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, and made him look 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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The secret suicide of questions

On my tenth birthday I shot a sparrow that sat in a tree. I don’t know why. My father had promised that I could use his old air gun when I turned ten, and once I started shooting at things, it sort of just happened. The bird dropped from the branch and hit the lawn with a dull little thud. My father came from the house and looked at it.

“Come here,” he said.

He took the gun from me and knelt by the bird on the lawn.

“Come and hold it,” he told me.

I didn’t want to. The little bird was still breathing and there was a smear of blood on its chest where the pellet had penetrated.

“How can you shoot this bird and then refuse to touch it?” my father asked.

He carefully picked up the bird and held it out in his hand.

“Have some respect,” he said. “Killing is intimate. It’s not something you can just walk away from.”

I bit back tears and nodded.

“If you’re going to kill,” he said softly, seeing how I felt, “you need to know what it is to die.”

Even though I was just ten that day, I can still remember his exact words.

“What do you mean,” I asked, “know what it is to die?”

“Sit right here,” he said as he handed me the bird. “Stay with this bird until it’s dead. Stay with it until a part of you has died with it.”

Then he left me there and was gone for a long time.


I sat on the lawn, holding the sparrow, while the shadow of the tree it had fallen from edged across the yard. The little bird died slowly. It shuddered every few seconds, clenched its claws and stretched its little neck as though it was reaching for something. And then it stopped. Whatever magic it was that moved it simply slipped away. How could I know what it was to die? I had just seen it and yet I had no idea what it was like.

“Is it dead?” my father asked when he returned from the house.

He sat down on the lawn next to me and hugged his knees.

“I want you to think about something,” he said after a while, and cleared his throat. “This sparrow had a father.”

“I’m sorry—” I began.

“Maybe it’s also dead,” my father went on, ignoring me, “but once there must have been such a bird. And that bird had a father too, and so on, all the way back.”

With his words he showed me a long line of birds, strung between the spikes of known events, like a makeshift fence.

“On your birthday,” he said, “today, ten years ago, one of these father birds was alive. When I was born, another one was alive. This older one would have a son, and that son would have a son and so on, all the way to the sparrow alive at your birth, and then to this one you’re holding now—the one you’ve killed.”

I felt like crying but my father kept talking.

“And you,” he said, “you have a father too—me—and I had one, and so did he, and so on and on.”

As he did for the bird, he drew a long line in time.

“On this day, ten thousand years ago, one of these men was alive. On this day, ten million years ago, some male thing was alive in Africa who would be our grandfather somehow.”

I placed the sparrow on the grass between us.

“Were there dates back then?” I asked.

My father said something about calendars while he stroked the feathers of the little bird. Then he resumed.

“Here’s the thing that amazes me every time I think about it,” he said. “Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Imagine flipping through pictures of you, me, my father, his father, and so on, one by one, men who look stranger and stranger as you go back in time, until they’re no longer human, until they’re no longer even mammals. Can you imagine that?”

I tried to imagine how brutish my ten-thousandth grandfather must have been.

“Now imagine,” my father said, “doing the same with this bird. First it’s just one bird after the other, and then they begin to change, until they become some sort of reptile, and so on.”

“I can see that,” I said, even though I couldn’t quite see the birds becoming brutish.

My father turned so he could look at me.

“Somewhere, as you do this, you’ll be looking at the same picture.”

At first I didn’t know what he meant.

“Somewhere,” he said, “around three hundred and twenty millions years ago, there lived a male animal who was the grandfather of both you and this bird. This animal had two sons. They must have been fairly similar, and yet something came between them—a mountain range or a spell of rain, who knows—and because of that the one son became you, and the other son became this sparrow.”

My father looked at nothing in particular while I thought this over.

“Isn’t that something?” he said at length.

The giant circle he’d drawn in time seemed unthinkable. It started out from two brothers hundreds of millions of years ago and came together with me killing my distant cousin today. And yet, I knew, it had to be so.

“But what separated them?” I asked. “It must have been important.”

“It doesn’t matter,” my father said. “Something did. The right question to ask is what separated you now.”

I glanced at the little bird.

“And when you ask the right question,” my father went on, “you don’t need to know the answer.”

He gently picked up the little bird and handed it to me.

“Do the right thing,” he said.


When he’d gone, I buried the sparrow in a flowerbed. I had held it to the end, like my father had asked me to do, but I still didn’t know what it was to die. Hiding the little bird in the ground left me feeling incomplete, as though I’d buried a part of myself with it, but I didn’t know what that part was. In the late spring, daisies flowered where the sparrow was buried. I hoped that they would somehow look different, that they would release the sparrow and make me whole again, but they didn’t. Many years later, the tree in which the little bird had sat was long gone and a pavement covered the place where the flowerbed had been. My father was dying of cancer and we sat together on the patio at the back of the house. I reminded him of his words that day.

