@

Before I moved to Madrid, I engaged in a series of heated discussions about where I should work after failing miserably at a number of low-paying jobs (My father, a professor of Chinese History, even resorted to utilizing the ancient hexagrams of the I-Ching in an attempt to new-age me into employment), I ended up applying for work at Bookstop, a large bookstore, coffee shop and hipster hang-out in the Montrose area of Houston. I had to wear a nametag, a sure sign you are about to embark on a shitty occupation.

I was put under the tutelage of a 21-year-old assistant-manager named Travis. Travis was completely bald, bitter about it, and determined to make manager “before the summer was out.” A large portion of the managerial promotion process hinged on your ability to tutor the new kids, the cashiers, the foot soldiers—in other words, the kids who didn’t care—myself and a black kid from Atlanta named Greg. My first day at work proved a relatively accurate augur of what was to come. I dutifully showed up 15 minutes before Bookstop opened (it is crucial to make a good impression on your first day of work—then you can shit the proverbial bed and it takes longer for people to notice, as people tend to hold to first impressions as a condemned inmate at San Quentin might hold his/her breath once the cyanide gas starts filtering through the vents. There’s no such thing as hopelessness!). Greg had been given the same advice, as I encountered him smoking a blunt in the parking lot on my way to the store, a converted old movie theater.

“Hey, man,” Greg chortled through thick smoke.

“Hi,” I said.

“You have a name tag—are you working here, too?”

“Yeah, it’s my first day,” I said.

“Me, too. You want to hit this bitch?”

“I shouldn’t. It’s our first day. Okay.”

“My nigga!” he said, as I took a substantial drag off of the blunt. I felt pretty proud to be called a nigga and thought about how desperately white people long to be liked by black people. It’s almost an epidemic. Anyone who says differently is lying, or mostly lying. Even white supremacists. Have you heard any white supremacist rappers? I have. The content is nauseating, but their flow is undoubtedly referential, probably to Boogie Down Productions if not Public Enemy. They just flipped the script.

Greg and I were ushered around the store by Travis. He explained something about ISBN numbers and their utility, then droned on about his self-published sci-fi novel that, once he became manager, he could insinuate into the aisles of Bookstop.

“Your book have robots in it, Travis,” asked Greg, laconically, stonedly.

“There are androids, yes,” Travis responded proudly.

“Robots can eat a dick,” offered Greg, foolishly.

“I wouldn’t expect either of you two to even remotely begin to understand the complex time/space signatures in my book and I’ll have you know, Greg, Tyler, that I can make your life extremely difficult here if you aren’t cooperative.”

“That’s bullshit, bitch,” said Greg, accurately. Greg nor I had any allegiance to the Bookstop and were both fairly intent on getting fired or quitting as soon as we had put in the requisite time to convince the parents-that-be we were responsible. Travis often tried to make our lives miserable, but it’s hard to find us when I’ve locked myself in the service elevator with a margarita and a crossword puzzle book and Greg is in his car, balling the coffee shop barrista.

James had been a friend of mine since high school and a frequent visitor to Bookstop. His stepmom had just opened an upscale jewelry and accoutrement salon down the street from the bookstore, and in her store was a margarita machine for the upscale browser (I always thought this was a good idea; I’ll buy almost anything when I’m drunk). James would help out around his stepmom’s store for a bit, then shuttle a thermos full of margarita over to me at Bookstop. We’d chat a bit, decide on evening plans, then he’d retreat back to the store as I would grab a stack of Tom Robbins and adjourn to my perch in the freight elevator. The arrangement usually worked fine, as both Greg and I would cover for each other.

Inevitably, Greg was caught balling the barrista and fired, something that put a damper on my afternoons with crossword puzzles and a half-gallon of frozen margaritas. And while with Greg’s departure the efficiency of the Bookstop machine received an unprecedented spike in productivity, my patience for the working life—at least the working at Bookstop life—ebbed dramatically.

When he wasn’t helping out at his stepmom’s store, James had the luxury of doing nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. He was a BBQing machine. Every day by his parent’s pool, he’d throw heaps of flesh on the grill and he and a menagerie of other summer loafers would drink beer, play guitars, eat heartily and laze around the pool until everyone passed out or didn’t. It was a kind of life I’ve always aspired to, and felt I was missing a wonderful opportunity to idle around in the prime of my youth, like somebody out of Fitzgerald or at least somebody not wandering drunk around a bookstore all day.

I began, as has been the case with most if not all of my ill-fated employment endeavors to fall ill, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays—prime BBQing time.

“Uh, hi Travis. It’s Tyler. Look, I don’t know what I have. I’ve been throwing up all morning and I’ve got a fever and my head hurts and there’s a chance I may have spinal meningitis and so I’m going to stay home today.”

“Spinal meningitis? Are you going to the doctor?”

“No, I think I’m just going to try to ride it out.”

“That’s a terrible idea. You sound fine.”

“Are you saying I’m not sick?”

“Maybe. Are you not?”

“Of course I am.”

“Tyler, do you like your job?”

“Yes. I mean why? Is that some kind of threat?”

“It’s not a threat.”

“Good Christ, Travis, I feel like you’re giving me a hard time. How many times have I called in sick? It’s not like it happens all the time.”

“You’ve called in sick four times in the last two weeks. You get sick on weekends, it seems to me.”

“Well, damnit Travis. I can’t work in an environment where there’s this kind of lack of trust. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’m not. So are you quitting?” I thought for a moment how I would storm back into work, not giving Travis the pleasure of being done with me. I would make it to assistant manager by the end of the summer and then overtake the bald, wretched, wanton Travis as manager, overseeing his daily routine and making his life a living hell for the rest of his days at the Bookstop.

“Yeah, I think I’m quitting,” I said, knowing the aforementioned scenario was untenable and devoid of BBQ and good times. I hung up the phone, euphoric, then headed over to James’ house. Of course, I foresaw trouble in paradise, as my parents would be completely averse to the trajectory I’d chosen for myself this summer.

So, I woke up every morning at 7:30, put on my work clothes: tie, nametag, khakis and Oxford button-down and left for work. However, in this instance, work was located five blocks away at James house, where upon arrival, I’d go back to sleep on his family’s sofa until around 1:00 or 2:00, when the BBQ preparations would begin. This arrangement proved infinitely more suitable and I decided that if times ever got really tough, I could make a living by a pool, eating BBQ. I wasn’t sure from where my income would stem, but the dream must come first. The reality will inevitably fall into place, somehow.

I enjoyed travel, as anybody who never travels says they enjoy travel, but the idea of going abroad again never really drifted through my transom. The summer coming to a close, Bookstop out of the picture and a couple of parents eager to see their son do something, I found myself at an Irish pub, Kennealy’s, with James.

