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.”


“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?”


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 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.


“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.”


“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 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—”


“And some teak cleaner.”

“Teak cleaner?”

I poured myself a glass of wine.

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


“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?”


“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.


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.”


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 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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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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Three Jorges

“Where’s Jorge?” I asked Jorge.

I was speaking to one of three Jorges who worked in our São Paulo offices. The one on the phone was Jorge the 3rd. I called him that because he seemed a touch mad and was always extremely happy or in actual tears. He once sulked and cried at a desk in a corner about a feature he wanted us to add to the software we were working on. When we agreed, he clapped his hands and danced around. Now he sobbed again on the other end of the line.

“Jorge is stolen,” he managed to say.

The Jorge I asked about was Jorge the 1st. He was the opposite of Jorge the 3rd, stable and aloof, and he was the lead salesman in the São Paulo office.


“Sim…yes,” Jorge the 3rd sniffed. “Gone.”

As it turned out, Jorge the 1st had been abducted from an ATM by a gang of thieves, taken into the forest, persuaded to divulge all his PINs, and then left there while they emptied out his accounts. Jorge the 2nd called me two days later.

“Jorge is return-ed,” he announced.

Jorge the 2nd was an acolyte of Jorge the 1st. He copied his mannerisms and moved with him like an anxious shadow. When Jorge the 1st was stolen, Jorge the 2nd was distraught, leaving us to wonder whether he was merely bewildered or upset that he hadn’t been stolen too.

“Is he OK?” I asked.

“Yes. See when you come.”

I was due in São Paolo in two weeks to visit a prospective client with the three Jorges. As a requirement before travelling to Brazil, I had to get a yellow fever shot. A few days later, I saw a doctor.

“Some people have a reaction to this,” he said as he withdrew the needle. “About ten, eleven days later.”

“That’s when I’m in Brazil,” I winced. “What do you mean, reaction?”

“Well,” the doctor said as he disposed of the needle, “a little bout of yellow fever, actually—headaches, fatigue, the chills—that sort of thing.”

The headache started on the flight over. By the time we descended into the vast concrete forest of São Paulo, I was pouring with sweat and felt like dying. At the hotel was a note to call Jorge the 1st.

“Ah,” he conceded. “You here.”

“I think I’m dying,” I whimpered.

“Nonsense,” he soothed.

“It’s the shot they gave me. I’ve got yellow fever.”

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st insisted. “We will discuss of tomorrow. We come get you.”

“No, you’re busy, don’t—”

But he’d hung up.

The three Jorges arrived in a golden Jaguar.

“Get in,” Jorge the 1st said.

I swayed where I stood on the curb outside the hotel, dizzy with nausea and an indescribable urge to be back in my room.

“You look sheet,” Jorge the 3rd observed as we drove off.

“You feel better soon,” Jorge the 1st predicted. “We go churrascaria.”

“Yes,” Jorge the 2nd agreed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Barbecue churrascaria,” Jorge the 3rd said. “All you want.”

The idea of eating turned my stomach.

“I don’t want to eat,” I wheezed.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed.

“Yes,” Jorge the 2nd agreed.

At the churrascaria we sat at a private table Jorge the 1st had arranged. The three Jorges beamed at me but I couldn’t smile back. Inside my skull was a screw prying it open. I was agitated by the waiters who rushed about with skewers of meat as people at other tables put up little green flags to signal that they wanted more. I wanted to throw up and die, but I couldn’t decide which to do first.

“Don’t worry,” Jorge the 1st said. “Tomorrow better.”

“I’m not going to make tomorrow,” I said.

“No,” Jorge the 1st explained, “tomorrow we sell client. Now discuss.”

My desire to discuss business was not large. I wanted to lie down and sweat into a soft cushion.

“Let’s not,” I said.

“Eat,” Jorge the 3rd suggested and held out a ball of unidentifiable meat on a small skewer.

“What’s that?”

“Coração de galinha frito,” Jorge the 1st said and made a small circle with his thumb and index finger. “Veery special.”

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd confirmed and popped one into his mouth.

I tried it warily. It tasted odd and bounced around inside my mouth before I managed to swallow it.

“What is that?”

“Heart of chicken!” Jorge the 3rd exclaimed and clapped his hands.

“I don’t feel so good,” I whimpered.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed. “We go somewhere veery special.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” I said. “I want to sleep.”

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd said and made a small circle with his fingers.


The Jorges smiled.

“You see,” Jorge the 1st said. “Finish eat.”

Half an hour later, Jorge the 1st swung his Jaguar up a small alley and stopped in front of a door beside which many girls loitered in extremely short dresses.

“I want to go back to the hotel,” I begged.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed as they marched me inside.

“Jorge!” an older woman called and stepped from behind a gilded desk in the foyer.

“Carmen,” Jorge the 1st purred as they embraced.

Then he turned to me and said a long sentence in Portuguese. Carmen looked me up and down and nodded grimly while he spoke.

“Perdão,” she said and collared me.

While Carmen inspected me, a pretty girl handed the Jorges name tags that read Jorge.

“You’ve been here before?” I asked sideways of Jorge the 3rd.

“VIP,” Carmen announced and pinned a tag to my shirt.

She released me and patted my chest the way mothers do with their grownup sons.

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd said and made a small circle with his fingers. “V-I-P.”

“I want to—” I began.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed and guided me through a dark doorway.

