he simplified those of others as though this gift was his only to give away. In its most simple form, it manifested as a deranged integrity. Once, when he figured out that he’d been charged for only one carton of cigars, he returned to the supermarket and stood in a long queue at customer services in order to pay them for the other one.

“It was the right thing to do,” he told my mother who insisted that it was the wrong thing to do. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He was right—she didn’t. As far as she was concerned this was just another of the many things he did to his own detriment and the benefit of others. He spent his nights as an after-hours messiah, working on things he wouldn’t get paid for, things other people should have done, until three or four in the morning. I was aware of his annoying selflessness, but as a child I didn’t really care about that. For me his gift to make hard things simple lay in how he explained them. He got me to understand algebraic fractions in a way that Mr Killian never could. Mr Killian was a six-foot pile of flesh with a tuft of hair on top—what I imagined you’d get if you inflated a wart a thousand-fold. He did not so much walk as oozed from one end of the classroom to the other. He wheezed and grunted and wore a constantly startled look, as though he had just snapped out of a deep coma to find himself unaccountably staring at us. He must have drawn the short straw to end up with mathematics because it was clear that he understood things only marginally better than we did. One day he oozed to the board and spent the rest of the lesson failing to simplify an expression. While he stabbed at the board with the chalk he called out the names of symbols in an increasingly louder voice. The expression grew line by line, refusing to get simplified, until Mr Killian, sweaty and overcome by frustration, turned to us and barked, “You get the idea.”

We didn’t get the idea. My father ignored what I told him about Mr Killian and taught me a way to move things around as though they were on a balancing scale. I could cheat all I wanted as long as I cheated in the right way. Algebra became easy. His gift was to strip hard things of the words other people had used, and to give them to you on your own terms, as if for the first time. But his gift came with a tax. While he explained things, he asked questions. He never just told you what you wanted to know.

“If there’s something you don’t understand,” he always said, “there’s something else you also don’t understand.”

Then he’d set about to discover what else you didn’t understand. I hated that. Why could he not tell me the answer and leave it at that? We often ended up in the small hours because of an innocent question at supper time. I was fourteen when I understood for the first time that there were problems you could only solve that way, that there were things you could only see if you looked elsewhere.



When I was fourteen I decided to die. This had become necessary because the girl next door, whom I thought I loved, had broken up with me. Her decision was based on the trivial grounds that my friends and I were in trouble with the law. She put a little note of disappointment in our mailbox, and that was that. On reading the note I was a little relieved to discover that I didn’t love her as much as I’d thought I did, but I was devastated just the same. How could she do this to me, particularly now? We weren’t really in that much trouble after all? We had carted off some planks and nails and a few other things from a building site to make much-needed renovations to our tree house by the river. The site supervisor had somehow seen us and now trouble loomed. I probably wanted to die for legal reasons but love seemed a better motive.

I announced my intention to die and locked myself in my room. Once inside, it became clear that I had no idea how to proceed. I could slit my wrists, I thought, like in the movies, but I didn’t know how to and there wasn’t anything sharp enough in my room. I could hang myself with the cord of my gown, but there wasn’t anything to hang from. Besides, I realised, I wanted to be dead but I didn’t want to die. Through my bedroom door I could hear my mother’s voice. It sounded as though she stood with her forehead against the door, worn out by my bullshit.

“If you kill yourself,” she said from behind the door, “she’ll be sad for a week, maybe a month.”

“So what?” I called out.

“But years from now,” she continued, “when all of this is distant and silly, and some girls tell stories about their ex-boyfriends, she’ll trump them with you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked uneasily.

Just then my father arrived home and came down the corridor. My mother told him that I was about to die.

“What?” he asked. “Today?”

He spoke to my mother but even though I put my ear to the door I couldn’t hear what they said.

“You can die if you want to,” he announced after a few long moments, “but first I want you to see something.”

I backed away from the door in case he tried to kick it down.

“What a stupid trick!” I cried. “I’m not coming out!”

“Let me show you something,” he said after another few moments. “If you still want to die after that, we’ll come back here, you’ll lock the door, we’ll beg and plead, and you’ll die.”

If my mother had said these words I wouldn’t have moved an inch, but with my father things were different.

“I promise,” he said.

I unlocked the door and followed him, past my mother who stood aside with pursed lips, to the kitchen where he stopped to light a cigar. He took his time, like someone would who didn’t believe that I could go through with my plans to die.

“The hard things in life are not the trouble we get into,” he said when he’d blown a cone of smoke to the ceiling with evident satisfaction. “They’re simple, everyday little things we tend to think nothing of. They’re things like wanting, waiting, doing, and loving.”

“You said you’d show me something—”

“When you’re older,” he went on, “you’ll realise this.”

“I’m not going to be older,” I reminded him.

My father puffed on his cigar and looked past me at nothing in particular.

“And when you finally see this,” he resumed, raising his voice a little, “you’ll need to hurry because the half-life of simplicity is short. Desires pale and time flies. Plans fail. And, in the end, love dies.”

I hated it, too, when he rhymed like that.

“What’s a half-life?” I asked.

He pinched a fleck of tobacco from his tongue.

“It’s what you’re about to have, isn’t it?”

With that he turned and walked out the door and into the backyard. I followed him reluctantly. I was angry at him for being so calm, for not grabbing me and wrestling me to the ground like I wanted him to. It was almost dark outside and it was hard to see anything but the outlines of things. He walked ahead of me up a narrow path that led to the corner of the yard, where a small garden shed stood under a large thorn tree.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m staying here.”

“What?” I sniffed.

“This is what I wanted you to see. Go stand by the tree.”

“You’re showing me a tree?”

“Forget the tree,” he said. “Look at the bark.”

The tree had coarse bark, like flakes of black pastry.

“Lift off a nice, large piece,” my father instructed from behind me.

I fumbled with the tree until a large piece of bark came away.

“Now look,” he said.

There was a lighter patch where the bark used to be. In the failing light I could just make out the rilled surface of the trunk.

“Can you see?” he asked.

“See what?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one looking at it.”

I looked again and wondered what I was supposed to see when my father came up behind me.

“How many people are on the planet today,” he asked softly. “More or less?”

“Four billion?”

“Four billion. That’s probably about right.”

He lay his arm across my shoulders and began to walk me away. Although I didn’t understand why, it was clear that my plans to die were on hold.

“Now,” he said, “how many of those four billion people have seen what is under that piece of bark?”

“Just me—”

Before we reached the backdoor, my father stopped.

“The heart has many cages,” he said. “But if you’re free enough to do something that’s one in four billion, all isn’t lost.”



Later that evening we sat at the kitchen table, recounting stories about our crazy great grandmother who’d had her coffin made when she was in her twenties, and had then kept it out on the verandah for decades, where it stood, filled with dried peaches. But my father wasn’t there. He sat by himself in his study and stared at the wall opposite his desk.

“What’s with dad?” I asked my mother.

“You,” she said.



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The long way home

“Why are you always so grumpy?” Annie asked from the backseat.

She had taken to accusing me of grumpiness ever since she figured out that it hinted at senility and incontinence.

“I’m not grumpy,” I muttered and gripped the wheel.

It was raining and we moved slowly with the rest of the traffic funneled from Lake City Way onto the I5.