James and I have, since early in our friendship, been convinced that we should be famous actors. Not just actors—famous actors. Every week, James and I would sit in the brackish pub, he drinking Guinness, I drinking whiskey, and discuss how colossally talented, funny, good looking and charming we were and how it was a real shame we hadn’t yet been discovered by Hollywood. We were somewhat in awe of the fact that some director/producer had yet to approach us, telling us how talented, funny, good looking and charming we both were and wouldn’t we like to star opposite Charlize Theron in the next summer blockbuster?

“I think we should probably move to LA,” I said.

“That’s a cliché. Houston is as good a place as any for us. Patience, Tyler.”

“It’s not happening for us here, dude.”

“It just takes patience. Look, did you know Matthew McConaughey met Linklater in a bar and next thing you know—BANG—he’s in Dazed and Confused.”

“Did you know Brad Pitt used to dress up like a chicken and sit in the middle of the street—Hollywood Boulevard, I think. He got discovered that way. Same with Liz Taylor,” I added.

“She dressed up like a chicken?” James asked.

“No, well, I don’t think so—maybe they found her at a mall.”

“I’m better looking than Liam Neeson,” I ventured.

“People say I look like Sean Penn.”

“You do, a little,” I lied. “You’re like Sean Penn if you were a forward for the Celtics.”

“Is it because I have a big nose?”

“Not just that. You have screen presence,” I offered, with no basis in reality.

“Thanks, man. You mean that?”

“I totally mean that.”

“Maybe we should take acting classes.”

“That’s bullshit. I think you either have it or you don’t. Brother we have it.”

“I know we do, but we need a foot in the door.” James could be so negative sometimes.

“You can only be so talented. Then you need luck,” I said, optimistically.

“Are we just unlucky?”

“Yeah, I mean I guess so, so far.”

“Did you apply for grad schools again?”

“No,” I lied again, having been rejected by everywhere. “Let’s go abroad.”

“Fuck off! Are you serious?”

“Yeah, to Madrid. I know the city.” I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate in Madrid. The junior year thing. I didn’t know the city—that too was a lie. Once I ate a meter of albondigas sandwiches at the Subway by Retiro Park, though. Albondigas means “meatballs” in Spanish. It was, and is, my favorite Spanish word. “Plus, Almodovar is there. We should go. You know I met him once”

“Is he Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown?”

“Yep. He hit on me in a club.”

“How do you say ‘boner’ in Spanish,” James asked.

“Vergadura.”

“You gave Almodovar a vergadura.”

“Maybe.”

“What’s bienvenidos? I saw that on a welcome mat. Does that mean ‘welcome?’”

“That’s also boner.”

“I’m bullish on this idea, T. What about Bookstop?”

Dr. C, the owner of Bookstop, called me and asked me to come in. Travis hadn’t told him I’d quit. I felt bad. I didn’t want to have to deal with Dr. C. I liked Dr. C, and I felt terribly guilty for not tendering my resignation to his face. And fuck you, Travis. Happy fuckday to you. I hate awkward situations, especially when they involve speaking with people I’ve let down. I thought drugs would make it easier. After age 22 or so, it’s embarrassing to admit doing acid. But, I admit.

After staring at an issue of the inexplicably pink Financial Times for what seemed a minor eternity, Dr. C. ushered me into his office. Now, I’ve never “seen” anything on drugs, like some people have claimed. I’ve never seen the Led Zeppelin blimp carrying a banner that read, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” or a swimming pool full of Draculas or the face of Heinrich Himmler in a pepperoni pizza. But Dr. C was undulating, changing form, then his features would scramble back into place. It was as if he were an image conjured up like a human Etch-a-Sketch, then shaken, then drawn anew. It didn’t help that Dr. C. had a missing eye and would occasionally, like on this occasion, refuse to wear his eye-patch. I liked him for this “fuck you” to all the staring half-wits, the insensitive cavepeople who would incessantly gaze into his oozing socket. But now, no good. Once you’ve made up your mind not to look at something, you’re tanked. And I admit.

I’m no good with “psychedelic” drugs like mushrooms and acid and that kind of stuff. I hate when people I’m around are on them and I hate to be on them. I’ve always thought of myself as someone hanging from a pretty thin thread, and all this psychedelia bilge tugs at that thread like an angry cat. I also find myself on the tail end of these “trips” sitting on a toilet somewhere trying to crap out my soul. But for some reason I have taken a lot of them. And I took a lot of them before I walked into Dr. C’s office wearing a “cape” fashioned out of a large trash bag, then started blabbering and eventually weeping about United Fruit, neocolonialism and all the trouble that “my opportunist cocksucker ancestors” had inflicted on Latin America.

“Tyler, United Fruit went out of business in the 1970s.”

“But think of all the damage they did, Dr. C, man. Think of Rigoberta Menchu!”

“That wasn’t United Fruit. I think that was a civil war in Guatemala. And what is that thing you’re wearing? Is that a trash bag?”

“It’s more of a cloak, actually. Look, I know you’re probably thinking you want to peel the skin off my face because you went through it all there in Guatemala, you know.”

“What are you talking about, Tyler? Are you okay? You look sweaty. Did you want to come in here just to talk about United Fruit. If you did, that’s fine, it’s just…”

“Oh, man. You’re from Mexico, aren’t you? Jesus Christ! I just want to say that I’m sorry. I don’t think that, you know, Guatemala and Mexico is the same thing. Cultural identity is so very, very important, especially in a growing global community. I know there are a lot of people here who think that way…I like the word “globe,” you know the way it sounds when it comes out of your mouth and then goes into the air. Do you know the song “Dark Globe,” by Syd Barett?”

“Syd who? Tyler, are you doing okay?”

“Not so great, Dr. C,” I managed to drool out, conscious that I was now on drugs, aware that I was on drugs and aware that people usually get paranoid when they’re aware they’re on drugs and that this feeling will never ever ever go away and I’m insane forever.

“What’s the problem,” he asked in his avuncular way. I had always liked Dr. C and I wanted to choose my words carefully, not insult him, not insult the institution of Bookstop.

“I’m in a pretty fucked-up dance here, Dr. C as in cottage cheese. That’s two c’s, isn’t it?

“Excuse me?” Dr. C asked, naturally.

“I meant what?”

“What?”

“Tyler, are you okay?”

“I need to get out of here.”

“Out of my office?”

“Out of everything. I want to withdraw.”

“Well, Tyler, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t fit in here?”

“Here at Bookstop?”

“Yeah, I guess. And my own skin. It feels tight.”