“Did I say that?” he wondered.

He swallowed with difficulty and stared into the garden.

“I was younger that day than you are now,” he remarked. “I can’t remember what I said.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know what part I meant,” he replied and smiled wryly at his play on words.

He fumbled with the corner of the blanket my mother had put over him.

“Maybe that’s what it is to die,” he said once I’d helped him. “We die a bit every day. It’s how we live. Why shouldn’t we die that way?”

We sat together in silence until he fell asleep. My father had been right all along, I thought. Answers knew nothing about the secret suicide of questions.


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Zelda’s spiral

The 41 bus runs between Lake City and downtown Seattle. In the mornings the bus is fairly empty where I board it on the corner of Lake City Way and NE 125th Street. I usually get to sit in the back seat, on the right, away from the sun. Here I can write, as I do now. On most days the bus fills up with people who instantly go to sleep, or incessantly worry their phones. There’s very little difference between being asleep and swiping away on a screen, and so these people all look crazy to me. But now and then there’s someone who’s really crazy on the bus. These people are always tolerated, silently, no matter what they do. I’ve seen a woman with blue hair in a fairy outfit, waving a little wand about and putting charms on everyone around her. No one said anything. I’ve seen a businessman in a pinstripe suit, with pointy shoes, who looked perfectly normal except for the fact that he wore a Mr Incredible eye mask. No one said anything. One afternoon an educated drug addict made an impassioned speech about social reform to a Starbucks cup he held aloft. People glanced at him, but no one said anything.

The problem wasn’t that these people needed to get a grip. They had a grip, but they were holding on to the wrong thing. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. I marveled at their craziness, saw myself reflected for a moment in the warped mirror they held up to the world, and moved on. But with Zelda it wasn’t like that.


Zelda squeezed into the seat next to me one morning. She had to squeeze to get in because she was basically a stove with a head and two stubby arms. I think her name was Zelda because it said so on a hardcover notebook that she clutched to the continental shelf of her bosom. On the cover of the book was written, in an ornately curly script, Zelda’s Spiral. The text had been adorned with little flowers and there was a small kitten poking its head out from behind the Z. Besides that, Zelda was odd in two ways. Every few seconds she bared her teeth, like a macaque monkey. As she did this, she hissed and sighed. When she hissed the first time, I thought that she’d seen something on my screen and disapproved of it. But she continued to bare her teeth and hiss, as though her gums were itching. It had nothing to do with me. The other thing she did was more disturbing. She rocked from left to right and back again on her vast buttocks, lifting each one from the seat and tucking it in more tightly as she put it down. It looked like she was doing origami with her underwear. Maybe, I thought, she bared her teeth whenever she got a fold wrong. Her rocking and hissing was beginning to annoy me when she opened the notebook.


Every page was a marvel of pygmy cartoons and a dense spiral of writing. The writing started at the top of the page, then continued down the right, then along the bottom, up the left and then on and on like that toward the center of the page. Drawings of cutesy cats and podgy birds and flowers with faces filled the gaps between some words.

Zelda has produced a monument to OCD, I typed as a new line on my screen. Then I deleted Zelda, and replaced it with She. Zelda hissed and sighed and tucked in her right buttock. She had already progressed a few lines along the page that was now open, and I glanced at it furtively.

“M didn’t come this weekend,” she’d written along the top of her page.

I looked out the window to feign disinterest while Zelda hissed and tucked in her left buttock, bumped against me and sighed.

Who can blame M?, I typed on a new line.

Then I deleted blame M and typed we blame as Zelda turned her book.

“Saw M at UW,” she now calligraphed down the inside right edge of her spiral.

She bit her pen, added a small dot to a row of dots in the top left corner of the page, drew a little cat and tucked in both her buttocks. As she sighed, I glanced at the page again and tried to read other sentences.

“300 lbs by Friday,” one line read.

Along the bottom it continued, I could tell after turning my head a little, “Call D if I make it.”

Zelda hissed and bared her teeth, and sighed. I looked out the window again and wondered what it must be like to hope to weigh three hundred pounds. Zelda rocked toward me and tucked in her left buttock.

Hands-free origami, I typed on a new line. Then I deleted the line and let the cursor blink where it was. I wanted to type And tell D what?, but I was afraid she might read what was on my screen.

Zelda turned the book again and bit her pen for inspiration.

“YES to focus. NO to fuss,” she wrote along the bottom edge of her spiral.

I felt like asking what that had to do with the rest of what was on the page, but of course I couldn’t. She added another dot to the row of dots in the corner of the page, which I now decided was a count of some kind. She bit her pen again and drew a Tweety-like bird that perched in the Y of YES. Then she rocked away from me and tucked in her right buttock.

I glanced at her page. Down the right, amid other lines, was a line that was adorned with a sad-faced flower and read, “Called D anyway.”

