Last year, at the age of eight, my daughter left a letter for Santa Claus by the fireplace (along with some carrots and cookies). She said she knew she was fortunate and didn’t need anything herself besides maybe a good long book series or two. She said she’d like to communicate with Santa at the North Pole all year, if possible. Other than that, she wished for all the unfortunate kids to get presents and for it to snow everywhere on Christmas Day.

To her astonishment, Santa wrote back. Here’s what he said (in a script font):

Dear M. Fishman,

Thank you for your letter. Since I am very busy, I have had to dictate my reply to one of my elves. I apologize for his poor handwriting.  I will answer your requests one by one.

First, the North Pole is only open one magical day per year, and we’re very busy that day, so there is no way to contact me directly.  I’m sorry.

Second, there is only so much snow to go around, so it can’t snow all over the world on Christmas.  Everyone has to take turns.

Third, I just gave my last long book series to a little girl who is much less fortunate than you. So maybe your parents or your grandparents will give you one.  Either way, the important thing is that you keep reading everything you can.

Finally, Santa does his best for the poor children all over the world. But even Santa doesn’t have the power to help everyone all the time. That’s why it’s important for you to have a kind heart and to help the poor people of the world yourself whenever you get a chance.  I know I can count on you to do so, because the elves tell me you have one of the biggest hearts in the world.

Be good always and remember: love is not measured in gifts or other material things, but in the way we treat all those around us, especially when it is hardest to do so.

Love,

Santy Claus

This year, at age nine, she writes again:

Dear Santy Claus,

I enjoyed hearing from you. This year I decided to type this on my computer to show you something, your elf has quite neat handwriting, see it’s as good as the computer can do! Any how, I really would like to know a bit about this elf who is writing my letters for you. I’d really like to know his name, his favorite color, it’s gender, it’s favorite thing to do, and it’s favorite job that it does at your work shop! I don’t want any thing for Christmas except a letter back and some answers to some questions that I will soon list. Actually, I know I’m very fortunate and am not in big need of this, but if you could get me some more doll house things and a french bulldog puppy for my mom (this is not very important just a thought) that would be excellent! I want to tell you a few things about your letter…

First, I completely understand that the North Pole is only opened one day, and I’d like to know where you live when you are not there? At the beach perhaps?

Second, it’s a cool fact that snow can’t fall all over the world! Can you make it snow where ever you want or does mother nature do that?

Third, I think it’s really great that you give your biggest things to the less fortunate people. I feel so happy for the girl you gave your last long book series to! I wish her and all others less fortunate than I a merry Christmas this year!

And last, I love that you try your best with the poor and less fortunate, and as I grew older I realized that nobody can change anybody else’s lives except their own lives. And that is a very unfortunate thing on this earth.

The second letter is for Mrs. Claus and the elves. Please give it to them. I hope you take some treats home for Mrs. Claus and the elves but I hope you enjoyed the ones you chose for your self. This year once again we have some carrots for the reindeer, but if they like something else please tell me so in your letter back so I can get the treat for next Christmas. Hope you have no trouble with getting stuck in the chimney!

Love,

M. Fishman

Dear Mrs. Claus and elves,

Do you all work a lot on Christmas Eve? Does Santa have an iPad? What do you guys (gals) want for Christmas? How many reindeer do you all own? Do you ever ride them? What are their names? What does Rudolph’s (if you have a Rudolph) nose look like? Is it hot? Can you use it as a lightbulb? Do you guys (gals) ever do another job besides work for Santa? I’m really proud of all of you for doing such a good job!

Love,

M.

And Santa replies:

Dear M. Fishman,

How nice that you keep writing to me and what wonderful questions from such a little girl.  But wait!  I just realized that you are a pretty big girl by now.  I have so many children to follow that I lose track of their ages sometimes.

Last year I discovered that my writing elf was cheating by using the computer’s script font instead of writing by hand.  Ah, well.  What’s Saint Nicholas to do?  There are so many letters to answer that I can hardly blame the little fellow.

This year, my writing elf is so busy, in fact, that Mrs. Claus has had to help out.  She’s taking dictation while I tack up my sleigh.  If we make a mistake, please forgive us.  Tacking up takes lots of attention, and if I get just one little strap out of order the sleigh won’t fly and the presents will be late!

So, to your questions.  The elf’s name is a secret, I’m afraid.  We don’t give out elf names because we don’t want them to be overwhelmed with individual requests.  His favorite color is red, which is the favorite color of all elves.  His favorite thing to do is to make toys, of course, especially Wii games.  Sometimes it makes him sad to know that Nintendo takes credit for all the Wii games he makes, but I remind him that forgiveness is in the spirit of the season — well, so long as they’re not on the naughty list.

Now, with regard to your feedback on my letter…

First, when I am not at the North Pole, I am at the South Pole.  With my big belly and my thick beard, hot places are not for me.

Second, I cannot make it snow wherever I want and I’ve no time to worry about that, as I’m busy coordinating toy delivery for a big world.  Everyone has their own job on Earth — it’s called compartmentalization.

Third, the little girl in question did indeed love her long book series.  Thank you for being so understanding.

Last, you’re right that no one can change anybody else’s life but their own.  Yet I must add that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show compassion for those who are having problems making those changes.

Now, with regard to Mrs. Claus, I will answer for her, as she is not authorized to communicate with anyone but elves.

First, yes she does work on Christmas Eve.  She slaves over a wonderful stew that she cooks in a great cauldron for me and the elves.  We never touch a drop of it until the last present is delivered in Kamchatka. (No iPads, by the way.  I keep everything in my head.)