“Is that a metaphor?” he asked. Dr. C. loved metaphors. He had a PhD in English and used to teach at an impressive university. But, he found that he liked books more than he liked people, so he bought a bookstore. Made sense to me.

“I’m afraid not.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Tyler. You know you can always come back.”

“Thank you, Dr. C.”

“Tyler, take care of yourself.”

“I’ll try.”

I left work and headed back to my apartment where I had every intention of lying in a ball, drinking whiskey and listening to George Jones. I opened the door to 211 and was greeted by my roommate Tod, some of his friends, Lance Berkman, all-star first baseman for the Houston Astros, and his roommate Dave, who was standing in his underwear strumming a bass plugged into an unplugged amplifier. We all lived in the same apartment complex.

“Whoa. Dave. Nice bass guitar.“

It’s not a bass guitar—it’s a space guitar.” Dave gave me the drugs, earlier.

“Nice.”

“So nice,” Dave said, strumming his incomprehensible melody.

Dave and Lance made an interesting pair. Lance, for all I know, never did drugs (although not afraid to partake of my whiskey from time to time), was a good Christian boy and could hit a baseball farther than anyone I’ve ever seen, or at least anyone who I’ve ever been in a room on acid with. Dave, on the other hand, was enamored with Frank Zappa and any psychedelic concoction he could get his hands on. But they were often together and were, from all I could tell, extraordinarily good friends. Lance was sitting on our sofa, dipping Copenhagen and Dave stopped playing the space guitar for a moment and asked, “What’s up, man?”

“I’m dropping out.”

“Me too, dude!”

“No, I mean I’m dropping out of America.”

“Nice.”

“Why?” asked Lance Berkman.

“My skin is tight. Does it feel better to hit a home run right-handed or left-handed?”

“Right handed. Look, I’ve got to get going, y’all,” Lance said a little urgently. “Tyler, we’ll see you around, right?”

“Yeah, you’ll se me around.” Lance left the room, Tod and his guys had set up shop in the common room, reading the sheet music to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Dave remained strumming his space guitar, alone in his own mostly nude world. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey, went to my room, curled up in a ball and listened to George Jones for the next four hours until I was finally overcome with sleep.

My Lacunae

By J.E. Fishman

Memoir


Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.

There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy.  I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.

Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically.  One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects.  Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.

That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.

At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.

My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there.  Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.

The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma.  But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know.  It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that.  And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later.  So some memory aids were absent for me.  But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years?  To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?

Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up.  So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article.  I called him and we chatted for a long time.  The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however.  He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.

When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory.  Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person?  Were we ever close?

You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes.  You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!

I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts.  Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file.  He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”

I thought: I’m not famous.  How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael.  He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.

So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me.  It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections!  He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade.  Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.

That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail!  I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.

Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.”  Or was that my brain playing tricks?  No matter.  I felt the tears welling.

Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence.  Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come.  For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind.  And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.

There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled.  They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake.  It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does.  Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.


Joshua MohrJE: WWFiL is a new series we’re starting here at Three Guys, in which the fellas and I ask some of our favorite writers to guest blog a short essay about a book or books, or maybe an author, that made them fall in love in with reading. We wanted to know who they were, and how the book changed them, and who they’ve become as readers and writers and book people. In the coming months, you’ll be hearing from a dizzying array of writers, all of whom have one thing in common: we’ve covered them here at Three Guys One Book.

A couple weeks back I covered Joshua Mohr’s badass and unsettling debut from Two Dollar Radio, Some Things That Meant the World to Me. We Three Guys love watching young talent emerge and develop, and look forward to more from Mohr, beginning with next year’s follow up, Termite Parade, also brought to you by our favorite family joint, Two Dollar Radio. Here’s Joshua Mohr on when he fell in love:

Joshua Mohr: I was one of those high school students who thought reading was bullshit.  And books like “Red Badge of Courage”, “Ethan Frome”, and “Pride and Prejudice” weren’t helping my opinion that literature was pretentious and stuck up.  I didn’t want any part of the canon, if it was comprised of stilted and boring narratives.  Or as Bukowski put it in his introduction to John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”: “…nothing I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me.”

Then my senior year in high school–having literally faked my way through every book report I’d ever written–my English teacher busted me on it.  He said it was obvious that I hadn’t read the assigned book and handed me a copy of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”; I had two days to read the book, write a report, hand it in, or he’d flunk me.  I begrudgingly left with yet another novel I didn’t want to read.

But read it I did because repeating my senior year didn’t seem like a solid option, and the book changed me. Everything I thought I knew about literature was wrong.  It wasn’t boring or stilted, or at least it didn’t have to be.  In the right hands, literature was vibrant and exciting and unpredictable and could make you laugh and break your heart and it could even do all these things at once.  I was hooked.  I asked that teacher for a reading list and he recommended Plath, Kesey, Paley, and Huxley, and just like that, I was a fiend.

As an aside, I tried to contact this teacher years later to let him know the immense influence he’d had on me: that I was turning into a writer myself, thanking him for first showing me Vonnegut.  He never responded to my email.  He didn’t care or didn’t get it.  Or he remembered me as a piss-ant stoner wasting his time.  I can’t really argue with that.  As Billy Pilgrim would say, “So it goes.”

Snap

By Steve Sparshott

Memoir

“Let’s climb that hill” isn’t something that anyone ever really says – unless it’s some kind of figurative hill – but I’m pretty sure Tom said those exact words. It was that sort of day. Any sophistication we possessed had dissolved into last night’s booze and evaporated in the day’s heat. I didn’t think of it that way, because back then I was living a life, I didn’t have the time or inclination to test the safe working loads of creaking metaphors, I just, like, did stuff. We all did. It was cool.

I couldn’t get back in the gym. Usually the door was cracked open and I could sneak in through the side entrance.

Not this time. A group of jocks on the other side of the door were pulling it shut. I had no chance. I was just a 105-pound wrestler. One of them was a giggling 200-pound tight end with a scholarship to UCLA. (He later caught a touchdown pass in a Rose Bowl game from Troy Aikman). I was just playtime. No coaching necessary.

The door was in a bit of a cubby. Didn’t matter. I couldn’t hide there. I still had to get back inside. I’d just watched a wrestler get the smackdown in the weight room. It was his birthday too. They caught him while he was benchpressing. They grabbed him, flipped him over. His sweats were yanked down and his ass was whipped with their bear-like hands. I remember his ass was beet red. There were tears in his eyes. The birthday-haze-hungry jocks laughed gleefully.

I don’t know what’s worse. A physical beating? Or this mental game I was suddenly thrown into? They had grabbed me two seconds after my shower and tossed me toward the ravenous teen wolves of my youth.