By then it was clear that we were at a strip club. I’d hoped that we weren’t, but it seemed to be so. I’d been dragged to strip clubs twice before, and had hated it. I simply had no interest in naked women I didn’t know. I did want to see naked women, to be clear, but only if I knew them and had talked them into that condition. I loved the playful subterfuge of women too much to start out with the bare essentials. Now we were going to see a lot of naked women and I was in no condition to do so. My head throbbed and I desperately wanted to barf a single coração de galinha.

Beyond the door, things were not as bad as I’d feared. There was only one naked woman, a rather fat and tanned one who turned lazily around a pole like a grilled chicken. She was on a little stage. The rest of the club was a dark atrium, with low tables and deep chairs, surrounded by a balcony and rooms a floor above. It took only a few seconds to realise that things were in fact a lot worse than they would have been had we been at a strip club. As we sat down at a table Jorge the 1st had reserved, four skimpily dressed girls took up their positions on the armrests of our chairs. The one perched on my chair had pendulous, large breasts. I remember them now because I cannot remember her face. She said something in Portuguese to the Jorges, slid her hand absently into my crotch and began to knead me. In the chair across from me, Jorge the 2nd made a small circle with his fingers and grinned. He too was being palpated, as were the other Jorges. For a fleeting moment I was reminded of a nightmare I once had, a nightmare in which I was propelled through a medley of inadequacies and left naked, cowering in a public place, wondering how I’d got there.

“I don’t think—” I began.

“Don’t think,” Jorge the 1st soothed and waved aside my complaints. “That is Sabrina.”

“Hello,” I said and tried to shift away from her probing hand.

Sabrina leaned in and put her lips inside my ear.

“Fuck,” she declared.

Even if I’d wanted to, there was going to be no fucking.

“I’m sorry—” I tried again.

She grabbed me a little harder.

“Sex,” she mouthed hotly.

Across from me, Jorge the 1st was engulfed by a wide-bottomed girl with even larger breasts than Sabrina. Jorge the 3rd looked like he was being tickled. Jorge the 2nd had gotten up and was being led away by a tall girl, presumably to the rooms upstairs, where he would no doubt be devoured like a male spider. With some effort I rose from my seat.

“I can’t do this,” I croaked.

“Sit down,” Jorge the 1st said from amid a tangle of limbs.

“I need to sleep,” I blurted and sat down again.

Sabrina had my neck in a lock and darted her tongue into my ear. She said something in Portuguese.

“What?” I asked as I managed to pull away.

She repeated it to the Jorges.

“Sabrina says,” Jorge the 1st replied, having surfaced from underneath the girl at his chair, “for just a leettle money, she will make you veery happy.”

He made a small circle with his fingers.

“I don’t want to be happy,” I spluttered. “I want to sleep.”

“Sabrina bootiful!” Jorge the 3rd cried archly. “Look!”

I looked at Sabrina but her breasts were in the way.

“I know,” I said, “but she’s not for me…really.”

While Jorge the 3rd shook his head in sad astonishment, Jorge the 1st summoned a large man to our table. The man wore a shiny, open-collared shirt, and had a bouncy mattress of chest hair on which rested an outsized crucifix. He was clearly the owner. Jorge the 1st explained something to him in Portuguese. The owner nodded, shot me a dark look, and took Sabrina away.

“You like Maria better,” Jorge the 1st explained.

“No,” I whined. “I won’t like Maria, I promise. I just want to go home.”

There were stabbing pains in my eyes and my head throbbed so badly that I could hear my pulse. Maria arrived promptly and appeared to be everything Sabrina was not. She was very tall, and her breasts were smaller. She was also a man. Before she could take up her position on the arm of my chair I jumped up again.

“You no like any womans?” Jorge the 1st asked as he picked up his keys from the table and waved Mario away.

“I do,” I stuttered.

“Yes?” he mused as he got up to go. “You married, não?”

Before I could answer, he held up his hand in stipulation.

“With a woman?”

“Of course I am,” I sighed.

“Por quê?” he murmured as he led me outside.

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The laxative wars

When we were in the tenth grade, Jack and I fed a box of laxatives to a bully at school. The laxatives were called Brooklax and looked like chocolate. The bully was called Carl and looked like Jabba the Hutt. It was Carl’s third year in the tenth grade. He wasn’t slow but he seemed reluctant to move out into the world. Instead, he lingered in high school where he held sway over the rest of us. His favourite pastime was stealing our food. At break he took whatever lunch he fancied and ate it while we watched helplessly. He never took Jack’s food because Jack always had stale-looking sandwiches. Once, when Jack’s grandmother made fudge, Jack brought it to school and Carl promptly ate it.

“That was good,” he said and licked his lips. “We should have fudge more often.”

Jack wasn’t very possessive but he had an animal-like attachment to his food. Taking it was not a good idea.

“You’re going to be sorry,” he told Carl.

“I’m sorry already,” Carl replied and tossed Jack his empty lunch box. “It’s finished. Bring us some more.”

That afternoon Jack made chocolate brownies with a box of Brooklax and the next day I took them to school. At break, Carl grabbed the tupperware of brownies and ate them all.

“These are crap,” he said as he munched along. “Tell your mother I said so.”

After break, in English Grammar, the brownies hit.

“I’m going home,” Carl announced in a pinched voice and shuffled to the door.

“Sit down!” Mrs Foster commanded.

But Carl was gone and didn’t return for the rest of the week.

After that, no food was above suspicion. If we could do that to Carl it was only a matter of time before we did that to one another. Jack wouldn’t eat anything at my place unless I’d eaten it myself. He often insisted on a complicated scheme of swapping food, just to be sure. I didn’t touch anything he’d made without precautions, especially if it contained chocolate. Our mutual distrust grew into our twenties while nothing actually happened. We threatened retaliation and promised compliance, but all the while we hovered on the brink of war.