Second, the number of reindeer is classified information.  Also, I can’t say anything about their names except that the man who wrote that silly poem got almost every one wrong.  Shows what he knew!

This whole thing about Rudolph has also gotten blown way out of proportion.  Poor thing just had a little shine there from moisture and that was years ago.  I fly above the clouds, where the visibility is always perfect, and the moon guides me. No need for lightbulbs or glowing noses.

And, no!  You can’t ride reindeer.  They’re too small.  A man of my size would crush them.  (That goes for Mrs. Claus, too.)

Finally, yes, I do have another job.  You may see me most days in the off-season, sitting at my—

Whoa!  Uh-oh!  The last bit of tack just slid under the last keeper and off we go!

Merry Christmas to all and to all — aw, you know the rest, kid.

Love,

Santy Claus

To my darling Cecilia,

It’s all gone wrong, Cecilia. And I spend my nights lying awake and alone in my cold, comfortable bed, under my cold and comfortable duvet, tearing my memory to shreds and then tearing those shreds again, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when everything started to come undone.

Was it when I first set my sights on the distant heights of success, stood up tall and proud like my adorable monkey ancestors looking out over the rolling grass of the African veldt, and said ‘Yes, I will be a writer. A writer who dedicates himself to the wonder, to the art and the intricacy of his craft, to the dark forests of human nature, to the ravenous whirlpools of believable characterisation, and the majestic, lofty skyscrapers of interesting plot scenarios, but also, who makes a lot of money, sells film rights every week, and spends a lot of time in his Jacuzzi with at least two women?’ Was it when I challenged Frank Sinatra Jr. to a winner-takes-all pentathlon, my only understanding of the pentathlon coming from that Dolph Lundgren movie, Pentathlon? Or was it when you first set eyes on that rat-fuck Steve Buscemi, and your heart and, more concerning, your body, were lost to me forever?

I still love you, Cecilia. I still remember our first night of passion under the watchful eyes of your Chat Noir poster, in your fashionable and hip second-floor apartment, when we destroyed two beanbags and I broke my wrist. I still remember those lazy afternoons, when we lay content in each others’s arms, like basking oysters in the sun, and I kept saying ‘Man. Do you remember that night when I broke my wrist while we were having sex? Fuck, I’ve told so many people about that. Honestly, I’ve just been grabbing strangers from right off the street and telling them all about it. Straight up. Jive. Sassafras on the fifteen-hundred. Funky drummer.’

Then, as now, I had no idea how to stop once I had started using street lingo.

The slow murmurs of memory are a song that steals my sleep at night, my every pillowcase ruined by the acid of my tears. I remember how you played the guitar, your fingertips gently whispering a command to every fret they romanced. I remember how I’d be woken in the midnight hours by the sound of you inventing your latest invention, your muscular shoulders strapped tightly as you rained hammer-blows down on glowing steel.

And I remember coming home early from work to find you riding Steve Buscemi like a champion thoroughbred who has been breakfasting on finest Bolivian Red for a week and is starting to like it.

Buscemi.

I don’t care that you loved him, if I ever see that man on the street I’m going to pistol-whip him like a red-headed stepchild. I don’t care that he’s got biceps like train carriages, or triceps like city buses, or calves like suitcases full of boa constrictors – the big kind of suitcases, and the big kind of boa constrictors. Whenever I think of you, Cecilia, and, believe me, I think of you often, your face is blotted out by Buscemi’s laughter. The laughter he laughed while he declared me laughable, as I stood in the doorway to the lounge room and I screamed ‘Cecilia! Steve Buscemi from Fargo, and Armageddon, and a host of other, equally-memorable character-based roles! Oh, merciful God, no!’

He didn’t even miss a stroke. He just kept laughing.

Fucking Steve Buscemi.

Did you do it to punish me, Cecilia? Did you do it as revenge for all the times I said I wanted a time machine so I could travel back to the day when the Breeders were filming the clip to Cannonball, so I could have sex with Kim Deal while she was wearing a wide variety of different but entirely flattering outfits? Because I only said that a dozen or so times, at most, most of which were while we were at breakfast with your friends – and I want you to know I was playing to the crowd when I used the phrase ‘and probably Kim Deal’s sister, Kelly Deal, at the same time.’

Because Kim, really, was the prize from that family.

Can’t we try again, my love? Without that sexual powerhouse Buscemi to ruin it all?

I miss you,so much. Every time I sit in the rocking chair we bought for your mother’s birthday and  I subsquently decided was too good for her, I think of your smile. I remember how I laughed when you found out  I had stolen the chair back from your mother’s party with the aid of my friend Harry. It was the funniest thing since Harry’s brother (Larry) asked me to be the best man at his wedding, and that bridesmaid thought that I was winking, when in fact I was blinking, because I’d been thinking.

So much has changed, my heart. My deepening madness has taken me to strange and unforgiving places, and I’m not the man I once was. I’ve been working out, Cecilia. No longer do I need two breaks to finish a glass of low-fat milk. These days I drink full-cream milk by the carton and I can hurl a half-brick through a car windshield from four blocks away.

Your new boyfriend is driving a Mercedes now, right? A black 2007 model with heated seats, triple-coil suspension, and a slight scratch on the top right hand corner of the underneath of the intake manifold? And he finds that sometimes he needs to re-adjust the seats after spending the night at your place, almost as if someone has made duplicates of his car keys and is embarking on a long-term campaign to subtly throw off his balance, little by little? So that someday, at his beloved Zumba classes, he over-extends and snaps one of his equally-beloved vertebrae, perhaps somewhere around the superior articular region?

Anyway.

I have to go now, Cecilia. I have a deadline to meet, and maybe, when I am very rich, you will love me again. If this is the case, please let me know what levels of affection would correspond to what amounts of money.