First bell.

Students began passing by.

They didn’t know this was the dream I’d had countless times. The only difference was I could usually fly in those nightmares. Not like Superman. Just a little air. Slowly rising. The air under my feet barely heated. I could flap my arms as if they were real wings. As if someone were playing that old video game “Joust” and pressing the flap button. Just enough to barely get me off the ground.

I wanted to fly.

In fact, I wanted to flap and fly and sail into the clouds and rest there a while. Right on a big cloudy bed where I could fall asleep and forget the world.

Students passed. They looked and laughed. They pointed.

I had no actual dignity at that moment. But I pretended to have some. I started walking around the gym toward the back entrance. I tried to blend in with the crowd. I pretended I was fully dressed.

Later that day I would be haunted time and again, “Weren’t you the guy in his underwear right after first period?”

Tighty-whitie underwear at that.

That was me. At school in my underwear. That had been the dream.

I walked around the gym and saw faces, book bags, girls hanging on boy arms and voices shrill like siren songs from broken radios blurting static into the cosmos.

I walked along the concrete. I didn’t run. Those faces were like devils. But I didn’t run.

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


Rikky was skinny. The way Michael Jackson was skinny. All rubbery, loose, yet with enough gristle and sinew to look like a man. And he danced like Michael Jackson, too. On the marble steps of our apartment building in Oakland, California, he’d spin, make a little “ch ch” sound and flip his hand and hip out, posing on the last beat.

My boyfriend, Scott, and I managed the apartment. It was the late nineteen-eighties, we were finishing college, working and saving all our money to buy a house. In return for a free apartment, we rented out the vacant apartments, collected the checks each month, and called the maintenance man, a coarse, cauliflower-skinned old man, who would never use Scott’s name, only referring to him as “college boy.” We mostly rented to people we wanted to be friends with: Keesha and Darril, a couple from Atlanta, she was into fashion design, he was into computers. Courtney and Danny, graduate students at Berkeley. Pierre and Suzanne; she was teaching, he was in law school. And then there was Rikky.

The building was newly renovated, Art Deco, the wood floors refinished, everything freshly painted. But it wasn’t a particularly nice neighborhood. The high-rise next door rented by the week. A baby was dropped down the stairwell there, killed on impact. One night, Scott and I watched a man beat a woman in the parking lot between our building and the neighboring building. When Scott lowered his voice and yelled out the window, “Leave her alone, I’m calling the police!” the woman who was being beaten looked up toward our apartment and yelled, “Mind your own fucking business!” We quickly shut the blinds and hid out in the bedroom, afraid of a rock or bullet that might come flying through the window. The man in the little market on the ground floor of the neighboring building was shot to death one night. He was a nice man, who said, “Thank you very muuuch,” after each purchase, with an accent like Bela Lugosi. There was what we called a “Drug in the Box” across the street. People walked down the street, stuck their hand in a ground floor window and then walked away, quickly. Young boys hung out on the corners whistling and cooing and making all sorts of noises that signaled where the police or any other threat was at any particular moment.  And a pit bull was shot in the head on the sidewalk in front of our apartment one day. The dog was attacking the maintenance man who held it back with a push broom. The police pulled over, got out of their car.  One cop drew his gun, shot the pit bull, put his gun back and returned to the car. They drove away. No report, no words. Just a dead pit bull under my bedroom window.

The day after Rikky signed the lease, an Emporium Capwell truck pulled up in front of the building and began unloading furniture into his studio apartment. Rikky bought the room on display in the department store, including the knick-knacks. He invited Scott and me to come over and see, once the rooms had been set up. Everything was black, white and grey; feathery, dappled, shiny. There was even a silver framed painting on the wall: an abstract of splattered black paint. A price tag hung off each piece of furniture; white sticker tags glared from the corners of each object. In the obsidian ashtray, a wide sticker sat where a stubbed cigarette should have been: $16.99.

“I just went into that store,” Rikky explained, “and stood in the middle of the showroom pointing. I want this, this, this, and this.” Rikky pivoted on one leg, nodding his lanky, limp index finger.

A couple people suggested Rikky might be a male prostitute—for men. He claimed he wasn’t gay but, again like Michael Jackson, his sexuality was ambiguous, his appeal androgynous. Most people thought he was a drug dealer, in spite of his fragile looks and feathery wardrobe. If he was prostituting or dealing drugs, he wasn’t doing it out of the apartment, so in fact, he turned out to be a pretty good tenant. He always paid his rent on the first of the month, always in cash. And then we began to worry about having cash in the apartment—who knew what Rikky’s friends might do for a few hundred dollars? We told Rikky he had to pay the rent by check, like everyone else in the building. The next month’s rent came on a check, but it didn’t have Rikky’s name anywhere on it. The name was similar to Rikky’s, same number of syllables, same metric rhythm. And the address was correct, down to the apartment number.

“Who’s this?” I asked Rikky.

“That’s my brother,” he said, and he did a little Michael Jackson dance in my entrance hall. “Man, we were at a club last night,” Rikky said, “and you should have seen me, you should have seen me dancing, girl, everyone was all over me; boys, girls, they all wanted me when they saw me dance.”

“You told me you don’t have any brothers,” I said.

“The check’s good, don’t worry about! And Huey Newton was there,” Rikky said, spinning around twice and turning his head like a ballerina so he wouldn’t get dizzy.  “He likes hookers. There must have been ten hookers at our table. Oh, and the mayor was there, too.”

“You were partying with the mayor?” I asked.

“Hell yes,” Rikky said. “I only hang out with the finest people.”

The check was good and all the checks that followed were also good.

Sometime in the beginning of the summer, right after Scott and I graduated from school, Rikky bought a brand-new, white Saab. It had every upgrade possible: a black bra across the front, a built-in cell phone at a time when no one we knew had a cell phone, leather seats, sun roof, everything electric.  Rikky stood on the stoop twirling the keys around his finger as he told a few of us the story.

“I walked into that dealership and said, ‘How much.’ Then this white guy there, big belly, puffy face, he gives me a look like, ‘Ain’t no colored boy from Lafayette, Louisiana, gonna be buying a vehicle like this.’”

“How’d he know you were from Louisiana?” my friend, Keesha, asked.

“Girl, he didn’t know nothin’! That’s what I’m saying, he was just givin’ me the look and I was reading his mind!”

“How fast does that thing go?” Scott asked. He’d been admiring the car all day. We didn’t have a car, we took the bus, or the BART train, or we walked.

“Fast, girlfriend, it goes fast! So, this white guy is looking at me and he gives me a price and I say, ‘Fine, I’ll take it.’”