Then I came across Supertabs at the pharmacy. Supertabs were little red pills that looked like M&Ms. The label on the bottle promised relief from all constipation. The word all was underlined. Each pill contained as much phenolphthalein, the actual laxative, as four blocks of Brooklax. The label bore the ominous phrase USE WITH CAUTION and also a picture of a gaunt skull. I bought a bottle and put the pills into a small vial that used to contain vitamins. A few weeks later we spent the weekend at the beach house Jack’s parents owned. Before we drove back we went to an Indian restaurant. Jack had two orders of extra-hot Vindaloo and was sniffling.

“It looks like you’re getting the flu,” I said and pretended to swallow a Supertab.

“What’s that?” Jack asked.

“Vitamin C and zinc.”

“Give me one too,” he sniffed.

We set out at dark and Jack went to sleep on the back seat. An hour later he groaned and sat up slowly. In the rearview mirror he looked pale and haggard.

“Jeeeesuus,” he moaned.

“What’s wrong?”

He swayed back and forth like someone in a trance.

“I have the largest shit in human history,” he wheezed. “Pull over.”

“It’s that Vindaloo,” I said. “I told you not to have so much.”

“Pull over!”

“I can’t now. We’re in the pass and there’s fog.”

“Fuck the fog,” Jack croaked. “If you drive over another reflector I’m going to crap in your car. Pull over.”

I pulled over. Jack grabbed a towel that he’d used as a cushion and disappeared into the bushes. Ten minutes later he staggered back to the car.

“Where’s my towel?” I asked.

“Are you serious?” he said.

We drove on but we had to stop every now and then so that Jack could rush off into the darkness.

“My ass is burning,” he whimpered when I dropped him off at his house. “It can’t be the Vindaloo already, can it?”

The next morning he called me.

“You’re dead,” he growled.


“I’m pissing blue, asshole. That’s phenolphthalein. It was that pill, wasn’t it?”

“I didn’t know it was going to be so bad,” I admitted. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh no,” he said. “You’re not sorry. You’re going to be sorry.”

And I was. For two years after that Jack tried his best to slip me a laxative but it never worked out. He tried Brooklax and Supertabs and even considered aviation oil. He made a biryani and spiked it with Senokot, but I grew suspicious at the last moment. He fed some of it to the family dog who spent the next two days on the lawn, grazing grass and staring into the distance.

My punishment, in the end, was more mundane. I got the flu one weekend and took two Advils and went to bed. A while later I awoke from a fevered dream. I didn’t know where I was but I knew that I had to concentrate very, very hard. There’s no problem more pressing than a shit whose time has come. I barely made it to the bathroom. There, as I struggled to stay on the toilet, I took two more Advils. I felt like death—flu and a stomach bug at the same time.

In the morning I called Jack.

“You win,” I whispered. “I’ve taken four Supertabs by accident. I hid them in an Advil bottle and forgot about it.”

Strangely, Jack didn’t laugh. He came over. By then I was a bag of bones. I was dehydrated and my skin remained pulled when you pulled at it. The doctor at the clinic was a funny guy we knew from school. Pierre had just finished his studies and was doing his internship.

“Let me get this straight,” he said after I’d told him what had happened. “You two idiots have been feeding one another laxatives for years? Are you insane?”

“Only him,” Jack said dryly. “He did it to me, now to himself.”

Pierre struggled to keep a straight face as he inspected me.

“You look like shit man,” he said. “If you were a dog or something, we’d put you down.”

“Please do,” I whimpered.

“We’re going to give you a stopper and perhaps a drip to rehydrate you.”

“It better be a drip I can wheel around,” I said. “What’s a stopper?”

“Something costive, a pill that’ll plug you up.”

Pierre nodded as though he agreed with himself.

“Without it,” he added, “you’ll keep shitting.”

“It feels like I’ve got a hole in my ass,” I said.

Pierre laughed.

“If you take four Supertabs,” he said, “you’re going to shit things you never ate.”

“It’s worse than that,” I said. “This morning I tried to eat an apple and it came straight out.”

Pierre smiled while he wrote on his clipboard.

“You never thought you’d see that, did you?” Jack remarked.


“A turd with bite marks.”

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Daylight robbery

Macaque monkeys look like tiny people with lots of facial hair. We first encountered them at the Uluwatu temple in Bali. The temple is at the south-western tip of the island, on a cliff above the sea. It was abandoned long ago and is now home to a troop of these monkeys who run along its walls and clamber about in the wild fig trees. The troop keeps to the temple in order to be near the tourists.

When we arrived at the temple, the matriarch monkey and her counsel of elders were sitting on top of the wall beside the gate. They regarded us with interest. When I opened my bag and took out my camera, they became very animated.

“No poto monkey,” a Balinese woman warned me and waved her finger.

Some Balinese cannot make the F-sound and replace it with a P. She pointed at Mia’s glasses and my camera.

“Monkey steal evoryting and camera and glasses,” the woman said.

As we spoke, the old monkey weaved her head from side to side as she followed the movements of my hands.

“You come office,” the woman said. “Pay.”

Before one enters the temple, one must pay an entrance fee and rent a sarong if you’re not wearing one. The temple is holy and a knee-length sarong is required.

“Tirty tousand,” the woman said to Mia, who was wearing a sarong. Then to me, “Pipty tousand. Sarong.”

We gave her a hundred thousand Rupiah for the two of us.