Christ, I love you.

I burn for you, tragically.

Simon.

Dear Fetus

By Jeffrey Pillow

Letters

Dear Fetus,

At 22 weeks, your mother and I will learn whether you are a boy or a girl. My mom—your Gammie Pillow—has informed me the exact date is December 20. (I believe she has an internal countdown meter, which projects all of your life’s milestones) Just to forewarn you, I will probably make some uncalled for comment during this particular ultrasound.

Scenario A: Doctor says you are a boy
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh, is that his penis? It is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is his leg.
ME: I’m pretty sure that is his penis.

Scenario B: Doctor says you are a girl
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh. My daughter doesn’t have a penis, does she? That thing is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is her leg.
ME: Oh, thank God. I thought my daughter had a penis.

That is when your mother will give me the evil eye. Actually, your mother will probably lecture me prior to the visit not to make any penis comments. I will still make a penis comment.

Love,

Daddy

Attn: Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel.

Hello. I’m writing in hopes that you can help me–not to bust a myth per se, but to figure out what to do with my six-year-old son now that he’s become addicted to Mythbusters.

“I need some alkaline metals,” he said. “For an experiment.”

Um. What?

“Alkaline metals. You know, like rubidium or potassium. Highly volatile.” He continued eating his pancakes.

I have a feeling that alkaline metals are tightly regulated minerals not packaged in your average starter science set.

“Here you go, Mom,” he said, handing back my iPhone over which he has far more mastery than myself. He made me a shopping list:


I’m pretty sure I can find a junked car, but I’m not sure where to acquire thermite, which my son informs me is “made of explosions.”

“It’s kind of like powdered dynamite, but more powerful,” he tells me. So why does he need both, I wonder?

“To explode the cars,” he says.

Of course.

He’s using Lego’s. “I’m building a cargo robot so that I can haul stuff around. I need some supplies.”

“Won’t the Lego’s work?”  I ask.

“That’s for the small scale experiments,” he says.

Oh. I see.

“Can I blow up the toilet?” he wonders. I can’t tell if he’s asking for permission or just idly pondering aloud, but I know this refers to the alkaline metals, which, when mixed with water make a charmingly concussive “Boom,” though, as I recall, they do not actually break the porcelain of the toilets which gave their lives for Mythbuster science.

Is there a school where he can learn to handle highly explosive material without shattering either our plumbing or himself? Are you offering internships to tiny wannabe Jamie’s and Adam’s? Is there a pilot program that teaches little pyro-technicians the safety skills needed to blow small appliances skyward? (Let’s start with toaster ovens, say, or hand-held mixers. Not the water heater which you blew straight out of a house. More like Modest Destruction 101.)

I would be obliged if you could steer him clear of toxic chemicals, or at least teach him to always wear his OSHA compliant mask. No bug bombs of death, if you please. I’m squeamish about radioactive material too, though you seem to work it into the show every now and then.

His obsessions were a little easier to navigate when he watched the photography show Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe. We just handed him a camera with the assurance we would go to Madagascar someday and take photographs of the endangered lemurs and chameleons dotting the island nation. But now he wants to build a shark cage, sink his own version of the Myth-tanic, and buy a small decommissioned plane upon which he can run “experiments.”

Luckily, he told me recently he’s got “fire-phobia” so it may be a while before his desires win the battle against his greater wisdom. But you planted a seed, Mythbusters. I fear when it germinates we’re going to raise Tory Belleci.

Any recommendations you may have in channeling his nascent Mythbusting gene into something which won’t demand extra insurance would be greatly appreciated.

Yours very truly,


Quenby Moone


P.S. My son just informed me that thermite is a compound made from iron oxide and aluminum powder. This sounds easy to acquire; please tell me that he doesn’t already know how to cook up the very thing that torched the Hindenburg. Please.

October 2027

My Dearest Ann, Michael, Caitlin, Patrick, Nancy, David, Judy, Bill, Helen, Martin, Shelley, Travis, Gail, Hart, Melanie, and Stacey –

I know you’re surprised to find paper letters on your pillows, in the dorm, because we don’t use paper except for special occasions. And today’s just another warm day in late October, 2027. Nothing special, really, except that this week, in much of our country, parents are telling children your age something very important. I wanted to write it on something that would last, so you can pass it on to your children.

The story begins before any of you were born.

The Obama-Biden victory over Palin-Jindal back in 2012 was a narrow victory after a brutally hard-fought, dirty campaign that nearly destroyed both parties. Everybody was alleging irregularities, corruption, tainted results. People were angry. There was street fighting. Some said the country was on the brink of another civil war.

The President, in an attempt to heal the wounds, invited the Palin entourage to the Inaugural Ball, and they accepted. It seemed a good sign. But when they entered, people noticed that Sarah’s gown wasn’t as revealing as usual, Todd’s suit seemed especially ill-fitting, and Bobby Jindal was positively round.

The three explosions killed not only the President and Vice-President, but most of the Democratic Senators and Congressmen, and half the Supreme Court.

With everybody in the direct line of succession gone, there was political chaos. What was left of Congress chose Michele Bachmann as president, with Christine O’Donnell as her vice-president. Bachman nominated the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to the Court, and they were quickly confirmed by the overwhelmingly Republican senate.

Out of this mess emerged the political party first known as the “Palinistas,” which gobbled up what remained of the Republican Party after its savaging by the Tea Party. The Tea Baggers merged with the Palinistas and dropped their name, having finally understood what a “tea bagger” was.