“You are,” she insisted and smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “And you stomp.”

“I’m very friendly,” I hissed, “most of the time. And I don’t stomp. Anyway, you’re nine. What do you know?”

“Aarghhh,” her brother JD groaned. “You’re a hundred and fifty-four. What do you know?”

We crept onto the freeway but the I5 was backed up to the Ship Canal Bridge. A caravan of indicators and tail lights snaked away into the distance.

“Google is red,” JD announced. “How does it know that?”

It had always struck me as amazing and yet deeply unacceptable that Google, in fact, knew. It showed me the traffic I could typically see for myself, but it never showed me what I really wanted to know—why it was there in the first place. I gestured at the cars around us.

“Who are these people?”

Mia looked at me as though I’d asked her to hand me a spanner.

“Why are they here?” I pressed on. “Who’s in this stupid lime green Prius in front of us?”

“Does Google know he’s here?” JD asked dreamily.

“What kind of person drives a fucking lime green Prius?” I asked. “Why exactly does he need to be right here, right now?”

“You’re a grump,” Annie chimed.

A pickup truck with double wheels thrummed past in the lane to our left.

“And this asshole in the huge pickup, why must all that heavy shit move around just because he wants to?”

“What shit?” JD asked and leaned into the space between the front seats.

“Don’t say shit,” Mia suggested. “You’re eleven.”

“Aarghhh—”

The traffic slowed and for a moment I toyed with the idea of ripping out the steering wheel and walking next to the car with it.

Mia leant toward me. “If you keep swearing like this,” she said, “the kids are going to end up just as grumpy as you are. And they’re going to get into trouble. This is America, not Africa.”

As we came to a stand still I mused in silence on the difference between First and Third World anger. In America one often heard about mass shootings and bombings, many of which I was sure had been inspired by the effects of traffic. In Africa, people had to content themselves with shouting abuse and fingering gestures at one another from inside their cars.

“What I want,” I said as we edged slowly forward again, “is a minor superpower that pops up a small speech bubble above each of these cars that explains who’s inside and what the fuck they’re doing here.”

“You said the F-word,” Annie registered. “Again.”

Beside her, JD imitated an airplane.

“I want to fly. Then I won’t even care about the traffic.”

“Can you stop with this superpower nonsense,” Mia said and patted my leg. “It makes me angry.”

The lime green Prius slowed down every few meters for no apparent reason.

“If I could do that,” I gritted my teeth, “can you imagine what we’ll see? It’ll all be bullshit—pure driven bullshit—with maybe one or two exceptions.”

“If I could fly,” JD bargained with the world at large, “I wouldn’t swear. I promise.”

“What would it help if you knew where everyone was going?” Mia asked. “Ours would read, Destination—Ikea. Reason—buy mirror. How’s that any better than theirs?”

“You’re missing the point.”

“What possible point?”

“It wouldn’t be symmetric. That’s why it’s a superpower. I’ll get to do it. Not them.”

“But you can’t do it. So stop thinking about it. Just drive.”

I gripped the wheel a little harder.

“If I could just drive I wouldn’t be thinking about it.”

The Prius in front of us hesitated into the lane to our left but then returned to sit in front of us.

“It’s an old man,” I concluded. “I can see his ears.”

You’re an old man,” Annie remarked. “A grumpy old man.”

“Your grandfather always said to be careful of old men in cars,” I told the children in an effort to ignore them. “He said they were the last fools in the world, and they were out to get you.”

“You’re an old man and you’re in a car,” JD observed.

“If you want to become old man yourself, stop talking like that.”

“What would you do?” Annie asked.

I looked at her in the rearview mirror. She was staring out the window and seemed to have posed this question as a philosophical splinter.

“To JD?”

“No. If the cars had bubbles.”

“Oh. I’d—”

A gap opened ahead of the Prius, but the Prius hesitated and cars from the next lane poured into it.

“Jesus old man!” I cried. “Can you fucking move?”

“Beep,” Annie incremented her counter.

“Calm down,” Mia purred and patted my leg. “This is Seattle. People are calmer here. Be calm with them.”

“I’m calm—”

“Really?”

“But I don’t want to be with them.”

“What would you do?” Annie insisted.

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t finished. This little superpower would come with the option to zap them.”

“Zap them?” JD asked before Annie could.

“That would be the whole point. If I don’t like what I see in the bubble—Zap!—and the car and everyone in it are back where they started—home, or wherever they’ve come from. It wouldn’t matter if they’d been driving for hours. Back they go.”

“They’ll crash!” JD shrieked and rubbed his hands together.

“They’ll be gone,” I said. "That’s all that matters.”

“You’ll zap everyone,” Annie remarked.

“Maybe.”

The lane to our left eased up and I edged across into it, but the lime green Prius did the same and slowed down in front of us.

“Calm down,” Mia hummed.

“What would his bubble say?” Annie asked.

“He’s a useless fart. I bet he’s going to Walmart to buy 500 pounds of Purina Dog Chow. Zap!”

“This is why your superpower talk makes me angry,” Mia said under her breath. “I start to imagine it, and soon I have to remind myself that it isn’t so. By then you’ve moved on to some other daydream while I’m stuck.”

JD pointed at a red Corolla. “And this one?”

“Ikea, to walk around and eat Swedish meatballs. Zap!”

“But we’re going to Ikea!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll zap them—so they don’t take our parking spot.”

“You’re so grumpy,” Annie said and looked out the window.

A gap opened in the left-most lane and I took it. Instantly, as always happens, the traffic in the lane slowed down and the lime green Prius edge ahead of us in the lane to our right.

“And this one?” JD asked of the SUV that filled our spot behind the Prius.

“Renton, to tell Mollie he’s sorry.”

“Who’s Mollie?”

“I don’t know. It’s what the bubble says. At least this guy has a reason to be here. I won’t zap him.”

“What did he do to Mollie?” JD demanded.

The lime green Prius looked ready to pry its way into the lane we were in.

“Oh no you don’t!” I cried and closed the gap between us and the car ahead.

We were now level with the lime green Prius and could see its driver. It wasn’t an old man but a stumpy woman, the kind who owned lots of cats and bred petunias and peered through the steering wheel to see out the front window.

“What are you doing?” Mia asked.

“I’m not letting this fussy spinster sit in front of us again—”

“Can you forget about this woman,” Mia said, “and drive our car?”

The Prius edged ahead again and started to turn in front of us. Just then the left-most lane widened into two lanes and I veered into the outer one to get around the Prius and its stumpy spinster. And with that we were swept onto exit 168B, off the I5 toward the 520 bridge across Lake Washington. The last I saw of the lime green Prius was its tail lights disappearing in the rearview mirror.

“You see?” Mia said as we drove across Portage Bay. “We might as well go home now. I’ll go to Ikea during the week, in peace, by myself.”

“Where are we going?” JD asked and looked around.

I didn’t answer him and tried instead to remember the name of a bridge across a river near Betties Bay on which I had once stood and watched a group of kayakers float by upside down. There was silence in the car until Annie spoke up at last.

“What would our bubble say now?”

I could feel Mia looking at me as I considered this. I wanted to ask her for a spanner but it wouldn’t have worked.

“Bellevue Orphanage,” I said at length, “to donate children.”