“Pruit?” she asked.


The woman laughed and said something in Balinese to another woman who also laughed.

“Pruit,” she said again and held up a bag of fruit. “Por monkeys.”

“No thanks,” I said.

When another couple arrived, we stood aside while Mia helped me with my sarong. The man was an angry German. He wore socks and Birkenstock sandals despite the heat. He spoke in German to his pretty girlfriend, who was French.

“German german!” Hans insisted.

They were clearly having an argument about something that Hans cared more about than Marie. Marie puffed her cheeks and shrugged.

“No,” she said calmly. “French-uh-french.”

Perhaps they were Swiss. Hans stood with his hands on his hips and stared at Marie. The Balinese women regarded them both with the innocent friendliness for which the island is known.

“You pay,” one woman suggested.

Hans was not done with Marie yet.

“German,” he tried again, “überhaupt nicht german german.”

Marie motioned that he should pay.

“Vot must I pay?” he snapped.

“Pipty tousand,” the woman said. “One person.”

Both Hans and Marie needed sarongs.


“Hundred tousand,” the woman said. “You buy pruit.”


The Balinese woman giggled.

“Pruit,” she said again and held up a bag of fruit. “Give monkey. No steal.”

By now an old Australian couple had been waiting too and the man spoke up.

“Just pay them, mate,” he suggested.

Hans held up a hand to silence him.

“Vy must I vear a sarong?” he demanded to know. “I don’t vont fruit.”

Hans clearly didn’t want to be at the temple. Perhaps that’s what he and Marie were arguing about.

“French-avec-french-uh-french,” Marie explained.

“Look mate,” the old man said, “shit or get off the pot.”

Marie smiled at this and rolled her eyes at the old man.

“French,” she said to Hans, “uh-french.”

“Nein!” he barked.

Hans was more upset than it was German to be.

“Zis iz daytime robbery!” he cried. “I vill not vear a sarong!”

We left Hans and Marie behind and walked through the temple grounds. Like most traditional buildings in Bali, the temple itself was not as interesting as its surroundings. We soon tired of the actual buildings and walked along the low fence that lined the cliffs. Beyond the fence were gnarled vines and a sheer drop to the sea far below. Macaques clambered around in the vines and followed us around. We didn’t have any fruit but they watched our hands and widened their eyes whenever we looked at them.

“Stand back,” I said to Mia. “This one wants to come past.”

We were leaning against the fence and a monkey had come walking along the top of it. Mia leant back and the monkey came forward hesitantly. As he was about to pass us he flicked Mia’s sunglasses off her face and jumped into the vines.

“Hey!” I shouted.

The monkey clambered farther into the twists of vines and ignored me. If an ostrich or a llama had taken Mia’s glasses I would’ve stayed calm, but the monkey was like a person—he had stolen them.

“Hey!” I shouted again. “You!”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Mia said calmly. “Let it go.”

“Give me those glasses,” I ordered the monkey.

I spoke in a firm voice but the monkey looked away as though he hadn’t heard me.

“Now!” I shouted.

He fumbled with Mia’s glasses and tried to put them on his head.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mia asked as I climbed through the fence.

The monkey clambered a little farther out across the water.

“Are you going chase a monkey?” Mia asked. “On the edge of a cliff?”

Now that I was on the other side of the fence, I wasn’t so brave any more. But I was still livid.

“Look at the little shit!” I cried. “He’s ignoring me like a naughty child.”

“Get back here,” Mia said.

“Hey!” I shouted again.

You’re like a child,” Mia hissed. “Get back here.”

I climbed back through the fence.

“You’re no better than that idiot with the Birkenstocks,” Mia said. “Besides, look.”

She pointed at the ground beneath the vines. When I took off my sunglasses I could see what she meant. Glasses and baseball caps and camera parts lay on the cliff’s edge, just out of reach.

“They steal things all day,” she said, beginning to sound a lot like Marie. “It’s their job.”

As we walked back I began to feel stupid. I didn’t want to be like Hans.

“Do you think someone saw me?” I asked.

I saw you,” Mia said. “So did the monkeys.”

The Australian couple sat on a bench by the gate and watched the matriarch and her counsel of elders move about along the top of the wall. The monkeys, in turn, watched the path from the office. Down this path came Marie, followed by Hans. Hans had lost the argument and now wore a sarong. He goose stepped awkwardly and swung a bag of fruit in his hand. The matriarch stared at him and leaned forward, poised to jump.

“German!” Hans called after Marie as she passed us. “Ger—”

But he didn’t get beyond that. The matriarch dropped onto him with a howl. She grabbed him by the collar and pushed into his chest with her feet, bouncing and tugging, riding him like a little jockey. Hans staggered backward and let out a howl of his own. He threw up his arms like someone falling down a hole and then he keeled over. The matriarch ripped the bag of fruit from his hand and ran away.

“Mein german german,” Hans groaned where he lay in the dust.

“Jerman jerman?” Marie giggled as she bent over him.

The old man slapped his thighs and rose from the bench.

That was daylight robbery,” he declared.

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I recently went to watch my wife ride a horse on a smallholding in the countryside. It was an act of bravery on my part. I wanted to impress Mia by going even though we both knew how afraid I was. My mother had instilled in me a deep and irrational fear of horses. She classified them as carnivores.

“Horses have teeth the size of cigarette boxes,” she always said. “They can bite your arm clean off.”

“What’s more,” she continued, “when you meet a horse, it already knows you. It’s heard about you from other horses.”

As a kid, I believed that. As an adult, of course, I still believed it.