The Palinistas were strongest in what we called the Red States – states that had historically right-leaning politics. Some influential Palinistas thought their name “too Hispanic” and so – lacking any sense of history or irony – many Palinistas began calling themselves “Reds.”

We on the left called ourselves Blues, because we were the majority in the so-called “Blue States.” Of course there were Reds in Blue states and Blues in Red states, but the country began to polarize, with Red States getting redder and the Blue states, more blue.

We Blues believed that good sense would prevail, our educational programs would succeed, and if we simply waited out the bad times our country would revert to its pre-Palinista political state of competing parties, which we still thought was workable if a bit rough.

We failed to understand that the Red strategy was to build their base by producing more Red babies, even in Blue states. They meant to quickly increase the size of their voting bloc by ramping up their reproductive rates.

Red theorists knew that drastically shortening the interval between births quickly adds bodies to any population. Small bodies, yes, but if you’re only counting heads that doesn’t matter. And you can do it quickly, pumping out babies as fast as possible – as soon as one is born, you get started making another. Because Red mothers rarely nursed their infants (too “animal-like”) they resumed ovulation rapidly, and were ready for a new pregnancy in a month or two.

A determined couple can make four babies in three years. Two parents . . . four babies . . . two into six . . . you’ve tripled your population in three years.

The Reds got to work immediately, but were quiet about what they were doing. It was only later they began to talk about the “Red Brigades of Women.” The media reported the skyrocketing birth rate, but we didn’t interpret it correctly. Some of us thought the Reds were behaving as many animals do, increasing their reproductive rate when times are good – a kind of ecological explanation. Others saw Reds as profligate, hypocritical breeders – a kind of cultural explanation. What the Red strategists wanted was that we should not take them seriously, and that’s exactly what happened during the first critical years, as we wasted time arguing ecology and culture.

It wasn’t clear how badly they had tricked us until they made their Constitutional move, which was in the dreadful year 2014.

First, the Red-controlled Congress lowered the voting age to eight, claiming this was only “taking away a one.” Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court upheld the law.

Next, Congress passed the “Patriarchal Proxy Voting Act of 2014.” This allowed male parents to cast ballots on behalf of each of their children. Women kept their single votes. The Palinistas claimed that the PPVA merely recognized Judeo-Christian parental authority, and was consistent with “family values.” Of course the Supreme Court upheld the PPVA on the grounds that it was an obvious extension of “One Man, One Vote.”

Suddenly it became clear.

All along, the Reds had been planning to swamp us at the polls in 2016, and they did. Most Red families had already produced another three children. Even families who had no children before the Red Brigade of Women laid into their task with a vengeance would have at least six votes to cast: Mom, Dad, the one on the way, plus the 10-month, the 20-month, and the 30-month olds. Five votes for Dad, one for Mom. The Reds were in a state of rapture.

Now, the Blue states had always had the all first-rate universities and research centers. In 2015 we put those researchers to work on the only task that mattered – reproduction. We put our best minds, our best technologists and engineers, our medical people, to work. And although it was a very Red thing to do, we relaxed all controls and regulations and allowed researchers to do as they wished, subject only to their own consciences. The order was simple: find ways to out-reproduce the Reds.

That’s when men started having babies.

I was an early adopter. Getting pregnant was no fun. Yes, it was exciting to watch the in vitro fertilization of your mother’s eggs with my sperm, but to be abruptly taken from the microscope to have the eggs implanted in me, not so much.

Carrying the baby was no fun either. The first-generation artificial uteruses were clumsy Teflon things that I could feel inside me when I bent over or stretched, but the stem-cells-to-uterus technology matured quickly and soon I was able to grow my own.

Giving birth was difficult. My first delivery was Caesarian, but because I couldn’t have very many of them, I had to think about delivering two or three infants each time. I thought I could have half a dozen babies before my abdominal wall gave out.

But fortunately, before another year had passed I’d grown my own vagina (stem cells, again, with a little help from the surgeon to get it connected to my uterus). That was a relief – I delivered you younger kids vaginally.

The “Sperm Into Ovum Conversion” (SIOC) process was huge advance. Figuring out how to make sperm produce mitochondria (complete with DNA) was extremely difficult. Getting that working was a lot harder than anything else, but it meant that men could fertilize themselves if they wanted to.

In SIOC’s early days, the sperm were converted externally and then introduced into the man’s uterus through his vagina. In homage to the past, we called that device the “turkey baster.”

Within a year I could produce workable ova internally, needing only a hormonal trigger and some muscle contractions to pump eggs from my testes up into my Fallopian tubes to be fertilized by my sperm. (I needed a bit of surgical re-plumbing to make that work.) SIOC technology remains a closely-guarded secret.

For ethical reasons – yes, even in the rush and excitement and danger people worried about ethics – no one wanted to deprive women of their small, fixed store of ova. Before SIOC, population growth was limited by the number of ova. But sperm are a commodity item! SIOC made “Male-Only Reproductive Events” (MORE) possible, and thus for the first time in human evolution reproduction did not require women. This felt very strange to me, but even so I bore four MORE babies.

At that point – about 2018 – a man had an interesting set of choices: self-fertilization, fertilization of another man’s SIOC ova, or fertilization of ova flushed from a woman. More adventurous men combined them.

When somebody said to me, “Little Caitlin looks just like you,” I said proudly, “She is me!”

We kept SIOC secret because if the Reds ever accepted in vitro fertilization, they could press their infertile women into service. We didn’t hide the male pregnancy technology because we knew the Palinistas would never use it. They found it repulsive. Their men never allowed themselves to become pregnant. That would be, as I heard one of them say, “so gay.”

The numbers tell the story, children.