“Did you test drive it?” Scott wanted to know.

“Fuck, no! The only way to let them know you ain’t no dumb punk is when you don’t even test drive the motherfucker you’re gonna buy!”

“So you didn’t drive it till you took it off the lot?” Scott was incredulous.

“No, girlfriend, I told you, no! I just whipped out my little Fendi bag, see?” Rikky flipped his purse-like sack from his back to his side to show us.  “And I pulled out cash, motherfuckers, cold, hard, cash and paid for the thing right then and there.”

“How much was it?” Scott asked.

The car cost more than what we were trying to save for a down payment on a house. Scott wanted the car.  I wanted the cash Rikky spent buying it—I wanted a house.

Scott and I worked hard that summer. I was taking the BART to I.Magnin, an upscale department store in San Francisco where I sold Ladies’ Dresses. He was taking the bus to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, working as a janitor, making far more money than I. We both were working on our resumes, looking for real jobs now that we’d finished school.

One day near the end of the summer, Rikky came knocking on my door.

“Girl,” he said, “I’m in a little bit of trouble and I need some cash fast.”

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

Rikky was sweating, fidgeting instead of dancing. We were in the hall outside my apartment; he kept looking down to the glass front door of the building as if he were waiting for someone.

“Can I have something to drink?” he asked.

We went into the apartment and he whistled out a long breath, like he’d just finished a difficult chore—changing a tire or fixing a toaster.

“So what’s up?” I opened the fridge and pulled out the orange juice.   “Juice?”

“No, I don’t want anything.” Rikky sat at my kitchen table.

“I thought you wanted something to drink.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”

“You okay?”

“Girl,” he said, “I need to get some money, fast. I was thinking I’d sell you and Scott the Saab. At a discount, of course.”

“We don’t have any money.” I was grateful Scott wasn’t home. He would have gouged out our house-savings to buy it at a bargain price. He would have reiterated his you-gotta-spend-money-to-make-money theory. A car, according to Scott, would give us broader job opportunities, which would in turn bring in more money, which would lead to a better house than what we were currently scrimping for. In short, Scott had no willpower or self-control when it came to money. (Before we managed the building, he once took the rent money to the racetrack with the plan of doubling it before paying the rent. A poor plan, indeed. He even lost the bus fare he had set aside to get home and ended up hitching a ride with a stumpy middle-aged man who tried to slip his right thumb up Scott’s shorts while maintaining steering wheel control with his left palm).

“Ten thousand dollars,” Rikky said. “You can have the whole mother-fucking thing for ten thousand. That’s a bargain, girlfriend. That’s ghetto dollars.”

I thought about how happy Scott would be with that car. He was from Boston, kind of preppy-looking; he liked the props that matched the look.

“I’ll give you five-hundred dollars.” It was all I could bear to part with.

“Girlfriend!” Rikky stood, snorting and half-laughing. “There have got to be a hundred motherfuckers on this block who would give me ten thousand dollars today for that car!”

“So go find them,” I said.

Rikky didn’t hang around. He dashed out of my apartment, no stories, no dances. It was as if the dial that generated his energy had been turned to a different mode: panic.

In order to safeguard our savings, I didn’t tell Scott about the car offer. But a couple days later, I was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, when Scott called me to the living room window. A white truck with no company name or logo was backed in front of the building. Four pro-wrestler-sized men walked in and out of the building carrying the contents of Rikky’s apartment. Rikky was nowhere in sight. It was the second week of the month, and for the first time since he had moved in, Rikky was late with the rent.

The next day, Friday, Rikky was knocking at my door again.

“Girl, I need money right now. How about five thousand for the Saab?”

“I only have five hundred dollars,” I said.

“Do you have a credit card?”

“Yeah.”

“How ‘bout this. You give me the five hundred dollars, and charge on your credit card a one-way ticket to Lafayette, Louisiana, and I’ll give you the car.”

“You’ll sell me the Saab for five hundred dollars?”

“Five hundred and a one-way ticket to Louisiana.”

“One-way?  You leaving?”

“Forever, girlfriend.”

“You haven’t paid your rent,” I said.

“Paid my rent? Rent is the last thing I’m thinking about right now! I will worry about my manicure before I worry about my rent!” Rikky flapped his hands in front of me as if he were chasing away birds.

“I’ll take it out of your deposit,” I said, and Rikky rolled his eyes and clucked his tongue as if I were some kind of traitor.


Scott was thrilled, stunned, really, but cautious. Although he was twice the size of Rikky, he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t carry a gun, or at least, have friends with guns. The following day Rikky came to our apartment with two alligator carpetbags and a leather duffel bag.

He didn’t have the pink slip for the car.

“It’s at my house in Louisiana,” Rikky said, “I swear on my mother’s life.”

“Why would it be there?” Scott asked. “You bought the car here.”

“I ship all my important papers to my mother to keep. I swear to god, I wouldn’t lie to you two.”

“I’ll write out a contract,” I said, and I took a piece of yellow, lined paper and wrote, “I, Rikky Carnegie, agree to sell my Saab 900S, license plate number 1K5 J36 to Jessica Blau for five-hundred dollars. I do not have the pink slip but I will mail it when I find it. This agreement is legal and binding. Signed, Rikky Carnegie.”

Rikky signed the paper, then pushed the two carpetbags aside and said, “Look, I’ll even leave all this stuff here as collateral.”

“Jessica drives,” Scott said, as we walked to the parking lot, “and I’ll sit in back.”

I’m not sure if Rikky saw Scott pick up the piece of old pipe that was lying on the ground in the parking lot. In the rearview mirror I could see that Scott was cocked like a gun, ready to bash Rikky with the pipe if anything should happen.

I drove to San Francisco International and waited in the car while Scott went in to charge Rikky’s one-way ticket. Scott wanted to drive the car home, of course.

Here’s the missing piece of the story that Rikky never anticipated. Tucked behind our building, at the far end of the parking lot, was a vacant warehouse. The warehouse had no windows and a rollaway steel door. It was a former Brink’s truck warehouse—an impenetrable fortress through which millions of dollars once regularly passed. The owner of our building owned this warehouse. When we were given the keys to the building, we were also given the keys to the warehouse. “Just in case,” the owner had said. In case of what, I wasn’t sure, but driving Rikky’s former white Saab with black-tinted windows, a black bra, and a thick black antennae on the trunk through Oakland didn’t feel safe to either Scott or me. If the police wanted him and pulled the car over, we had no pink slip to prove the car was ours now. And why did he suddenly have to flee town? Surely someone wanted to kill him—killing seemed a part of his world; he had told us about a friend who was killed one night, shot on the steps of a nightclub while Rikky, unknowing, was mirthfully dancing inside. And whoever wanted to kill him wouldn’t be able to see that it wasn’t Rikky behind the black windows until he came close enough to the car to inspect the body. Additionally, he only gave us one key. Who had the other key? And did that person also have the pink slip? Did he sell the car to two people at once: Us, the faux-yuppie couple who were earnestly saving for a house, and . . . someone who would have no problem picking up their new vehicle in the parking lot of our building around, say, four a.m.?