“That’s bullshit,” Mia said. “Their teeth aren’t that big and they don’t talk to one another. Also, you don’t have to ride just yet. You only have to watch me trot around the pen.”

I watched from a safe distance, from outside the pen. Mia sat on a Trojan-sized black stallion who seemed to have a lot of free will. His muscles, moving on their own, bulged and shuddered under his skin. He looked like a vacuum-packed horse.

Before they got started Mia brought him along the inside of the fence so I could meet him.

“This is Casanova,” she said.

The stallion nodded slowly. I got the distinct sense that he already knew my name.

“Why must he have a name like that?” I asked. “He sounds untrustworthy.”

Casanova neighed and eyed me over the fence.

You’re untrustworthy,” Mia said. “Come, touch him. He won’t bite.”

I reached through the fence and gave his vast jaw a quick pat. Nothing happened.

“See?” Mia said.

“Perhaps he’s patient,” I said.

They trotted around the pen and jumped over a few things. Casanova looked less savage from farther away. He was almost picturesque. His teeth seemed smaller too. But every time they came past I could see that he eyed me. After a while I got used to that too, and got bored. I called Mia over, but Casanova came with her.

“I’m going to read in the car,” I said to them.

“You can’t go,” Mia protested. “We’re not done.”

She and Casanova towered over me. Casanova strained against his reins and moved from side to side.

“You promised,” Mia said.

They went in circles again but after a few minutes I gave up. Nothing spectacular was going to happen and it seemed silly to just stand around watching them. I started to walk across the lawn between the pen and the car.

“Wait!” Mia called.

I waved above my head and walked on. She called again, but this time she sounded closer. There had been a certain comfort in how the landscape was arranged when I watched them trotting in the pen—there was a fence, a horse beyond it, and then another fence beyond the horse. Now, as I turned to face her, it was clear that both the fences were beyond the horse.

They trotted toward me.

“Go away,” I squeaked when Mia and Casanova towered over me once more.

“Just stand still,” Mia said. “Don’t be such a pussy.”

Casanova pawed at the ground and tried to eat the metal thing in his mouth.

“Why does he do that?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“Chew that metal thing.”

Mia shrieked with laughter.

“That’s the bit, you idiot.”

I looked at the bit. I also saw the stout hairs on Casanova’s lips. I imagined my arm as the bit, and I imagined Casanova biting it clean off.

“Why must everything have a special name when there’s a horse attached to it?” I asked.

Mia and Casanova circled me impatiently while she lectured me on horse words. The circle had a shrinking radius.

“When he does that, he’s champing,” she explained. “This,” she said and held up her little whip, “is the crop.”

“I don’t care what you call it,” I said. “You sound like a naval academy.”

As they moved around me, the saddle groaned and creaked and Casanova snorted in agreement with everything Mia said.

“This is the pommel,” she continued.

“It looks like a dildo,” I said. “Please let me go.”

At this, Casanova stepped forward and put his hoof on the rim of my flip-flop. I was trapped near his chest. He smelled of leather and gunpowder and other horse-like things. I was suddenly jealous at the thought of Mia sitting astride this monster of manliness.

“Stand still,” Mia cautioned somewhere above me.

“He’s standing on my foot!” I cried.

Casanova shifted his hoof, probably to get a better purchase, and by accident released me. I ran out of my flip-flops and made a dash for the car. Behind me I could hear them closing in—thundering hooves and rows of snapping teeth—but I made it to the car just in time.

“You’re a pussy,” Mia announced from her lofty seat. “Get out of there. I’ll teach you to ride.”

Casanova nodded slowly.

“I’d rather sit in this car,” I declared, “even if it was on fire, than come near that thing.”

Mia leant down and patted Casanova’s powerful neck.

“You’re not just a thing,” she purred while Casanova eyed me, “are you my boy?”

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Scrumping the Big Apple

My wife and I visited New York in the fall of 2000. We were sort of poor at the time and the exchange rate was against us, so everything was expensive. We stayed in a backpackers on E 21st street, across from the 13th Precinct. It was grotty but at least we didn’t have to put up with the kind of people who stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The police were noisy and the room was so tiny that we had to stow our suitcases on top of the bed, but it was great.

We did Manhattan. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, climbed the stairs of the Empire State, explored Central Park and scoffed at the showy shops on 5th Avenue. We pretended to be interested in staying at the Paramount hotel and got taken to see some of the rooms. We spent a day in Greenwich Village where we watched a chess master teach his students at the Village Chess Shop. Then we got into an argument with him about how rude New Yorkers were supposed to be.

“You aren’t,” I said when the topic came up. “Everyone we’ve met here is very friendly.”

“We’re rude,” the chess master insisted, determined to be the exception.

“You’re not,” my wife said. “We walked into a precinct yesterday and they gave us a tour of the place.”

“Sure,” the chess master agreed, “but if you did that in Chicago, you’d be a detective by now.”

Maybe he was right. The Big Apple was so big that it seemed only fair that its people be more rude. We loved it. We loved the New York accent, the tallness of everything and the constant fear that we might get mugged. We felt at home. Yet, all the while, something wasn’t right.

We were hungry. We wanted food and we wanted culture, but we couldn’t afford either. We could go without culture for a while, but food was a problem. Everything was so expensive that we ate bagels in our room or junk food on the street. We tried a hot dog billed as authentic from a vendor on World Trade Center Plaza, but it was so authentic that the sausage looked like a dog’s penis. We had New York pizza slices so big that they were scooped onto our trays with a sort of garden shovel. They tasted of flour and the pepperoni slices on them were puckered craters of garlic. I also had my first and only Big Mac. I’d never been to McDonald’s, and now was my chance.