A human woman, Red or Blue, unassisted by advanced reproductive technology, can’t maintain 10-month birth intervals for very long. The Red Brigade of Women’s “Big Red Push” lost momentum after 2016, and by 2020, most Red families had only added another child or two. This meant that the Reds would go to the polls with eight or nine votes, about half what we Blues expected to have.

A Blue couple, starting in 2015, could have as many as 16 children going into the 2020 elections. To beat the Palinistas, we’d need only eight or ten. Even so, your mother and I worked hard to produce 16, which meant we cast 18 PPVA votes.

But we had to move our voters where they were needed. Hundreds of thousands of Blue families migrated to Red states, although we didn’t bother moving people into Utah. Your mother and I moved from Cambridge to Tupelo, Mississippi early enough to register for the elections, and after the elections we moved back. Tupelo wasn’t our kind of place. We were tolerated but certainly not welcomed.

We Blues were surprised by the lack of Red aggression, especially in the South. Some  think it was because Blue Christians had succeeded in convincing many Red Christians to pay attention to what Jesus actually taught.

Needless to say, we swept the 2020 elections – Congress, the White House, every State governorship and most of the statehouses too. Out of courtesy, migrant Blues didn’t cast votes in local elections.

We had nothing to do with the bunker-buster bomb that was accidentally dropped on the Supreme Court building when the Court was in session.

Congress quickly repealed PPVA. Many migrants moved back, and relative calm prevailed in our country. In the seven years since then, we’ve contested elections in the old way, although the Democratic and Republican parties have disappeared. It’s just Reds and Blues now, and I’m glad to say that power’s been mostly in Blue hands, but we’ve never shut out the Reds as they shut us out. Both parties agree that there should never be another reproductive race, but that it’s not the sort of thing anybody should legislate.

My girls, it’s time for me to tell you our greatest secret. It’s been kept until this year – kept even from ordinary Blues. This week, the last week of October, Blue parents are revealing the secret, and that’s why I’m writing this letter.

The first group of Blue babies are now about 12, and you girls know what that means. Although we’re hoping you’ll wait a long time, you could begin to have babies soon.

I know you’re wondering what effect this great population bulge may have on the country and the planet. It worries us all. There have always been more young people than old, but there’s never been a difference like this. There are millions more young people between 7 and 12 than there ever have been. If they all go on to have two or three children, our population – and that of the world – will explode. It would be immoral to let our race for political control destroy not only our country, but others.

Now, we foresaw this problem early on. I led the team that developed what we call JOB – “Just One Baby.” It’s a DNA sequence that suppresses the ovulation-controlling GNRHR gene, and when it does, egg production shuts down. We inserted it into a retrovirus that finds GNRHR (it’s on chromosome four, in case you’re wondering). The retrovirus cannot insert itself into in eggs or sperm, so it cannot pass to the next generation. It works by monitoring hormone levels, and when it recognizes a live birth followed by lactation events, it permanently suppresses GNRHR.

The JOB virus was usually inserted during the SIOC process. It can also be inhaled, ingested, or picked up by contact. We made sure it was present in all Blue maternity hospitals.

It won’t affect anybody outside of the bulge, because we found a way – using tooth enamel isotope ratios – for it to sense whether a girl was born in North America during the time of our reproductive surge. In those girls – yes, my daughters, that means you – it arms itself and waits for them to reproduce. In anybody else it does nothing.

We have put it into all of you. It cannot be disabled.

I should tell you that we’ve taken special care to test its delivery in substances Reds prefer, and in places they typically go. I’ll say no more than that. We accepted responsibility for what we were going to do, and that meant dealing with the consequences. Helping Reds do the same is a simple favor.

Well. We can talk about all this after dinner, if you want to.

Love,

Dad


40

By Peter Schwartz

Letters



There’s no greater monster than the amnesia we feed into from our nightly perches.   I’ve forgotten more in forty years than you’ll remember in your whole life.   Apologies won’t help so I’ll just give you one quick piece of advice then be done.  You’re your own children and have the choice to stay young or grow up which will effectively kill them.  Be whatever you can live with then never look back.  That’s all.

Sorry, as usual, there’s more.  Numbness must be the most common state in the world, and yet, if you show people this, if you make no effort to hide your lack of feelings, I can almost guarantee you will have problems.  If 99 people out of a 100 pretend something, that 1 person who doesn’t ruins the whole charade. That person will be attacked until he or she pretends, or worse.  So go ahead, live on Mars, but make sure you make regular Earthly appearances.  And smile, but only a little bit, and never, under any circumstances, show them all of your teeth.

Don’t try to be clean in this life.  You’ll only disappoint and frustrate yourself and those around you.   I hardly know anything about happiness but if I imagine the happiest person on earth, it’s a woman with period blood smeared on her face, shooting hollow points at the police.  Or a young boy who has no idea it is not normal to eat egg noodles with margarine 5 times a week.   I tried to hide everything from you and I believe you hate me for that but I also believe that it is easier to hate a single person than the whole world, so, that is my gift to you.  Either way, happy birthday.

As you grow older, you may become shocked at how expensive everything is.  Fresh fruits and vegetables cost what meat once did.  And if you want either without pesticides or growth hormones, forget about it. Yeah, poisons are so common they don’t even call them poisons anymore.  And sorry, but this is just the beginning.  Emotionally, things can really get expensive.  If I smile at a toddler in the supermarket, more often than not his or her parents will give me a dirty look like I’m going to molest him or her right there near the canned beats.  Ridiculous, but if trust were sold by the pound it would cost somewhere in the thousands or even millions.  And the price for trying to love someone?  Well, you see what happened with us.