When we came home from the airport, Scott pulled the car into the warehouse and immediately closed the steel door behind him. He drove circles in forward, then reverse, around the warehouse, while I sat in the passenger seat and watched him smile.

The next day, we went to Rikky’s apartment to see what condition it had been left in. It wasn’t particularly destroyed; didn’t need to be repainted as had other recently vacated apartments. The rooms were shadowy empty boxes, save the mattress in the center of the living room. Cockroaches scattered under the refrigerator and stove when we walked in the kitchen. In the bathroom a cockroach sat in the tub, seeming to watch me as I opened the medicine cabinet. A single tube of red lipstick sat there.  The lid off, the pointy, cracked tip rolled up. Somehow it seemed as ominous, or sinister, as a bullet.

Scott and I went into the warehouse as least once a day to drive the Saab in circles. We’d take our friends in there, people who lived in the building, people who had known Rikky. We’d hang out for hours, drinking beer, laughing, while we took turns careening around the warehouse. I always gave up my turn and sat in the passenger seat instead while Scott did a few more laps. Scott would drop his mouth open in an expression of crazy glee, then holler as he spun into the turns while I hung onto the safety strap as if I were standing on a runaway subway car.

Every day I checked the mail for an envelope from Lafayette, Louisiana. Every day I wasn’t surprised, but a bit hurt, that the pink slip wasn’t there. And then the phone calls started coming. Always a woman, same dull voice, but different identity each time she called.

The first time, she asked for Rikky.

“Hey, is Rikky there?”

“Rikky Carnegie?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“No, this isn’t his apartment and he doesn’t live in town anymore.”

“Oh, really?! He gave me this number once and said I could find him there.”

“Sorry.”

“He was so cute.”

“Yeah.”

“Drove that cute white Saab.”

“Yup.”

“Didn’t he sell it to you?”

“Oh, he told you that?”

“Yeah, I think he said he sold you that car.”

“Well, how do you know who I am?”

“Aren’t you the sup?”

“We manage the building,” I said.

“So he sold his car to you, then.”

“Yeah, he did.”

“Where do you park it? I drive by your building all the time and I never see that car around.”

I was tempted to ask if the plan was to steal the car and return it to Rikky, who perhaps had found his way back from Louisiana? Or if the person calling was going to steal the car for herself? But a question like that would reveal too much, take too much away from us, diminish the fervor Scott and I were putting into our role as a hopeful, young couple.

“I park it in the parking lot by the building,” I said.

“Really? I never see it. Do you drive it to work? You work at I.Magnin, right?”

“No, I take the BART. We leave it in the parking lot all day.”

A woman claiming to be his sister called a couple of days later. She wanted to know if we’d heard from Rikky. And then she wanted to confirm that we were the people who bought his car, and were we keeping it in good condition, parking it in a garage somewhere?

And another friend of Rikky called. She thought she saw us driving the car on the Bay Bridge, and was that us, and where we going with the car and where did we keep the car anyway?

A couple weeks later I called the California DMV.

“I bought a car,” I said, “and we wrote out a signed contract, but the owner lost the pink slip. What can I do?”

The woman told me that eight weeks from the date of the signed contract, if I still didn’t have a pink slip, I could register the car in my name and they would issue me a pink slip, which would, in effect, void the old pink slip.  We had four weeks to wait.

The day before the four weeks was up, Rikky called.

“Girlfriend, how are you?!” He was back to his high spirits.

“Good,” I told him. “How come you never sent me the pink slip?”

“Girl, I couldn’t find it. But now I got it and I’m sending it to you. So can you send me my bags?”

Rikky’s snakeskin carpetbags had been sitting like two monuments to Rikky in our entrance hall since the day he left. Scott and I had started to look through them one night, but each item we pulled out was sadder, more forlorn than the last—a soiled lavender, suede boot; lace-up leather pants missing the lace; a yellowed, formerly white, ruffled blouse, like what Prince wore on the cover of the Purple Rain album. Scott finally lifted his hands as if to block the sight of blood, and said, “Just pack it all away, I can’t look anymore!” I never opened the bags again.

“Give me your address,” I said. “I’ll send them to you.”

“Girl where you keepin’ that car? My friends drive by the building and they say they’ve never seen that car no how!”

“It’s in the parking lot,” I said. “Just below the living room window where Scott can see it.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“Okay, well, the pink slip is coming, so you are the true owner now—feel free to drive that car around town, girl. There ain’t no point in owning it if you aint gonna show it off!”

“We’re driving it,” I said.  “We drive it all over the place.”

“Truly?”

“Yup.”

“Girl, my friends say that car has flat-out disappeared!”

“I gotta go Rikky,” I said. “Give me your address and I’ll send you your stuff.”


The pink slip never came, but the DMV issued me a new one in my name. That day, Scott and I drove to the Saab dealership in Oakland and traded the car in for some cash (to please me) and a used Saab (to please him). It was brown, nothing fancy, nothing electric, but Scott still thought it was cool; much sexier than the 51 bus.

And the following month, using the money we’d saved and the money we got for the Saab, we bought our first house. It was in Oakland, on a hill with smaller, more broken down houses below it and larger, nicer houses above it. From the front of the house there was a view of the Oakland Coliseum down the hill, and what was then called Candlestick Park farther out in the distance.

We didn’t own a TV, and with the expenses of a house, we rarely had extra money to go to a baseball game. So when the A’s or the Giants were playing, Scott and I would sit in the Saab parked in the driveway facing the stadiums, one or the other of them lit like a birthday cake in the landscape, and listen to the ballgame on the radio. Sometimes we’d drink a beer out there and the car would have that glorious smell of being raced in a secret hidden warehouse.



value="true"> allowfullscreen="true" width="310" height="170"
flashvars="file=http://video.dlf.tv/2009/November/Other/PathLights/Trailer/video.mov&image=http://video.dlf.tv/2009/November/Other/PathLights/Trailer/still.jpg&stretching=uniform&plugins=http://video.dlf.tv/plugins/hd.swf&hd.file=http://video.dlf.tv/2009/November/Other/PathLights/Trailer/high.mov">

TNB TV 
The David Lynch Foundation is showing a new short film on its DLF.TV website. Path Lights is a comedy-noir directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Zachary Sluser, adapted from a short story by Tom Drury that was published in The New Yorker in 2005. The trailer combines footage from the film with behind-the-scenes production shots and interviews with the crew. The film is running exclusively on the website for a week, until December 9th, along with three additional behind-the-scenes episodes.