“Zap!” Annie cried.



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Old Timer

(Part 3—this story continues Our shaving grace)

Having the whole platoon shaved was not Fink’s best move. It gave us an identity, to be sure, but not the one he had intended. We were punished because of Andy, because of his mocking defiance of authority, but in his absence he quickly became a martyr in whose name our hardships were endured. When he returned at dusk, with fresh bruises and a long cut above his eyebrow, he entered the barrack to eager sympathy. Even the fat guy was friendlier.

“You were right,” he told Andy.

“About what?” Andy asked as he eased himself onto his bunk.

He winced with pain when the fat guy sat down next to him, moving the mattress.

“Fuck this place,” the fat guy agreed. “And fuck Fink.”

Andy smiled and looked around at our bald heads.

“What happened to you?” he asked Doc who had a large band-aid stuck across his.

“It’s stupid,” Doc said. “I should ask you that question.”

“Don’t.”


Over the next few weeks we talked to Old Timer every day. Each time Fink made us go back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes Levin couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we didn’t shout out in unison when we returned. Now and then someone turned around short. When none of this happened, Fink invented another reason, and we went again.

And again.

But in the end, Fink was no match for Andy’s jelly-like flexibility and fake incompetence.

“To avoid being pushed around you must offer no resistance,” he told us.

He sat on his bunk, folding his socks. They were supposed to be rolled into a ball that made a little smile and placed in a row in our lockers for Fink to inspect.

“It’s a sock,” Andy said, holding it up. “I’m planning to wear it on my foot. I don’t care what it looks like until then.”

For Doc, compliance was the way of least resistance.

“Why don’t you just roll them up?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How’s that no resistance?”

“What I meant,” Andy explained, “is that you must offer no resistance when they punish you. This isn’t the sort of prison where they can beat and torture you. They have to get you to do it yourself. Don’t, and you’ll be fine. They can’t squeeze a marshmallow through a keyhole.”

When Andy was sent to talk to Old Timer he jogged at a pace he could sustain indefinitely, despite Fink screaming for him to hurry up. When Fink made him do pushups instead, he gave out after a few even though he could easily have done a hundred. Whatever punishment Fink invented, Andy performed in a slipshod way. When Fink tried to punish us for Andy’s transgressions, we did the same. Fink had little choice but to stop after a while. We weren’t volunteers and so we couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t have Andy charged for every breach of discipline or he’d risk unpleasant questions about his own competence.


Once, when we were drilling as practice for an official parade, Andy continued marching in a straight line after the platoon had wheeled to the left. He marched off into the distance, deaf to Fink’s shouting. Fink had to run after him. He sent Andy to talk to Old Timer and then he made him do pushups when he didn’t seem to have tired from running. Fink ended up standing over Andy while he slowly grunted and heaved in the dust, doing only a few pushups before Fink had to give up in disgust.

On another occasion Andy wore his boots on the wrong feet. It gave his walk a weird lilt and made him look like a duck nearing a dam. Fink took all morning to figure this out and Andy looked pained and puzzled when his boots were finally identified as the source of the problem.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” Fink shouted, kicking at his boots. “Have you got rocks in your head!?”

“Corporal?”

“Rocks! Are you deaf too!?”

“I heard you perfectly, Corporal,” Andy said in a level tone, “but what were you saying?”

Fink was blinded with rage. He leapt at Andy and knocked him to the ground. Then he restrained himself.

“Get up!” he snapped hastily.

Andy ignored him. He sat in the dust and swapped his boots, taking his time. He got up when he was finished, dusted himself down and stood to attention. It was clear to us then, as it must have been to Fink, that Andy was the inmate the prison would never break.


On our last day of basic training a soldier was run over in the street beyond the fence of the parade ground. There was a dull thud and the shudder of wheels skidding along the tar. Fink made us wait while he and other instructors ran out through the gate to help or have a look. But the man was dead, his body bent and wrong.

We watched while the men in the street gave up and talked and smoked and told one another competing versions of what they’d seen. Fink leant against the fence, his one boot pulled up under him. He made a long arc with his hand and slapped it into the other, demonstrating how the man had been thrown on impact.

Andy watched all this without a word. As he watched, he played with his beret. He flattened it and pulled it down the wrong way, slanted to the left. He looked like a French peasant.

Beyond the fence, the instructors exhausted the possibilities of speculation. Traffic began to back up in the street and Fink directed it around the scene of the accident. When the medics arrived, he returned to the parade ground.

“Come, come,” he barked. “Show’s over!”

We slowly assembled in drill formation. In the street, a man in civilian clothes photographed the body.

“Ri—ight face!” Fink cried.

Andy faced left.

“Your other right,” Fink hissed through gritted teeth.

Andy turned his head, facing as we did, but something bothered Fink. He came around until he could see down the ranks of the platoon. Then he spotted Andy’s beret.

“No fucking wonder!” he bellowed.

He tore the beret from Andy’s head.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he howled.

He threw the beret to the ground and stomped on it. Then he held his hand in the direction of Old Timer.

“Go talk,” he said.

In the street the medics had put the body on a stretcher. Andy stepped forward and stood next to Fink. Together they looked at Old Timer.

“Now?” Andy asked. “After all this?”

Fink shut his eyes and controlled himself.

“He’s waiting,” he said.

Andy shrugged and started walking in the direction of Old Timer. He didn’t lift his boots and scraped along in a drifting trail of dust. Fink watched him, transfixed, as did we. When Andy reached the tree, he remained there, nodding and pointing in our direction, as though he was actually talking to Old Timer.

Fink stood with his hands on his hips, flexing his jaw muscles. Andy talked for a while and then started on his way back. In the street the medics had driven off with the body of the dead man.

“So—!?” Fink heaved and quaked when Andy finally arrived. “You talked to Old Timer?”

“I did, Corporal.”

Fink made what looked like a superhuman effort to remain calm.

“And what you tell him?”

Andy considered his answer carefully.

“Everything, Corporal.”

Fink feigned surprise.

“You did?” he said. “And what’s he say?”

Andy hesitated like someone bearing bad news.

“Corporal,” he said, “he’d like to talk to Corporal now.”



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Our shaving grace

(Part 2—this story continues The waiting game)

Docs gathered his things and came to sit with us. Andy lay back against his bag again and gestured in the direction of the corporals behind us.

“Are you into hominid fossils, or what?”

“No,” Doc said unhappily. “It’s crustaceans, actually.”

“Oh Christ,” Andy hissed, sitting up.

“What’s wrong with crustaceans?”

“No, look—”

From the far end of the parade ground a gangly man strode toward us, using what looked like invisible ski poles. Even at a distance he looked angry. His beret was rolled up and tucked under his epaulette and flapped about like a pet parrot.

This,” Andy said when the man got closer, “is it.”

This, it turned out, was Corporal Fink. He arrived with crunching boots in a puff of dust. He circled us and surveyed us with obvious disgust. Every now and then he lunged at someone for no apparent reason. He had a long face and long teeth, like a cartoon donkey, and the sharp ridge formed by his hair gave him the appearance of having slept in a corner. While the other corporals were the inevitable outcomes of bad breeding, Fink looked like the result of a more intimate arrangement.

“Get up!!” he cried.