“Are you nuts?” my wife asked.

“One Big Mac,” the guy behind the counter said and handed me a wrapped Big Mac that he took from a sort of queue of pre-made burgers behind him.

“I want my own one,” I complained. “Isn’t this someone else’s?”

He looked at me as though I’d suggested that we exchange underwear.

“That’s yours,” he said.

A few minutes later I gave up and threw the thing away.

“What did I tell you?” my wife said.

We returned to Central Park and loitered outside the Tavern on the Green. It was expensive and seemed to require that you arrive with a horse and cart. At the Algonquin hotel we had a modest tea and played with the resident cat. On our way out I stole a $5 tip from a nearby table.

“How can you do that?” my wife demanded on the street outside.

“I—don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m desperate.”

And we were. We felt like paupers, eating scraps. We wanted wine and meat and vegetables and salads with strips of ginger. We wanted to chew things that had no dough in them. Eating junk was beginning to take its toll. We felt bloated and weak and my wife was beginning to look pale.

Then we saw a small advert in the New York Times announcing a performance of the six motets of Bach on Sunday afternoon at a church in Harlem, on 125th street. Everyone was welcome, it said, admission was free and refreshments were included.

“What does included mean?” my wife wondered. “It says it’s free?”

“Look,” I said, “if everyone’s welcome, that’s us. We’re going.”

We took the bus to upper Manhattan. On our way there I got worried. What if the performance was free but the food was not, despite the word included? We’d end up full of music and nothing else.

“I’ll resent Bach for that,” I told my wife. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” she said. “Bach is dead.”

“What if the food is crap?” I countered.

“Just relax.”

At the church we went up to the gallery, where the organ was. We were the only ones up there, except for the girl who played the organ, and we surveyed the crowd below. There was a choir and a motley audience. The minister addressed us. He told us how hard the choir had practiced and how much he hoped that we’d enjoy ourselves.

“Afterwards,” he said, “please join us in the refectory.”

My wife and I looked at one another. This is what we’d come for—Bach, and the refectory.

“God bless you,” the minister concluded, and took his seat.

We’d never listened to the motets in their fullness and we soon realised that they were not as zippy as the Brandenburg Concertos. To make things worse, the choirmaster was a man of un-Bachlike slowness. He had his back to us but it was clear from his gestures that he objected to most of what the choir tried to do. They plowed on haltingly. The minister, who must have witnessed rehearsals, had clearly meant it when he blessed us.

All the while we got increasingly hungry. We hadn’t eaten any lunch and things were moving at a glacial pace.

“How many more?” my wife whispered.

The choir had just finished the 5th motet.

“One,” I whispered.

“What if there’s just an urn with tea and cookies?” she hissed.

“What if there’s an encore?”

But there wasn’t. The minister got up, visibly relieved, thanked everyone and repeated his invitation to the refectory. We went downstairs and penguin-marched with the crowd. Inside the refectory, people milled about and talked in small groups. Along the one wall were tables covered in food.

We couldn’t believe it. There were pastries and cakes and other sweets, but there were also tables with fruit and meat. There were strawberries and grapes and slices of pineapple, fruit salads, cucumber sticks, carrots, wedges of red pepper, shavings of ginger and beautiful, big apples. The other people picked at this feast with passing interest but we were galvanized.

“I’m taking these,” my wife whispered and stuffed two apples into her carry bag.

“I’m taking some carrots,” I said.

We piled food onto our plates, eating as we went, and walked along to the other tables. The taste of fresh things was dizzying. We loved this church, and we loved New York. On the next table were beef strips, chicken cubes, ham rolls, sushi and sashimi, Swedish meat balls and a variety of little kebabs.

“We need meat,” my wife said under her breath and pointed at the kebabs. “For later.”

I handed her the ziplock bags in which we kept our passports and she filled them with kebabs while pretending to load things onto her plate.

“Get some peppers,” she whispered.

I slipped some peppers and two more apples into my bag. We joined a group of people standing in a circle.

“There’s a seventh motet,” the choirmaster said.

He was holding forth on the history of the motets and the Bach revival of the nineteenth century. While he talked I looked around the circle and noticed that everyone else held plates with one or two items on them while we balanced towers of food on ours. No one seemed keen on the seventh motet either, and some people nodded at me in silent greeting. Then there was an awkward silence.

“The seventh was likely from the Weimar period,” the choirmaster resumed.

“And there it can stay,” the minister cut in.

He’d wedged into the circle next to me and smiled around.

“Hungry?” he said and nodded at my plate.

I had just stuffed a ham roll into my mouth and couldn’t answer.

“You two are not from around here,” he continued. “We can tell.”

“We’re from South Africa,” I mumbled and fumbled with my plate. “How can you tell?”

“You see all these people?” he said.

He motioned at the room in general.


“They’re all from my congregation.”

My throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow.

“Including the choir,” he added.

We’d been watched all along, by everyone.

“But there was an ad in the paper—”

“We always invite the public,” the minister said, “but it’s mostly just us that attend.”

“We’ve stolen your food,” I blurted. “We’re sorry!”

The minister laid a calming hand on my arm.

“That’s OK,” he said. “That’s quite alright.”

A few minutes later he bid us farewell on the steps outside the church.

“We cannot take this,” I said.

I held up the bag of food he’d packed for us.

“Of course you can,” he said and led us gently down to the street. “This is New York.”