TNB Hall of Fame
In a piece entitled “The Letters I Wrote That Did Not Convince Janeane Garofalo to Have Sex With Me”, author Simon Smithson uses an epistolary approach to try to get Janeane Garofalo to have sex with him. “You will thrill to the touch of my manly biceps and impressive shoulders,” he writes, “and you will most likely want to take some time during that period normally reserved for pillow talk to admire the steely lines of my forearms, thighs, and jaw. You will also be astounded by my skills as a lover, especially as I sexily whisper ‘I haven’t enjoyed myself this much since 1997’s The MatchMaker,’ in your ear mid-coitus.”


On the night my father died, I was knitting a scarf.

It was a ridiculous scarf, all pink and orange with hairy tendrils exploding from each stitch.  It was like something a chia pet would wear if it were attempting to be extravagantly redundant. I could imagine my niece at Christmas picking up the package, giving it a shake, and then clawing it open, unleashing it from its confines to burst open in her hands like a Pop Rocks sunrise.

Behind me, the door whispered open and the hospice nurse approached my dad’s bedside.  We made eye contact, she clearly aware of her own intrusion and me feeling oddly embarrassed.  I don’t know if I can explain the feeling.  There is something about watching someone close to you die that is extremely personal. It’s like being sick in the bathroom at a party – it should be done behind closed doors with a guardian staged at the outside: she’s fine, she wants to be alone, I’ve asked her already if I can help and she doesn’t want anybody around.

Before me, my father lay stretched out on his back, his face heavenward. His body was more or less catatonic, but I imagine his mind was as active as it could be after a few weeks of pureed nursing home food and the steady application of a morphine patch.

I had a strong urge to make him laugh.

He had always managed to make me laugh.

Once when I got bailing wire caught in my throat in an unfortunate church Youth Group incident, he took me to the emergency room late at night wearing the most horrendous pair of jeans. They were hip-hugging patchwork bellbottoms acquired in Italy circa 1965. It being the early 90s, the world was not yet ready for their return.

Having worked in college administration most of his life, he regularly wore three-piece suits and ties to work — every hair of his silver coif sprayed back into place, his shoes shining like hubcaps. I associate the smell of shoe polish with him. But when the weekends would hit and leisurewear was required, he would apparently become confused and start grabbing anything he had worn at one time or another over the previous decades of his life, no matter how outdated or threadbare.

Those patchwork jeans were evidence of his confusion.

To add to my teenage embarrassment of his outfit choice that night, Dad insisted on ‘cool walking’ down the hall to the examining room. Do not be fooled. ‘Cool walking’ is nothing if not a tragically ironic misnomer. He’d sort of strut, dipping his hips as he walked, swinging his arms. Usually he only did it at home for our benefit, my sisters and me giggling from the kitchen table. But that night, his courage bolstered by his hipster patchwork jeans, he did it in the wide inappropriate open. The teenage bailing-wire-stuck-in-her-throat version of myself should have been horrified. But really. What could I do but laugh?

My fingers gathered up a yard or so of scarf and compressed it into a ball around the needles, little pink and orange hairs sticking out through the creases of my fingers giving me the knuckles of a Jim Henson’s Muppet.  From the bed, his breaths didn’t change with the nurse’s approach.  They barely sounded organic – the deep, raspy mechanical sound of bellows running on automatic.  She stared at her watch, bobbing her forehead to the numbers in her head.

Earlier that afternoon she had stood in the exact same spot with another nurse.  The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs.  Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said.  He doesn’t have long.  It’s one of the signs, they said.  I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.

This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.

They put the sheet down.

“It won’t be long,” she whispered again after recording her secret numbers.  Counting backwards to zero.

I nodded at her with a smile as if she had just informed me that she had spoken with the chef and that my poached salmon was on the way.  She hesitated as if there was more and I reinstated the smile on my face for her clear benefit, my closed lips holding in questions about numbers and time.  Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.

The corners of my mouth went slack upon her exit and I resumed my task.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Breathe in, breathe…

We were in a nursing home – a location I detested.  My mother had put him there when she she could no longer take care of him. There was no choice. He had been wandering the house at night and running into things.  Missing things like corners and toilets. Even then, he did not believe he was dying, becoming more and more disconnectedly zealous as the cancer gnawed away his brain.  Jesus was healing him. He would tell anyone who would listen: restaurant servers, friends, bagboys.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the table beside his bed and turned to examine its contents for the hundredth time:  A bottle of hand lotion.  A glass of water with a sponge.  A hymnal.  A pen and pad of paper.  A wrapper left over from one of his morphine patches.  I took a deep breath in and let it all the way out in deliberate syncopation with his.  Put my hand on top of his.  Looked over at his eyes, still focused steadily beyond the cabinet in front of him.  I wanted to do something for him.  If I couldn’t make him laugh, then at least make it easier.  Tell him that it was OK – that we would look after Mom.  He did not even know about her bypass surgery two weeks before. I told him we would take care of her.  She couldn’t be there, but we would take care of her and her broken heart.

Breathe in, breathe out.

His mouth looked so dry.  Earlier that day, I had attempted to sponge a little water into his mouth much like I imagined the people must have done under the cross with the vinegar for a dying Christ.  Since he didn’t move his lips, I sort of parted them for him and gave the sponge a tentative squeeze.  Nothing happened at first.  I was feeling very apostolic when he suddenly erupted into spasms.  He was choking.  Horrified, I stood there with the sponge poised guiltily in my hand.  It died down as quickly as it had started. I returned the sponge to the plate.

I picked up the needles and sang a little while I knitted.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I had been singing him this song all day.  Earlier in the week, I had a much broader repertoire – maybe a dozen songs that I had been cycling through: It Is Well With My Soul, Swing Low Sweet Chariot… When Doves Cry.

I may have been grasping.

After a week of wracking my brain for something new and interesting, I had finally given up and had settled on Amazing Grace.  It happened naturally.  Nothing else felt appropriate.

I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind but now…

I thought that I could detect something different about his breathing, and stopped for a moment to listen mid tune. I wondered if perhaps he was trying to talk to me through his breathing pattern.

I love you.  Tell your mother I love her.  Tell your sisters I love them.

What if he was trying to tell me that he was sick of me singing the same song over and over?