We staggered to our feet.

“See that tree!?”

He pointed at a small, gnarled tree at the far end of the parade ground, in the same direction he’d just come from.

We could see it.

“Go talk to Old Timer!”

We looked at Fink, and at the tree.

“Go!!!”


And so it began. We ran to Old Timer in confusion, stumbling and bumping into one another. Some of us cheated and didn’t go all the way, turning short with those already on their way back. Fink saw us and we had to go again. The second time, no one cheated, but there were stragglers.

We went again.

And again.

We’d all heard stories told by older men who’d been to the Army and returned. We knew the military expedient of punishing the group instead of the individual. But we also knew that we were still alone. There would be border patrols and riot control, things done at the behest of a government we didn’t like. Everyone had heard of someone who’d died. Most of us were afraid, but nobody said so.


For Andy, in contrast, conscription seemed to be a break from more demanding things. He walked from the parade ground on that first day without lifting his feet, shuffling and grunting, but Fink didn’t notice. We were issued fatigues and taken to the canteen where we ate a meal of glutenous blobs in quiet bewilderment.

“Eat your pumpkin!” Sergeant Sinden screeched.

He had been stalking the aisles behind us and now he jabbed at a lump of pumpkin Andy had isolated on his divided steel tray.

“I don’t eat pumpkin, Sergeant,” Andy said in a tone that the third Earl of Shaftesbury might have used to address his butler. “On principle.”

Sinden inflated until he looked like a five foot semicolon. He was speechless with rage.

“It’s a religious matter,” Andy added.

Sinden emitted a noise that sounded like a muffled engine, and at that Andy stirred his pumpkin.

“I’m also allergic,” he said.

When Sinden had gone, having hovered over Andy while he licked his pumpkin but never quite ate it, we were shown to our barracks. There would an inspection the next morning, Fink announced, at exactly 04:00. To begin with, we were to iron our bunks using toothpaste to sharpen the edges of the blankets.

“I want to clean my nails on them,” Fink shouted by means of an explanation.

We were to shave, shine the floor, bone our boots and square away the rest of our kit. Having shouted all this, Fink left.

“Why the fuck must I shave?” a guy with a beard demanded to know.

“What’s bone?” another guy asked.

Andy got onto his bunk and dropped off to sleep. We set about cleaning things, but after a while we began to wonder what to do about him.

“Let’s wake him,” Doc suggested. “He’ll be in shit.”

We’ll be in shit,” someone else remarked.

But we left Andy asleep and got on with what we’d been told to do. At 03:30 the lights came on automatically. Andy declined offers to get up and we had to leave him asleep. At exactly 04:00 Fink arrived. We were lined up next to our bunks while Andy snored gently near the back of the barrack. Fink took up a position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

Thinking back on this now, I’m sure that Fink was saved by the simplistic wiring of his brain. It spared him from a full understanding of Andy’s defiance. He smiled as he strode toward the heaving blanket.

“Rise and shine!” he cried and brought down his boot on a part of the blanket that looked like a shoulder.

Andy put out his head from under the blanket and blinked at Fink. Then he extracted his arm and peered at his watch. He seemed a little irritated and it was obvious that it was only his good upbringing that enabled him to tolerate Fink.

“Could you come back,” he suggested, “at ten?”

Fink hauled Andy off his bunk and dragged him out the door. From the windows we watched as they went down the road between the rows of barracks to Sergeant Sinden’s office. Andy wore what he’d slept in—boxer shorts and an old T-shirt. He shuffled while Fink gibbered and shouted and darted around him. The military police fetched Andy from Sinden’s office. They put him in the back of a van and drove off to the Detention Barracks nearby.

“He’s getting charged,” Levin said.

“How’d you know?” someone asked.

“What’s charged?” someone else asked.

“My brother got charged,” Levin said.

“What for?”

“He refused to do PT on the Sabbath.”

A few minutes later Fink returned and kicked over Andy’s unmade bunk. Then we went to the parade ground and talked to Old Timer about Andy.


Andy returned after dark. He had a bruise under his left eye and didn’t answer questions about the Detention Barracks. Some were angry at him for the punishment we’d received.

“Dude,” a fat guy threatened, “we got fucked up because of you.”

“You got fucked up because of Fink,” Andy said calmly. “Nothing here is because of me. Or you.”

He sat on his bunk and laced his boots.

“Yeah,” the fat guy insisted, “but if you got up when we did, none of this would’ve happened!”

Andy stopped what he was doing.

“If I had, something else would’ve happened.”

Andy ironed his fatigues and helped to polish the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and shaved his head.

Our hair was to be cut the next morning, and we all dreaded this. The hairstyle applied to new conscripts was famous, and a basic thing, a short shearing that left you looking like half a tennis ball. The goal was uniformity and a loss of identity.

“What you do that for?” Doc asked when Andy returned. “You look like Humpty Dumpty.”

I’d like to decide what my hair looks like,” Andy explained. “Besides, I could’ve been bald to begin with.”

At 04:00 Fink resumed his position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

“Where the fuck’s your hair!?” he demanded when he reached him.

He was taller than Andy and bent over him.

“Corporal!”

“Where’s it!? What!!?”

“Corporal said fuck, Corporal.”

Fink almost lost his balance.

“So fucking what!!?” he sputtered.

“Sergeant Sinden said to report instructors who swore at us, Corporal.”

Fink hauled Andy out the door and down the road to Sinden’s office for a second time. The military police came and fetched him again, presumably for shaving his head and thereby damaging military property.

“Now he’s fucked,” Levin whispered.

Fink returned to the barrack but we didn’t go to talk to Old Timer. As punishment he instructed the barber to shave our heads as well. We queued up with the other platoons but Fink had seen to it that we went in first to ensure that his request was properly executed. We emerged one by one, bald, to the growing alarm of recruits from other platoons waiting outside.


The barber was a leathery, wry man. He smoked incessantly and his beard was stained a large yellow dot around his mouth. His was an easy, unchanging job, and Fink’s request had leant a touch of excitement to his day. He also had an assistant—a serviceman with little ambition to do anything else—and they shaved us in pairs. Doc and I went in together.

“I have a mole,” Doc warned before the barber could begin.

“Is that so?” the barber mused. “I have a squirrel.”

“No,” Doc said, “on my head.”

“You’re lucky,” the barber replied as he adjusted his clippers. “The squirrel has to stay at home.”

He turned up the radio playing from a shelf on the wall.

“What’s the squirrel’s name?” Doc ventured nervously.

“Look,” the barber said, stopping as he was about to start, “what’s this bullshit? Next you’ll want my address so you can meet the squirrel. Then there’ll be phone calls in the middle of the night. Before I know it you’ve moved in. Fuck that. Now shuddap.”



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The waiting game

(Experiences in the South African military, some mine, some Jack’s, part 1)

The people who design military bases are the ones who couldn’t get into prison design school. Rejected, they set about trying to prove themselves. This much was clear to me on the dreary morning I arrived at Voortrekkerhoogte for basic training. There were fences everywhere, high walls, drab buildings, and little by ways of colour. I had dreaded this moment ever since I’d turned sixteen and the Defence Force had started sending me yearly call-up orders. Now I handed these to the guard at the gate and went inside.