Okay, I just read these last two parts over again and realize they totally contradict each other which might confuse you.  I’d mention something about my intentions being good but I think we’re way beyond that.   So, I’ll use this to illustrate my last point.  Never be afraid to contradict yourself.  If you say one thing and then another, it doesn’t necessarily make you a liar because that’s just the nature of language.  It plays tricks.  It’s better to be big, to be a billion zillion things that nobody can piece together or make sense of than to be small and probably still misunderstood in the end.  That’s exactly where I went wrong with you.   I tried to shrink myself into something you could understand because I didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed like I always have, both as a child and as an adult.   I wanted your world to be something that could sit on your dresser, that you could stare at like a simple pet as you brushed your hair, or turn away from as you read a book.  It can’t be though.  Sorry, but the price of that kind of calm is dying inside.  Happiness is a giant monster that must be hunted.  There is no escaping the wilderness.


Love,

You-know-who.


Dear Writer

By Melissa Febos

Letters

Dear Writer,

We are sorry, but your work does not suit our editorial needs at this time. We sincerely enjoyed reading your proposal—yours is a compelling story, and just exquisitely written!—but the subject matter simply does not accord with our identity. We do not have the resources to figure out how to market a dominatrix memoir that falls above a 5th grade reading level. Perhaps ironically, we also suspect that this story has already been written.

Writer, we thank you for sending us this essay. You are a master of the finely wrought description, but have you ever heard of a plot? Perhaps we referred to it in our last letter as a “thru-line”? In any event, your story conspicuously lacks one. As a consolation gift, we will send you our next four issues, so that you can admire the prowess of our accepted writers’ thru-lines. Happy reading!

Writer, we regret to inform you that your writing suffers from a disconcerting superfluity of intimacy. In the parlance of our times, TMI, writer! Too Much Information. Our readers do not want read about your bodily excretions. They do not want the unsavory details of your most private humiliations. Readers want to feel like they are reading secrets, but they do not actually want to read about your secrets, writer.

Writer, we have done our best to remain polite, but you aren’t you listening. Perhaps our letters are too small. Please consider how many trees we are saving by rejecting your work on a less than a Post-it! Writer, we are trying. Can’t you try harder to assume a more familiar shape? You are making our heads hurt with all this brainy, dirty material. Sex should be sexy. Sex should be serious and sexy, or serious and not sexy at all, that is, serious and sad, and possibly so tragic that you never want to have sex again. Sex can also be funny, but it should only be funny and easy, and it can never be funny and gross and sad and smart. You should know this. You are a writer. Stop trying so hard to be honest. Nobody wants sex to be honest. You are making them uncomfortable. You are making our inboxes more crowded. You do not smell like money. You are making us lose our hard-ons.

Writer, we thank you for your submission. And your self-addressed, stamped envelope. Please rest assured that it’s not you, it’s us.

Love,

The Editors

Dear Former Friend: Help With Your Impending Kitty Dilemma

Matty – (323) ### ###
Carrie – (949) ### ####

Emergency for Animals in Neighborhood:

Cat Hospital of Portland (503) 2XX 7XX5
or
The Cat Doctor
(503) 8XX-6XX2

Feel free to Google this or ask someone in the building – they all have pets, and we haven’t needed one…yet. We hope.

 

1) Kitty food is located in brightly-colored bags on top of the larger refrigerator in kitchen. There is a new bag for each of them –- and it’s pretty clear which is cat, and which is kitty food. If not, refer to the pictures on each bag. One has a cat, which is “large” when speaking in a relative manner, against a backdrop of “kitties” which are much “smaller” even though on the other bag, in terms of quantity, there is probably more “kitty girth” pictured, so one could argue that the “kitty-ness” might in fact be larger. But go with your instinct, if all else fails. The cat on the cat food bag is larger. Should be simple enough. Cat food goes in bowl in kitchen with fresh water from refrigerator door. There is only one bowl on the ground with food, even if it’s empty when you get there. The other one will be full of water, even though from a distance, and possibly in poor lighting conditions, it may at first appear to also be empty. It’s not. Unless the cat drank all of his water, with some help from the kitten sister, but that never happens, so please disregard. Kitty food goes in mini bowl in bedroom, with fresh water there too in mini bowl of water. So, recap: full size bowls go with full size cat food from the bag on top of the full-sized ‘fridge. Bag with full sized cat on it. Mini, down the line, replace cat with kitten and put food in bedroom, not kitchen.

2) Kitty litter box is in closet, tucked under the shoes just outside the bathroom door. There is a fresh box next to it, but I just changed it out Friday. Scooper on top, little dust broom and pan there too if they get out of hand. By which I mean, either tons and tons of cat/kitty shit (quantity), or else really kind of absurdly large cat shits, like bordering on dog-sized, which we have seen. This would be a quality example of getting out of hand, I think. I left a couple of plastic bags on top in case it needs a cleaning, which it may by Sunday night or Monday morning. The cats tend to poo more vigorously when we leave. Some system shut-down, possibly, or else they get bored and this is how they express themselves when there’s no one around to hear them meow and cry. Which is not a guilt-trip to try to get you to stay over every night, but remember giant piles of shit, and how that might mean you will end up having to wheel the trash bin up from the street because the garbage bag full of cat feces may be too heavy and in that case, would probably bust before you made it down the stairs to the garbage area by the street. But it’s your call. Sleep there or don’t. But one cleaning should be good around that time. The garbage cans are on 32nd Pl. outside the building. There is also a shallow box top full of litter in the bedroom that you will see next to the kitty food. It’s cute. Even the stuff in it (if you’re into that — don’t worry, Carrie didn’t tell me anything about you. And everyone, I mean everyone, has weird little interests that border on fetishes, in a clinical sense, so don’t worry).