Beside me, Zelda hissed and sighed and turned the book so that she could write along the left edge of her spiral. I watched as she carefully wrote, “Creep on the bus is reading what I write.”


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What you can do with a hundred million dollars

When I was a teenager and so covered in pimples that I knew everything, I argued with my mother about money.

“One day,” I announced, “I’m going to be rich.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“What do you mean, what does that mean?”

“What’s rich?” she asked.

“I’m going to have a hundred million dollars,” I declared.

“What can you do with a hundred million dollars?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What do you mean, what can I do? One hundred million dollars!”

My mother lit a cigarette and wrote something on the back of an envelope.

“Here,” she said.

She’d written $100,000,000.

“What’s this?” I asked and tossed the envelope onto the table.

“It’s a hundred million dollars,” she said.

“It’s not,” I sneered. “It’s a stupid envelope with a number on it.”

“Well,” my mother said as she sat down at the table, “if you had a hundred million dollars in the bank, it would look just like that. A stupid number on a piece of paper, or a screen.”

“I know—” I began.

“Just having that money is what’s stupid,” she went on. “If you don’t use it, you might as well not have it.”

It began to feel as though my mother was going to talk me out of my hundred million dollars.

“I know—” I said again.

“Why do you want it?” she added.

“So I can buy stuff.”

“Ah,” she mused, “stuff. What kind of stuff? Things, or experience?”

“What?”

“A car is a thing,” my mother said, “just like money is a thing. A drive is an experience. What do you want?”

“I want my own car,” I said.

“To look at, or to drive?”

“To drive,” I conceded.

“See,” my mother said, “you don’t really want a car, just like you don’t really want a hundred million dollars. You want what you can do with those things, not the things themselves.”

“Somehow you’ve done away with the hundred million dollars,” I complained. “I don’t like that. I want a hundred million dollars.”

She got up and came around to my side of the table.

“You already have a hundred million dollars,” she said calmly.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” she said. “You just don’t know it. Would you like to see what I mean?”

“Can we just talk about being rich?” I groaned.

“Close your eyes,” my mother said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

I closed my eyes reluctantly. I could hear her move away from the table and open a drawer a little way off. Then she returned.

“Keep them shut,” she instructed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m blindfolding you.”

She wrapped a strip of dark cloth around my head and secured it in place with something else. I couldn’t see anything.

“There,” my mother said when she’d finished. “Now you’re blind.”

“And?”

“And here’s a hundred million dollars.”

She retrieved the envelope from the table and placed it in my hand.

“You’ve been struck blind,” she said, “in exchange for a hundred million dollars.”

“It’s just an envelope,” I said.

“Imagine, OK?”

She moved away and lit a cigarette. The flick of her lighter sounded metallic now that I could only hear it.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now we wait,” she said.

“What for?”

But she didn’t answer me.

“Where are you going?” I wanted to know as she began to walk away.

“I’m going downstairs to work,” she said. “You don’t have to. You’re rich, remember?”

When she’d gone I sat at the table and tried to imagine that I’d closed my eyes on purpose because I was concentrating on a problem. My father had once pointed at the clock on the wall when it was exactly noon and asked me what the time would be when next the hour and minute hand were on top of one another. I thought about this until I got to the point where I knew I had to divide twelve by eleven, but I wanted to make a drawing to see exactly why. After a few minutes I tried to move about but it felt as though unseen spikes would pierce my eyes. I kept going toward the stairs, but I couldn’t do so without covering my blindfolded eyes with one hand, leaving me only one hand to feel around with. I found my way back to the table and sat down again. Even though I’d known this kitchen my entire life, it was now a place of strange sounds and narrow spaces. There were red-breasted weavers in the tree outside the window. I listened to their chirping and tried to imagine that I could see out the window, right through the blindfold, but it was hard and I couldn’t keep an image in focus for more than a fleeting moment. I wondered what the colour red sounded like. I could hear the traffic in the street behind our house, and a dog barking for a moment, far away. To sit at this table without the blindfold is to be a part of these things, but blindness had crystalised me as something separate. I desperately wanted the blindfold off, but that would’ve given in to my mother, and so I just waited.

“Being rich isn’t so great, is it?” she said when she returned. “Even for twenty minutes.”

It had felt like an hour.

“Would you like to see again?” she asked.

I mumbled that I’d like to. She carefully took off the blindfold and for a few moments I blinked in the dazzling light.

“The hundred million dollars,” she said and held out her hand.

I gave her the envelope.

“By tonight—” she remarked as she lit a cigarette, “or tomorrow—you’d have happily paid a hundred million dollars just to see again. A hundred million dollars just to have what you’ve had all along.”

I felt shallow and ungrateful and so I said nothing.

“And?” my mother asked after a few moments.

“I see,” I said.

She smiled to herself.

That’s what you can do with a hundred million dollars.”


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