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The nappy rush


Mercifully, all of this happened a long time ago…

When you’ve just scraped a two-pound turd from a baby’s ass, the last thing you need is a faulty nappy.

“What the hell’s wrong with this Huggie?” my wife cried.

I panicked and rushed upstairs. Did I buy the wrong size? Again?

“Hand me another one!” she hissed. “The strip doesn’t work.”

I took the dud Huggie and inspected it. The adhesive strip felt fuzzy and was glueless once you peeled it open.

“Jesus!” she exclaimed. “This one too!”

Our seven month-old son was having fun.

“Urghgh-ooggle,” he said and kicked himself off the new Huggie.

I dug into the pack. Every one I tried was the same.

“They’re all like that,” I said. “I’m going back there right now!”

As I ran downstairs, my wife called after me. “Be kind,” she yelled. “And don’t swear.”

On the way to the supermarket I got worked up. Fuck them, I thought, and fuck Huggies. To start with, the supermarket probably had a policy about returning nappies. I didn’t even have the till slip. And they weren’t the real assholes. They just sold Huggies. It’s Huggies I wanted. They made them. I imagined a board meeting at Huggies. There were pictures of happy babies along the walls and twelve fat men gathered around a long mahogany table, smoking cigars.

“Screw them,” the CEO said.

His name was Jeff and he’d been with Huggies ever since he left the hedge fund he used to manage.

“Every tenth nappy or so,” he explained, “on average.”

He blew a plume of smoke to the ceiling.

“The savings on adhesive will outweigh the cost of the secondary production line in about five months. After that, it’s profit all the way. Some packs will be all duds, but that’s just a risk we must take.”

The men around the table nodded and looked again at the nice graph Jeff had put up.

“Besides,” Jeff added, “no one will say a thing. They’ll be too deep in the shit to remember. And if they do, they’ll be too tired.”

The men laughed and laughed and agreed to give Jeff another million in shares along with his December bonus.

I marched into the supermarket with the open pack of Huggies clutched under my arm.

“You,” I pointed at a man who stood at the information desk, “come with me!”

In hindsight this was not a good idea. The man — let’s call him Henry — had such a weak chin that his face seemed to end with a bottom lip. No one with such bad engineering could be in a position of authority, even at the supermarket. I walked briskly to the baby aisle with Henry in tow. When I got to the Huggies, I turned to him.

“See this pack of Huggies?” I began.

Henry nodded.

“Would you believe that they’re all duds?”

Henry looked as though I’d asked him for used toilet paper.

“They don’t work,” I tried. “See?”

I took one out and showed him how the adhesive strip wasn’t sticky.

“There’s something wrong at the factory,” I said. “Because of that we’re left with nappies that won’t close.”

Henry took a nappy from my pack and tried for himself.

“I see,” he said slowly, looking puzzled.

“They’re all like that,” I said. “Everyone.”

Henry looked at my pack of Huggies and then at the many packs on the shelves.

“Let’s see if I’m right,” I said.

I took a pack off the shelf and ripped it open. The nappies were duds too.

“See!” I said. “There’s definitely something wrong! Have a look.”

Henry took a nappy from the new pack and tried the strip. He shook his head in sad silence. I took another pack from the shelf and tore it open.

“See!” I cried. “Again. Same thing!”

Henry scratched his temple.

“Come on,” I said, “don’t just stand there. Help me.”

On my cue Henry took a pack off the shelf and tore it open. We pulled out a few nappies but they were all the same.

“They’re screwing us,” I said, “and they think we won’t notice. Look, another one!”

Henry held up a dud Huggie, looking dazed and vaguely satisfied at the same time. By now a few onlookers had gathered.

“Big corporates think they can do what they want,” I said, out of breath as I ripped open another few packs. “And we’ll just do nothing.”

There were now eight or nine packs of Huggies of different sizes strewn across the floor.

“Look at this,” I said to the people watching us. “Duds. All of them.”

“Duds,” Henry repeated hoarsely.

“What the HELL is going on here?” a deep voice demanded.

A tall man strode toward us. He took in the scene with blank amazement.

“What’s this!?” he said, looking at the carnage around us. “What —”

“All these Huggies are duds,” I declared. “Every last one of them.”

I looked at Henry.

“Tell him,” I said.

“It’s true,” Henry whispered. “There’s no glue.”

The tall man was obviously the manager, and now he became very pale.

“Look,” I said, “the adhesive strip has no adhesive. See?”

“Get a trolley,” the manager instructed Henry. “Go!”

He turned to me.

“There’s no adhesive,” he said in clenched syllables, “because the strips have Velcro now.”

I felt a cold hand reach in through my stomach and close around my heart.

“See?” he said, and demonstrated how you simply stuck what used to be the adhesive strip to the opposite end of the nappy.

“I —”

“Thank you,” he said to Henry who’d arrived with a trolley.

In silence we stacked the packs of Huggies into it and then they led me to the checkout tills.

“Twins?” a woman in the queue joked.

“Triplets,” I said. “There’s going to be a lot of shit.”

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The toilet spray of embarrassment


Embarrassment is a sissy word. It sounds like the polite term for liposuction, and it’s too long. Guilt and shame are short words, and they sound right. Compared to them, embarrassment sounds French. It’s fake, like perfume and toilet spray.

For everyday embarrassments it works just fine. These embarrassments are sort of fake themselves and feel as though they’re happening to someone else. I stumble off curbs, I pull at doors that say PUSH, I realise that I’m in the wrong bathroom once I’m stuck in a stall. I trip over things that aren’t there and I walk into things that are. All these things happen to some other guy, and not me. I laugh them off and move on, usually rather quickly.