3) Kitty will behave like a kitty (always keep this in mind) –- four hours of non-stop sleep, then 35 minutes of play, mostly hassling Patchen (cat), who at this point has a 0 tolerance policy, like the cops. His noises might sound scary, like a mountain cat, but he’s harmless and just warning her. She typically gives up, but if you hate it, then spray them both gently or grab her off of his neck and she’ll be easily diverted with a piece of crumpled up paper or her fish toy. No matter how tempted you might get, or how convincing the larger cat will be, do not throw her out of the window. We’ve tried. She comes back. Dirty.

4) Kitty has become what we lovingly refer to as “a climber.” We try to leave the windows open, but have found that she’s very good at scaling the drapes. I hate pet owners who write long ass descriptions of what their pets do and ridiculous paragraphs about this little detail or that. Anyway, I’m an effing hypocrite now but she will climb the drapes to impress you when she’s in her 35-minute spaz routine. Absolute no no, especially if the window is open. Make sure when you leave, all windows with drapes are fully closed. If, for some reason unclear to us and most likely not more complicated than you are a complete and total idiot with absolutely zero respect for us or what we’re trying to do here in the way of raising a decent, loving and healthy little kitten, and she ends up scaling the drapes on your watch and gets out the window because as I said earlier, you were stupid enough to leave them open, then deal with it. Run outside, track her down, bring her back, if she gets hit by a car, revive her, or if she dies in that last scenario, God rest her little precious and dander-covered soul, then bury her for chrissake and find us a new one that, for the most part, looks and acts exactly like her. Which is what any respectable kitty sitter would do. Shit. We would. But we wouldn’t be idiotic enough to leave the windows open in the first place. But accidents do happen, we understand. Listen. Just be careful. The whole time.

5) If kitty freaks, you can always lock her up in the bedroom. She has everything she needs in there, especially if the two need to be separated. Remember the window. There’s one in the bedroom. See #4 if you forgot / forget. And this would also mean that you will probably have to sleep on the couch, which does not, at this point, have bedbugs. Please keep it that way.

6) TV – I’ll spread out the “remotes mayhem” on the coffee table. Water spritzer will also be there in case they act up. Tiniest remote, hit power and the TV will turn on. Thinnest remote, next up in size, hit power and the DVD player will turn on. It’s a sensitive one and sometimes slow, so just hit a button and then be patient. Again, don’t get frustrated, because if you give it too many commands, then the whole thing goes haywire, and you’ll be sitting there all pissed off without a movie, and really, it will pretty much be your own fault. No one else to blame. So don’t take it out on the kitty or especially the cat. He bites sometimes. He a biter. Forgot to mention that up there. He also hates it when he has to watch someone clean out his litter box. I think I forgot to mention that too; probably should have been a part of item number 2. You’re probably not even going to read the note this far, so maybe it’s better that it’s in here closer to the bottom. Never mind. Back to the movies and television. Largest remote on the coffee table is for the receiver. Hit power to get sound. Manipulate the volume on the TV with the remote there, or the right dial on the actual receiver. You’ve looked at TV before. Movies are in the closet on the bookshelf next to the kitty litter box. You will definitely know where that is by the time you’re done with the five days of kitty sitting and sleeping over every night that we’re planning on you committing to.

7) Eat whatever you want in the fridge or freezer. Oven and range are self-explanatory. Kitties like it when you leave the gas on in the apartment. Of course, I am serious. I mean kidding. I’m not serious. But we did do that once by accident, which like I said does happen to everyone, and we noticed a serious lapse in the pooping cycle, especially of the bigger one. And the biting subsided really, really nicely for a day or two there, so maybe only if you get absolutely desperate, consider this an option. But put the kitten in the bedroom during that time, because when we had our accident, it worked out really badly for the kitten. She handled it totally differently than the big cat. The first kitten handled it totally different. We’re pretty sure it’s more of a general-kitten problem rather than something specific to a condition or whatever of the first kitten. So make sure this one’s in the bedroom. Maybe crack the window in there, too, if you plan on running the “experiment” for more than a day or so.

2B) Back to number two. Feel free, yourself, to poop as much as you want, but bear in mind there has been a little situation with the plumbing. Nothing big at all, just what we’d probably call, like I said, “a situation.” You’ll be fine.

8) Fresh sheets and pillow cases have been taken care of for you, as we know you’ll be sleeping there all five days. Whatever you do, and I mean whatever you do, do not take home some asshole from one of the great little hipster bars in the neighborhood, and then have sex with him in our bed. We mean this, no exceptions. Carrie, when she first started college, had a boyfriend back then, who was studying criminal forensic science, or something like that, and he stole one of those luminol-detector thingies. Meaning, we tried it already on the bedding before we left. Meaning, we still have it, and it still works. Meaning, I watch CSI. A lot. Though I am partial to Law and Order, hands down, any of the four versions, with actually any pairing of detectives, doesn’t even matter. Even though I do like The Who quite a little bit. No semen stains, anywhere. So if you do decide to break Rule #8, and bring some douchbag home for a little throw around the ol’ bed, we’ll know it. Charts and graphs, baby. Science don’t lie, even if you do.

 

Just as a final thought, thank you from the bottom of our collective heart for doing this. Call us if anything goes wrong. It’s going to be great! Promise!

Matty & Carrie (but mostly Matty).

In the summer of 2007, I was doing research while at the University of Virginia for a seminar under Syed Rizwan Zamir for his class, Islam in the Modern Age: Tradition, Fundamentalism, and Reform. Before I picked up reading fiction as an undergraduate, most all of what I read dealt with political science, the author I read the most by being the famed linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky. For my final project, I decided I would contact Chomsky for an interview to see what he’d have to say on the subject matter.