On the parade ground young men stood around awkwardly. More arrived in busses from the station, conscripted to the base from elsewhere in the country. They had travelled far and looked haggard. They disembarked and disappeared into the crowd of waiting men. We were left to our own thoughts, to fidget with our small bags of personal belongings, and to watch one another. Like sheep dogs, sergeants and corporals barked orders to herd us together, but otherwise they left us alone.

It’s strange to see how quickly one’s idea of what’s normal can change. Within minutes we looked motley and absurd. Through a separating fence we could see troops drilling in another part of the base. They looked uniform and spruce. A soldier ran alongside a marching platoon with his R4 rifle across his shoulders like a yoke. Even he looked neat. In comparison we were tattered, unchoreographed, and vulnerable—new inmates in the prison yard. We were together for now, but there wasn’t any safety in the loneliness we shared.


Around ten o’clock a sergeant with a megaphone stepped onto a crate near where I stood. He was sinewy and tough, with bandy legs and a chin so weak that his face ended in a wide moustache. He looked like a shaved ferret. He triggered the megaphone and made it honk.

“My name is Sergeant Sinden!” he squealed.

He paused to let this information sink in. While he looked around, handing out hard stares, I tried to imagine that he’d always had that name, as a baby and later as a small boy—Sergeant Sinden.

“Has Sergeant Sinden made a poo-poo,” his mother crooned when he’d soiled his nappy.

I could see him called forward in kindergarten to hold up a crude drawing of a house and an outsize cow. It was signed Sergeant Sinden in an uncertain hand. Maybe he also had the moustache—

“What the FUCK are you smiling about!?”

Sergeant Sinden was looking straight at me.

“Nothing,” I called out.

Sinden almost fell off his crate. Then he was on top of me, in two quick strides, thrusting the megaphone into my face.

“Nothing who!?”

“Sergeant,” I tried.

He was springy with anger and had turned a darker colour. He held the megaphone to my ear.

“Nothing Sergeant!”

“Sergeant! Nothing Sergeant!”

“That’s better! Now get the fuck up!”

He got back onto the crate while I picked myself up under his unwavering gaze.

“I’ll kick your arse so fucking hard,” he crowed, “you’ll have a brown taste in your mouth.”

He looked around and collected himself. Then he delivered a speech of goodwill intended to welcome us and dispel some of of the misconceptions we might have had about the Army. One of these wrong ideas, he said, was the notion that swearing was condoned.

“So,” he shrieked, “if any of you cunts hear instructors using words like fuck or shit, you come and tell me!”

It was clear that the no-swearing policy had been conceived somewhere above him. He honked the megaphone again, like a bosun’s whistle. We were to line up for hearing and eyesight tests, and to pee on paper strips which would test for blood and protein in our urine.

“Fucking move!”


The Army wanted us to have no blood or protein in our urine—at least, not yet. The idea, as we saw it, was to have blood and protein in our urine already. One guy poured a Coke onto his strip and I stuck mine up my nose before I peed on it. It got all bent and didn’t look right. I threw it away and went to ask for another one.

“Buggerfuck me!” the medical officer roared. “You shit on it?”

“I lost it, sir.”

He put his nose very close to mine and bounced my fringe with his voice.

“And I feel for you like a mother with a wooden tit!”

Then he gave me another strip and followed me to make sure that I peed on it. He escorted me back to the rows of tables where the medics inspected it and sent me along in the snaking queue herded by shouting men. They called out our service numbers one by one. Service numbers started with the two digits of the year they were assigned. From these I could judge the ages of the other men. One man with thick glasses had a service number issued ten years before mine. When his number was called out he went up to Sergeant Sinden who was still standing on his crate. He explained something to him.

“Doctor!?” Sinden mocked him, using the megaphone. “Well, well, fucking well. Fancy that!”

The man said something else and appeared to make a helpful suggestion.

“Fall in, Doc,” Sinden brayed, making the megaphone squeak, “or I’ll fuck you so hard you’ll have with a whole new blood type!”


With their printed lists and practiced voices the instructors shouted us into groups. Each group numbered around forty men, but not all the men had arrived. We sat in the dust and waited.

“Just look at them,” the guy next to me said.

His name was Andy. He had long hair, all the way down his back, and a well-travelled look. He lay against his bag, one leg over the other, his hands locked across his chest. He seemed very relaxed at a time when the rest of us were very tense.

“Have you noticed,” he said, “that none of them has a proper chin?”

I looked at the corporals moving between the new conscripts, shoving them and shouting. They all seemed to share a basic body plan that suggested generations of unschooled sex.

“Only a recipe with very few ingredients could produce such consistently similar results,” Andy remarked.

As we watched them, Doc tried his luck with another sergeant, but Sinden spotted him. Soon he was doing pushups with Sinden’s boot in his back.

“Old Doc there is in for a hard time,” Andy said. “He thinks he can convince these people that he doesn’t belong here.”

When Doc started struggling after a few pushups, some of the corporals gathered to jeer at this outrage of physical weakness. One leant in and counted for him, shouting near his ear. When Doc’s arms gave out, he was yanked upright by the men who surrounded him. They abandoned their requirement of pushups and taunted him with questions instead.

“Doctor fucking what?” one of them howled.

“Palaeontology,” Doc explained glumly.

His face was red and dusty.

“So you’re not a doctor then?” another corporal asked.

“Polly-fucking-tology!” Sinden announced over the megaphone.

“If you had any expectations involving culture,” Andy warned as he chewed on a blade of grass, “it’d be good to adjust them now.”

The instructors lost interest and left Doc alone. He stood with his bag on the ground between his feet, cleaning his glasses. Then he sat down to wait.

A few minutes later, a stocky corporal with particularly simian features waded past.

“The People versus Natural Selection,” Andy snorted when the corporal was out of earshot.

Doc overheard this and smiled to himself.

“What’s up, Doc?” Andy called to him.

There was a moment of silence as Doc considered this question.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” he quoted from the seventies movie.

Andy sat up and smiled. He looked at me, and then at Doc.

“You know what?” he said. “It’s going to be alright.”



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A thing my father was good at

The last thing my father and I talked about was sleep. He was in town once a month to see his doctoral students and he came to dinner if he wasn’t too tired or nauseated by the side-effects of chemo. He sat in his rental car outside my gate, ready to leave for his hotel, when he remembered something.

“I forgot to tell you about Ryan,” he said.

“Who’s Ryan?” I asked and leaned with folded arms inside his open window.

“Ryan is a quiet guy—” my father said and shut off the engine, “—and weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Well, to begin with, he’s runty, with an extremely large head.”

“What?”

“It’s true. He’s mostly head, like the Lewis Carroll Hatter of old. And he’s always holding his head like he’s afraid it might come off and roll away.”

My father laughed to himself and coughed.

“Does he wear a hat?” I asked.

“No,” my father said and coughed some more, “but he wears a bow-tie. He’s the most uptight little man I’ve ever met.”

“A bow-tie—?”

“Do you have any idea what that looks like—this thumb of a man with his outsized head, and a bow-tie like a tourniquet?”

“Maybe his head just looks big because of the bow-tie.”

“His head is big, bow-tie or no bow-tie. Also, he speaks in haikus whenever he gets a chance.”