Knit one.  Purl one.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

I tried to keep up with him so that I was matching him stitch for breath. I had to put the scarf down for a while when at one point, after having fallen behind, I caught myself hoping for a split second that he would slow down so that I could catch up.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

I had begun singing again.  By default.

Somewhere behind me, I was aware of the hospice nurse taking up her station at a chair in the back of the room.  I kept singing, in spite of her.

I finished another row.  Something was definitely different about his breathing now. When I set the scarf down on the table beside his bed, I knew that the end was near.  The hospice nurse said, “Hm,” behind me.  The gap between breaths was widening.  I rested my hand on top of his, wondering if he could feel it there.  And then, the borders of his breath released and his breath became free.

In that moment, it was paramount that I record the time.  Feeling remarkably clearheaded, I stood to my feet and faced the whiteboard, jotting down the time with a red marker that squeaked.  I had experienced a similar level of clarity after a car wreck I had been in once.  I had just totaled the car and all I could do was reach into the center compartment for a Tic Tac.  My breath had needed freshening.  I would be talking to paramedics soon.  I needed fresh breath.

11:55pm.

Five minutes until the next day and I wanted to make sure that nobody got it wrong.  I could imagine the nurse saying that it had happened after midnight.  But it hadn’t.  It had happened then.  Right then. The nurse approached the bed.  Took his vitals.  Nothing. I stared at the numbers I had written on the board.  They were clear.  Completely legible.  There would be no confusion.  I should try to close his eyes.

They wouldn’t close.

I imagined then that he was up there somewhere looking down and so I waved at the ceiling, tearing up as I did so. I reached for the scarf.

Behind me, I did not recognize at first that the sounds I was hearing were coming from him. I turned in time to see him convulse violently three times, shaking the whole bed and knocking the table in the process.  For a brief moment, a smile lit up his face.  He exhaled one last time and then…nothing – the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show.

He had smiled.

I was shaking now, and he had smiled.

I turned back to the whiteboard and replaced the final 5 with a 7.  Two minutes had passed.  There had been nothing and then nothing again.  A pause in the workings.  An argument with God.  Behind me, the hospice nurse said, “Well, now.”

I picked up the scarf from off the floor where it had fallen in the commotion and stuffed it in my bag, knowing even as I did so that I would rip it apart the next day.


Since we’re in holiday mode, you may be walking into a lot of rooms that you don’t ordinarily visit. I’ve been thinking about what’s most interesting to an autistic temperament like mine about such experiences: the background, the part that you don’t quite notice: the height of the ceiling, the quality of light, the footfall in the next room (Are there dishes clattering in the kitchen?), whether the room feels crowded or spacious, the ambience awkward…I’m-trying-to-be-a-good-host-but-I’m-not-quite-making-it, or, full-tilt, these are such cool people!

The background, like the quiet guest who you wonder about;…”Will he ever open his mouth…and if he does…what will come out?”…also seduces me in fiction.

I found “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story in the November 30th New Yorker by Don DeLillo, indispensable. So buy the New Yorker, read the story…and I’m also reading James Wood’s take on Paul Auster for sure…and then throw the New Yorker out. Especially avoid all those cloy-infested cartoons…as bad as junk food. New Yorker cartoons will literally rot your teeth.

Two serious boys, as serious as I can imagine only freshman can be, are walking from dorms to class in a desolate, because wintry, setting somewhere in the boondocks. Stage set: the dorms and the classroom complex, built like a blockhouse, the “Cellblock”, are some distance away from each other so, fine, we can eavesdrop on the boys as they walk and talk.

I love that these guys talk for the sake of talking. Makes you wonder if they’re gay. Only wonder, mind you, they probably aren’t. They’re guy friends. They focus on an elderly man shuffling much ahead of them with his hands behind his back. I commend DeLillo that he makes the gent they notice several generations older than the boys. This helps make the oldster “the other.”

First person narrator and Todd, his school friend, debate the old guy’s coat meticulously. It’s a private contest between them. They debate the facts. What kind of coat is this guy wearing? They point at each other a lot while they talk and when they meet on campus. This is cute. This  is also where in my reading I turned down the dial from gay to homoerotic adolescence.

I don’t know if these boys are going to be writers but they certainly talk with a mastery of detail that indicates that the first person narrator is a pro. Is his friend, Todd, also a Don DeLillo in the making? Nope. Todd’s a just-the-facts kind of guy. It’s the narrator who throws wild details into his arguments, making this conversational brew heady with subversive fictions. So fine, now you can tell these guys apart by their contrasting characters. Nice going, double D.

Of course you know that a duffel coat has toggles but I bet only 5% of the population could define “duffel coat” accurately in this way. Anorak? Define. Loden Coat? Parka? Define. These guys can. Defining atomic facts is part of their language contest.

The old guy being observed, in wintry weather, is not wearing gloves. If you write a superfluous detail into your story then shame on you. But this detail is telling. Why? Because it makes the old guy seem offbeat. And you don’t have to explain this detail in the end. It’s done its job already. It’s held your interest, forestalling the moment when you throw out The New Yorker.

I’m just in the first paragraphs and already “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is snowing gems of details. This is a master story.

I think if a writer has his boys walking to class then he should show the class. Why? Because not to de-energizes the narrative. You’re showing an action, walking to class. Why not show the class or do your students just walk into a blank wall somewhere past the page that you’re reading? Disagree?

There’s a break in the text and we’re in the class. When I read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, I was impressed by how AH worked details of finance into his story by making them expressions of character.

Here DD has our guys attend a philosophy class. Let me tell you, concepts from the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell saturate this text. Some Oxford dons could have a field day, if that’s what dons have, trying to look around their shoulder and grasp the escaping theory that’s running just out of sight of the reader. Atomic facts? Come on, DD! Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, battered from 5 plus readings, sits on my fucking desk.

Not that you’d notice this background, deftly introduced by depicting a class and by throwing out casual phrases, like “atomic facts”, that are really terms from mathematical logic, if you haven’t read Wittgenstein.

A beauty of this text: you don’t have to care! It’s part of what’s behind you in the room and you don’t have to turn around and notice if you don’t want to.

I could write a post about this story that’s longer than the story. I’ll stop here. Who’s the old guy? Read. You’ll find out plenty. But mostly, you’ll be satisfied with a full-course holiday meal of story.

Next time you enter a room as a guest, you may want to focus like a good autistic on the background of your party. Sensing what’s in the background is also part of writing or reading a great story.

But here’s some culinary advice, never forgot, from a philosophy professor that I had as a college freshman. At a feast, leave the table before you are full…while you are still hungry. If you’re the host, the writer, maybe you should snatch the plate away before your guest finishes the meal.

Is that what Delillo does in this story? You tell me.

-DH