But I’m also prone to a different kind of embarrassment. I daydream and talk to myself and because of this I often accept things that normal people would question. I can focus and be logical but only once other options are exhausted. Most of the time I just shrug and make up reasons for why things are as weird as they appear to be. The kind of trouble I get into because of this is not adequately described by the word embarrassment.

As an example, consider something that happened about fifteen years ago — more recent examples are too painful. At the time I worked for a software company that employed a sales consultant called Jeff.

Jeff was a short little man with a tall idea of himself. He also had a Rolex and a Porsche. Jeff and I went to meet a prospective customer and had some time to kill before the meeting. Jeff decided that we should kill this time in a new coffee shop he’d heard about. He parked the Porsche outside and strutted in. The place was cold and minimalist, all glass and angles. We were the only customers. We sat at a table and Jeff surveyed me.

“Where’s your tie?” he demanded. “We’re seeing a customer.”

“I don’t have a tie.”

He looked stunned.

“I can see that,” he said. “How come you don’t have a tie?”

“I don’t own a tie,” I said. “I don’t like them.”

He shook his head and stroked his tie with his hand and looked at his Rolex. The Rolex was a hideous thing with diamond-like studs around the dial. It looked like a gilded haemorrhoid. He fiddled with its strap.

“I’ll do the talking today,” he said, changing the subject. “All you have to do is ask questions.”

He leaned in to make a point. “Now and then.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Harmless ones,” he said with a little smile. “Don’t upset them, and don’t ask anything to which you don’t know the answer.”

“Why bother then?”

He pinched the bridge of his nose with infinite slowness.

“Just let me talk, OK? You’re there to look technical.”

He sat back in his chair.

“Besides,” he added, “you don’t even have a tie.”

The waiter arrived. His name was Gary. It said so on a metal badge pinned to his uniform. I know this even today, fifteen years later, because I’ve kept that badge.

“What can I get you,” Gary asked chirpily.

“A latte,” Jeff said, and adjusted his Rolex.

“And for you?”

“I need an espresso,” I said. “But do me a favour. I’d like it in a normal cup, not in a little demitasse.”

Gary paused for what seemed to be a long time.

“It’s an espresso,” he said, looking tired. “It comes in an espresso cup.”

“I know. But I hate those small cups. Just give me a normal cup.”

“Jeremy won’t like that,” he said.

“Who’s Jeremy?”

He nodded in the direction of the coffee bar behind which a man in his forties stood watching us with what seemed like a little too much interest.

“He’s the barista.”

“Why won’t he like it?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Well,” Gary said, eyeing Jeremy, “Jeremy has ways he likes to do things.”

I was speechless at this new information.

“He’s also the owner,” Gary added helpfully.

Jeff looked at his Rolex and drummed his fingers on the table.

“OK,” I said. “Tell Jeremy that I’m the customer. I too have ways I like to do things. And I’d like my espresso in a normal cup if that’s OK?”

“I’ll tell him,” Gary resigned. “But he’s not going to like it.”

“That’s what I mean,” Jeff said with some satisfaction as Gary walked away. “Just leave the talking to me today.”

We sat in silence as Gary and Jeremy conferred in low voices at the counter. Jeremy made our coffees, glaring at me as though I was the sort of barbarian he’d heard about before but never thought he’d actually meet.

“There you go,” Gary said as he returned with our order. “One latte, and one espresso.”

Jeremy had put my espresso in a large glass mug, but I decided to shut up. We sipped our coffees in silence after Gary left. Jeremy came around the counter and now leaned against it, watching us. I was grateful when Jeff glanced at his Rolex and announced that we had to leave or we’d be late. He signalled for the bill.

“I have to use the bathroom,” I said.

“Hurry up,” said Jeff. “I’ll be outside.”

The bathroom was dimly lit. At first I thought I’d gone into the ladies again because there were no urinals, but then I saw that it was worse than that. Whomever designed the interior of the coffee shop had been given free reign in the bathroom as well. The urinal was a long, slanted slab of granite, like a table along the wall.

“Jesus,” I said, “there aren’t even dividers.”

The thing was a little high too and I had to stand on tiptoe to reach it.

“It’s Jeff,” I said out loud. “I’m getting shorter just being near him.”

Peeing on it made the granite shiny and dark. I started to spray around to see how much I could cover. The door behind me opened and a shaft of light illuminated what was instantly recognisable as a basin. There were three taps arranged along the wall above the granite slab.

“What the FUCK are you doing!?” Gary cried.

I fumbled with myself.

“Jeremy!” he called into the shop, “this prick is pissing in your basin!”

We wrestled briefly in the doorway as he tried to detain me and in the scuffle I somehow ripped the name badge off his uniform.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he called after me as I hurried to the door.

“Hey!” Jeremy shouted as he made for the bathroom to see for himself. “Stop!”

But Jeff was outside already and I didn’t stop.

“Let’s go,” I wheezed as I got into the Porsche.

Behind us, as we drove off, Jeremy appeared on the steps outside the coffee shop and hurled the mug after us.

“Jesus!” Jeff hissed, glancing at me and looking in the rearview mirror, “can’t you just shut the fuck up?”

Then he saw that I was clutching Gary’s badge. He puffed his cheeks in disbelief. “What’s wrong with a small cup anyway?” he asked.

We turned the corner and he sat back in his seat, shaking his head.

“I’ll do the talking today,” he declared. “Don’t say a fucking word.”

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