“You’re kidding—”

“When we met, he introduced himself with a haiku.”

“What did he say?”

“He said something along the lines of—Acquainted at last! Soon is the sunshine of minds—and then something else that made even less sense, so I cannot remember the last line.

“Just like that?”

“When I looked puzzled he explained that it was a haiku he’d made up.”

“Did you ask him why he bothered?”

“The man wears a bow-tie,” my father said by ways of an explanation. “Anyway, I’ve gotten better at remembering his utterances. Do you know what he said when I asked him this afternoon how work on his thesis was coming along?”

“What?”

Words flow and time flies. Ideas occur more slowly. A thesis eludes.

“That’s kind of funny,” I remarked.

“Sure,” my father said, “until you have to wait while he formulates it. Sometimes I feel like ripping out my veins and strangling him with them.”

“I take it he’s dull—”

“Guess what he said when I asked whether he’d enjoyed a trip they’d taken to Thailand.”

“He’s married?”

“Yes, but don’t ask me how he managed that. He has a kid too, so it all works.”

“What did he say?”

No.

“No haiku?”

“When he’s stumped, he reverts to short form,” my father said and laughed at his own pun.

“What’s not to like about Thailand?”

“Beats me.”

My father coughed again and blew his nose into a crumpled handkerchief he always seemed to have in his pocket.

“Anyway,” he resumed, “we reviewed the latest chapters of his thesis this afternoon, sitting together at a little table in my office. I was reading and he was watching me closely.”

“Oh Jesus,” I said.


With my father, what happened next was inevitable. Chief among his talents was a superhuman capacity for sleep. He could fall asleep anywhere, at any time, doing anything. What he hadn’t figured out, he always said, was a way to make money from this. He once fell asleep in a lounger at a furniture store in the mall. The owner suggested that my mother leave him there and go shopping, and she did. When she returned, my father was still asleep, holding a sign the owner had written—On Special Today! (man not included)—while people stood around and watched him. Another time he fell asleep on stage during a graduation ceremony. He was supposed to make a speech and waited in a chair next to the lectern while the Chancellor introduced him with a few stories from their past. One of these was about a time my father had fallen asleep during a prayer at a faculty dinner.

“I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said the next day. “You’d expect that he could stay awake this once. But no. As the Chancellor got to the prayer story, your father’s head drooped onto his chest and his arms dangled over the side of the chair. When people in the audience laughed, he jerked like a puppet.”

“I was thinking,” my father said.

“Is that so? What were you thinking when the Chancellor called your name a second time?”

“I made a good speech,” my father muttered.

“You did, but I’m surprised you stayed awake for that.”

“I don’t fall asleep when I’m talking.”

But this wasn’t technically true. Over the years my mother had perfected the art of getting my father to continue a conversation as he drifted off into sleep. She’d ask well-timed questions—calibrated to baffle him—and so kept him from sinking too far from her voice. Once, when I was still a kid, my father decided to buy a CD player. CD players were a new thing at the time and he had wanted one ever since he’d first read about the idea many years before. The decision to buy one was a watershed moment of his life, an outright betrayal of the investment he’d made in a collection of vinyl records, and the occasion of considerable guilt. In order to convince himself that he needed a CD player, he started to buy CDs.

“What’s this?” my mother asked when she saw another new CD one Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a CD,” my father said in the same tone he’d use to name a dahlia.

“I know,” my mother snapped. “Why did you buy it when you cannot play it?”

“I don’t need to play it,” my father declared loftily. “I just need to have it.”

A few Saturdays later he caved in and bought a CD player, despite his lofty ideals and my mother’s decree that a CD player was not to enter our house. They argued throughout lunch and then my father slumped into a chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said as he drifted off.

“What?” he mumbled.

“There’s a man at the door.”

My father frowned and sank deeper into the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said again after half a minute.

“What?” my father blubbered with flabby lips.

After a pause my mother said, “He’s come for the CD player.”

“Hmm?” my father purred.

My mother let him slide into the abyss again.

“The laser is yellow,” she said when he was almost gone.

My father moved his legs and then slipped deeper into sleep again.

“Dewald!” my mother insisted.

“What?”

“There’s no need to argue about the lyrics,” she said.

My father stirred and frowned in his sleep.

“Pfuck’im,” he mumbled and melded a little further into the fabric of the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said after she’d given him a few seconds to sink away. “What shall I tell aunt Henry?”

“Custard on Wednesdays,” my father slurred.


Now he said, “As I read, Ryan sat next to me, holding his head. He rocked slowly back and forth as though he’d just lost everything in some disaster.”

“Is his thesis any good?” I asked.

“Well,” my father hesitated, “it’s not a thrilling read, if that’s what you’re asking. The text, like Ryan, has a bow-tie.”

“Oh.”

“There’s even a haiku, as an epigraph.”

“What’s it say?”

“It’s sort of touching—My sweet little Sam, who wants to know what I do, will never read this.”

“Who’s Sam?”

“His daughter. Which brings me to what I wanted to tell you. As I was reading Ryan's latest chapter, his rocking must have entranced me. One minute I was reading, and the next I heard myself ask, far away, So, Ryan, did your daughter help you with this?

“What happened?”

My father coughed before he continued.

“I kept looking at the page and told myself that I must have imagined it, but then I heard Ryan say, with carefully measured syllables, She’s six years old.”

My father coughed some more and looked for a moment to be in pain.

“Then, helpless to stop it, I heard myself say, even farther away, Nevertheless, is it possible that she helped you?

“What did he do?” I laughed.

“He said nothing for what felt like a long, long time, and then he said No.”

“And then?”

“Then we just sat there like that, while I continued to read.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s thinking,” I said.

My father turned in his seat and looked at me.

“What if dying’s like that?” he said. “What if we sink from the voices and the light and time drags out like in a dream?”

“Maybe it’s just like falling asleep,” I said.

As he had done so many times that night, my father coughed.

“I ought to be good at that,” he said.



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The parallel of talent

It’s easy to hate money from far away. I’ve done it for as long as I can remember. I’ve said many bad things about it, but mostly when it couldn’t hear me. I know it’s wrong. There must be good money somewhere. If I’d grown up around money I might have understood it better, but as it happened, I didn’t. My parents and their parents were mathematicians and composers and teachers. They didn’t care much for money. They cared about talent. They understood money the way they understood plumbing—they used it, but they didn’t really know where it came from or where it went. They worked for their money and viewed the whole affair as an unfortunate necessity, something that had to be done so they could do other things. It was just how life was.


“Money doesn’t grow on your father’s back,” my mother once said when I was still a kid.

I had wanted some toy but now the mental image of my father with money growing like leaves from his back was instantly more engaging.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Money is hard to come by,” my mother answered.

This didn’t make sense to me. There was a lot of money at the bank. All my father had to do was to get some. I’d seen him do it before. He didn’t have to grow money on his back or anything like that. He could just fetch it.

“Why can’t he go and get more money?” I asked.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“What do you think he’s doing right now?”

“He’s at work.”

“Yes. Doing what?”

“Getting money?”

“No,” my mother sighed, “he’s working.”

“Why?”

“That’s how he gets money.”

This didn’t make sense to me either. There were many people who didn’t seem to work much but got more money than my father. Up the street lived a man who had a boat and stood around on his lawn in the afternoons with a beer in his hand, while my father was still at work, getting his money. This man didn’t work at all. Perhaps my father wasn’t doing it right. Perhaps he was doing the wrong work.

“Why isn’t Dad a doctor?” I asked.

“Your father’s too smart to be a doctor,” my mother said firmly.


Years later, as a teenager, I got into an argument with my father about money.

“One day I’m going to make money,” I declared. “Not like you, working. I’m going to make it.”

“Is that so?” he said and looked up from the book he was reading. “Doing what?”

“I’m going to manufacture money,” I said. “Of all the jobs you can have, making money must be the best one. When people ask what you do, you can say, I make money.”

My father took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes the way he did before he tried to teach me something.

“Are you going to work at the Mint?”

That was not what I’d had in mind.

“No,” I scoffed. “I’m going to make paper money, you know, but counterfeit, and real good.”

“I see,” my father said as he cleaned his glasses. “Real good?”

“Yeah!”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I dunno,” I waved away his question. “Just think—stacks of money!”

But my father wasn’t thinking about stacks of money.

“Never mind that it’s illegal to print your own money,” he said and gave me a level stare. “To forge money takes great skill and technical knowledge. How are you going to do that?”

“I’ll just do it! Just think—”

“How?”

It was obvious that he couldn’t see the stacks of money I was looking at.

“How exactly?” he stipulated.

“What do you mean?”

“For example,” my father said in his lecturing voice, “printing money requires precision. Right now, you cannot even write in a straight line. How are you going to do that?”

“I’ll do it then, not now.”

“How? Where’s it going to come from?”

“What?”

“Where will your respect for precision and effort come from?”

“Why must it take effort?”

My father put his glasses back on and pushed them up his nose.

“Good things do,” he said. “Look around this room—the clock, the microwave, the table, the glass in the windows—these things took talent to invent, and years of hard work to perfect.”

I could see where this was going.

“It doesn’t have to take long,” I objected.

“Meaning?”

I won’t be spending all my time making money. I’ll be home more often than you.”

It was unfair to say that, but I wanted to hurt him. My father looked away and straightened from where he’d leant with his hands on the table between us.

“Perhaps I’m not as talented as you are,” he said.


But talent is no more than a food stamp in the world of work. I know that now. And in case I forget, I’m reminded often.

“Are you going to work today?” my seven-year-old daughter Annie once asked me.

“It’s Friday,” I said. “Of course I’m going to work.”

“But you went yesterday?”

Her question surprised me, especially as it was the same one I often asked myself.

“Why must you go again?” she added.

“Well,” I sighed, “they pay me to be there five days of the week. It’s like school is for you.”

“But you’re big,” Annie frowned. “Why can’t you finish your work on Monday and get all your money?”

For a moment I toyed with the idea of telling her that I was actually far too busy to work. There were many things I wanted to do around the house, and a long list of personal projects. But I knew that she’d agree and then I’d have no way to explain why I was going to work again.

“Do you like it?” Annie asked before I could say anything.

I put on my jacket, gave her a hug, and opened the front door.

“No,” I admitted. “Not really.”

“We can do something nice later,” she suggested as I started down the steps.

I turned to look at her.

“That’ll be good,” I said. “I’ll stay home tomorrow.”



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Take that jack

This is not a story about my friend Jack, although it might as well be—it’s the sort of thing he’d do. This is the story behind a phrase that’s been around in my family for as long as I can remember. Whenever someone seems to enjoy being pessimistic, we say take that jack.


The phrase is a contraction of a story about an old, foul-mouthed farmer who got a flat tyre in the middle of the night along a deserted dirt road. The story is very likely apocryphal, but so what?

“What in pink flabby fuck?” the farmer said to himself as he got out of the truck.

He walked around to the back.

“Fucking great,” he grumbled as he kicked the flat tyre. “Fucking wonderful.”

He got a flashlight from under his seat, and crawled in underneath the truck. After considerable swearing and a long struggle, he managed to lower the spare wheel.

“It’s probably flat,” he muttered as he pulled himself up out of the dust.

But it wasn’t. The farmer looked behind the driver’s seat for the jack but found only the lug nut spanner.

“Where the fuck is the jack?” he wondered out loud and scratched his head.

He got in under the truck again, but the jack wasn’t where the wheel had been. He searched the inside of the truck thoroughly, but no jack.

Shit!” he said to the sky. “Wonderful.”

For a minute he considered other ways to raise the truck, but he couldn’t think of any. The dirt road stretched to the horizon under a low moon. In the distance was a single light. Livid, the farmer set off along the road.

“It’s not a light,” he said out loud after a few minutes. “Fucking typical. Just some arseholes huddling around a cigarette.”

He walked on and the light stayed where it was.

“It’s not a house,” he said, a little out of breath. “It’s a beacon on a fucking pole, one of those stupid fucking surveyor things, in the middle of nowhere.”

In the distance, the single light resolved into a few lights, close together, like those of a house. As he walked on, he thought of something else.

“The place is a fort, barbed fucking wire and electric fences everywhere, with one of those little signs with a fucking skull. Typical!

Ten minutes later he came to a gate and an uphill jeep track that looked like it led to the house. The gate wasn’t locked and nothing was barbed or electrified. There was a sign, but instead of a skull it had a picture of a cow and the words Pete Farrell, Cheesemaker.

Cheesemaker,” the farmer mouthed as he regarded the sign in the dim light. “Fucking arsehole.”

He opened the gate and went inside.

“Pete’s not home,” he said out loud as he began to walk up the track. “Pete’s in town, having cocktails. Fucking cheesemaker. All this way for nothing!”

As he walked on, the lights moved in and out of sight as trees and the hill he was climbing got in the way.

“Pete’s got a dog,” he panted, “protecting his stupid cheese. From fucking what?”

He paused to rest and stood with his hands on his knees.

“I can see the headlines—German shepherd mistakes man for a mouse.”

No dog barked as he approached the house a few minutes later. By now the farmer was beside himself with rage.

“Pete won’t even come to the fucking door! I’ll stand there like a goddamned idiot!”

He was out of breath and sweating.

“Pete’s a fucking sissy! I should’ve known. Cheesemaker. He doesn’t even have a jack!”

He slowly climbed the steps to the porch and rang the bell.

“Pete has a jack,” he seethed, “but he won’t lend it to me, the selfish prick!”


A few moments later, Pete the Cheesemaker opened the door.

“Take that jack,” the farmer cried, “and shove it up your arse!”



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The stress cube

When I saw the fidget cube it was love at first sight. The little cube was about an inch on a side. From one face protruded a joystick you could swivel around. Another face had five little rubber knobs—arranged like the five on the side of a die—which you could depress individually. Yet another face revealed a spherical cap you could roll around endlessly. Here was a thing made by someone who understood what it was to daydream, what it was to be lost in thoughts so creative as to be incapable of yielding anything whatsoever. I had to have one.

“Where’d you get this wonderful thing?” I asked my colleague James.

“Isn’t it great,” he said. “Did you see this?”

He showed me a face with a thumb-shaped dent.

“They’re nine dollars on Amazon,” he said.


That evening I went online to find one.

Relieves stress and anxiety, the blurb on Amazon read.

I couldn’t find the exact one James had, but there were many cubes to choose from, ranging from what looked like a flimsy version of James’s cube, to a sturdy luxury model that came with its own little bag, presumably so you could travel with it. I clicked on the luxury model. If I was going to fidget, I was going to fidget in style. The model James had was a nice charcoal colour, but the luxury model only came in black, with all the fidgety parts coloured light pink. This was annoying because I’d really wanted a muted, charcoal cube, like James’s. If I was going to take my cube to work to meet his cube, for instance, I wouldn’t want mine to be the garish one. There was another model, not quite as nice as the luxury one, and without a bag, but it came in various colours, including charcoal. I clicked on a charcoal one.

Only 1 left in stock — order soon, the page said.

No need to rush, I thought—it was half past eleven. I opened a separate tab and checked the luxury model again, just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out, but I was sure. The light pink knobs were hideous. The not-so-luxury cube was actually perfect, come to think of it. Satisfied, I added it to my cart.

This item is no longer available, an error message said.

Somewhere was an asshole, up at this hour, browsing for cubes. I could seem him lying in bed, smugly clicking away.

“Who are you talking to?” my wife whispered.

“No one. Go back to sleep.”

I found what looked like the model James had, but the cube didn’t seem to be of the same quality. I couldn’t very well buy what looked like the same one, only to have mine fall apart before his did. I looked at the luxury cube again. The pink knobs weren’t so bad when I dimmed my screen. They were more reddish in colour, and the whole thing looked a bit like an executive cube.

I ordered it and went to sleep.

The next afternoon I got an email to say that my order of the Luxury Fidget Cube had been cancelled.

“This is bullshit,” I said to Mia. “I never cancelled the order.”

“Was that what you were doing last night? What did you order?”

“This thing—a stress cube. Never mind. They just cancelled it.”

“Amazon knows everything about you,” she said as she walked away. “Maybe they know that it’s useless to send you a stress cube. They cancelled the order for humane reasons.”

I checked the order. Customer Canceled, it said.

“It’s Amazon!” I called after Mia.

“It’s Amazon,” came the echo from upstairs.

I browsed for fidget cubes, found the Luxury Fidget Cube, dimmed my screen, and proceeded to checkout.

Add-on items ship with orders that contain $25 of items shipped by Amazon, it said on the screen. What in purple blazes was this? I couldn’t even buy the cube by itself? Maybe that’s why my order was cancelled before. I added $29 of TotalBoat teak cleaner and completed the purchase.


At work, James’s cube looked puny compared to the cube I knew I was getting. Even its charcoaly colour didn’t make up for the fact that mine had a fourth combination roller on its one side, and a bag.

“So you ordered one?” James said. “I’d like to compare them. I suspect mine’s a fairly cheap one.”

“Mine’s a little more expensive,” I said, mentally adding the teak cleaner. “It comes on Thursday.”

On Thursday I discovered an email sent on Tuesday to explain that order 113-3058039-2629055 of a Luxury Fidget Cube and TotalBoat Teak Cleaner had been delayed. There was a problem shipping the teak cleaner from the supplier. I could cancel the whole order, or wait.

“Are you getting worked up about a stress cube?” Mia asked when I told her. “Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

“Forget the cube!” I fumed. “Just think about this shit for a second. First someone takes the thing I wanted from under my nose! And now this!”

“It’s a stress cube,” she insisted calmly. “It relieves stress.”

“And anxiety—”

“Ah—”

“And some teak cleaner.”

“Teak cleaner?”

I poured myself a glass of wine.

“I had to add something or the cube wouldn’t come.”

“What?”

“The cube was an add-on item,” I mumbled. “I had to order something else.”

Mia took a slow sip of my wine and gave me a hard stare.

“Are you telling me this cube is so cheap that they don’t even sell it by itself?”

“Not necessarily—”

“Never mind,” she said, waving aside my attempt at an argument. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Wrong?”

“You said that someone had taken what you’d wanted?”

“That was before I saw this one,” I lied. “This is the cube I want.”

“Ok then,” Mia said. “Just relax. It’ll come.”


On the day that Amazon had said it would come, it didn’t come. I checked the mailbox even though I knew that two quarts of teak cleaner would never have fit into it.

“Can you stop?” Mia hissed when I slammed the mail down on the kitchen counter.

She patted my cheek the way she does when she mocks me.

Relax.”

That night I had a fevered dream in which I’d become an old and bitter man. I sat on a small bench in the park and grumpily poked at pigeons with my walking stick while I complained about my cube that never came. The next day a box sat on the doorstep when I got home.

“Tada!” I called out as I carried it inside.

“I hope that’s it,” Mia said.

I ripped open the box.

“What’s this?”

“Ah!” she purred. “It’s modelling clay I ordered for the kids.”

“Where the fuck is my cube!?”

“Give me that,” she grunted as she pried the clay from my hands.

“And where is my teak cleaner—?”

“You know,” she said, out of breath, “do you remember that time you told me not to rush to my yoga class?”

“It’s not the same,” I insisted. “This is extortion! First I had to buy extra shit I didn’t really want, and now none of it arrives!”

“You’re right,” Mia said calmly. “It’s not the same. This is much, much worse.”

“Exactly!”

You’re much worse.”

“Look,” I said, calming myself, “I know this is silly. It’s just a little cube after all.”

“Go on—”

“Which is why it should be so simple to deliver it.”

“And—?”

“And now some idiot is fidgeting with it at the Amazon fulfillment center! You know, while they wait for the teak cleaner.”

“Yeah right,” Mia said.

“I can see him clearly,” I went on, “sitting on a box, twiddling my cube. He’s in his twenties, and smug. He’s a cousin of the asshole who bought the other cube!”

“What other cube?” Mia asked as I walked away.


The email from TotalBoat arrived later that night, entitled How was you recent TotalBoat order? I almost snapped my laptop in half but then I remembered how stupid I’d felt after I’d kicked a dent in our dishwasher, many years before.

“How does this work?” I asked Mia. “Total-fucking-boat is the reason my cube isn’t here, and now they want me to time travel and tell them about their teak cleaner.”

I’d worry about the cube if I were you,” she replied.

The package arrived a week later. By then I’d taken the moral high ground and didn’t want the cube anymore. The teak cleaner would come in handy, I was sure, but the cube had become an add-on. I was embarrassed by my anger, but Mia was still interested.

“This had better be good,” she said as I began to open the box. “You’ve been sulking and swearing ever since you’ve ordered this stupid thing. Let me see.”

“It’s heavy,” I stalled and shook the box.

“That’s the bonus teak cleaner,” Mia nodded.

“It comes with a bag,” I reminded her.

“I don’t care if it comes with a La-Z-Boy. Show me.”

The Luxury Fidget Cube didn’t look very luxurious in person.

“Is this it?” Mia asked as she inspected the cube. “What’s this colour? Intestines?”

“It’s hideous,” I mumbled.

“Nice,” Mia said, reading the labels of the two bottles of teak cleaner. “Part A, and part B.”

“What’s nice about that?”

“They go with part C—the Cube.”

For a fleeting moment I could see myself, sitting on a bench in the park, poking at pigeons.

“Look on the bright side,” Mia said as she patted my cheek. “It comes with a bag.”



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