Screw it, it’s worth a shot I figured — even if deep down I knew there was no way he’d respond.




The next day I opened my e-mail, and saw it: Noam Chomsky to jwp5u.

After reading Chomsky’s response, the short answer being, “No, I don’t have the time,” I called home to my parents. Despite the rejection, I was so excited I could nearly urinate my pants and I think I even felt a little dribble at one point.

“Go up to my room,” I told my mom over the phone.

“Why?” she responded.

“Make like Nike and just do it. Look on my bookshelf. Do you see a guy named Noam Chomsky?”

She walked upstairs. I could hear her open my creaky bedroom door.

“Yes, he’s all over the place.”

“He just e-mailed me,” I said to her. “I asked him for an interview and he said he couldn’t do it. Isn’t that awesome?”

“That he said, ‘No.'”

“No, that he responded to my e-mail. Noam Chomsky wrote me an e-mail. Isn’t that awesome? NOAM AVRAM FREAKING CHOMSKY!”

“That’s wonderful,” my mom said to me in a sort of I-can’t-believe-you’re-this-excited-about-an-email voice.

And so ends one of the single greatest moments in my life.

Noam Avram Freaking Chomsky . . . man!

How are you?

By Mary Hendrie

Letters

Hey John,

Thanks for the note on my wall. Your exuberant “hello” was heartening like good soup on a bad day, which isn’t to say yesterday was bad. It was a good day. I heard from you, after all, and work went pretty well. Aside from the hour I spent looking through photos of friends I no longer speak to, I’d say the overall experience for the day was net positive.

But it’s a funny thing when people write on your wall and want to know, “How are you?” It’s a more sincere question than the passing-in-the-grocery-store variety, but it’s loaded, and it can’t really be answered via wall post.

How am I? Well, I’m alive, but somewhat disillusioned. I miss the slow, easy life of our hometown, but I don’t miss the ignorance of some of the people. I quit smoking since we last spoke, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t.

I live near DC, where the air quality is toxic, and I know because they tell me every day on the radio about the air quality — code orange, which means we should all avoid strenuous outdoor activity. I’d like to lose a little weight, but that’s hard to do with all these codes to follow.

Every day, I drive home and scan the radio for familiar songs to fight off the particular loneliness that breeds in my car, and when Morrisey comes on, I belt out all the words, right or wrong.

I have a good job in a boring city, a great husband, and a normal sex life, I think (but I don’t know what’s normal). Oh, and I wrote a book of sorts, but actually it was my grad school thesis, and I can’t bring myself to look at the thing for editing purposes or to print copies to send to agents, so it’s just sitting on my shelf now. Some of it is pretty good.

To tell the truth, when I look at all our old friends on Facebook, the people who are outrageous and fabulous and those whose lives are quiet and generic, I feel I’ve lost something. I’ve been hollowed out a bit, and I don’t know how it happened or if I am alone. I feel I’ve had limbs severed, but all my parts are here. I wasn’t looking when this phantom part of me died, so I’m not really sure what I’m trying to revive.

I have not yet joined the ranks of lonely folks who teach their pet birds to sing pop songs, but I have lost a couple cats. Anyway, I guess birds do it for some people. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t like birds much.

The truth is, I keep waiting, John. I keep thinking something amazing will happen, and then I’ll feel right. Like the book I’m meant to write will just spontaneously come into being as a best seller. Then I’ll feel like the person I was always meant to be. Like my ship has come in, right? But until then … until then …

Well, I took a bike ride after work, and I went down to the grocery store just to see if I could do it. I wanted to go inside and buy some squash to cook for dinner, but I didn’t know what to do with my bike while I went inside, so I just turned around and rode back home. It was fun, anyway.

And tonight, we’ll celebrate my husband’s birthday with a few friends at the house. Our house. Did I tell you I own a house now? We’ll eat crabs and drink beer on the back deck. We have a lot of trees, which are pretty, and a nice view of a little creek. After dinner, we’ll watch a movie. It’ll be fun. Maybe before the night is over someone will end up naked, but most of our friends have outgrown that.

I was about to say life ain’t half bad, but maybe it is, John. But even if it is, 50% is better than some presidents get. And the truth is, at least I have people, ya know? At least I love someone and go outside sometimes. Code orange be damned, right?

So, how are you?

Dear Montana,

It’s been one year.

One year that I’ve lived in your valley along the Clark Fork river, one year that I’ve lived in the West, one year that I’ve hiked up my skirt for your hillsides.

That’s a long courtship by my standards. Usually the caveats, bad habits and dirty laundry cut into the open by now.

Instead, you continue to woo me.

You arch your back of rock, pull me into your canyon veins, and peel me naked.

Dear Gloria circa August 2000,

I am writing from the future. Ten years ahead in fact.

I’ve seen all the movies and read all the cautionary tales that warn about the negative effects altering the past could and most likely would have on the future, so I want to be really careful here. It’s important that I impart a few words of advice, but, though there are aspects of my life today that I would love to undo, there are many aspects that I wouldn’t change for the world. I have no desire to try to alter your path. I wouldn’t wish any of your choices be different. My goal here isn’t to warn you against doing what I’ve already done, but to arm you with tools that I’ve only just begun to collect and use.

From:      Karen Lester

To:        [email protected]

Subject:   Re: blast from the past

 

Bill! Wow!

It’s sort of a shock to hear from you after all these years. How many times have you been in California since ’73? Hundreds? Thousands? And not so much as a postcard. Say goodbye to Hollywood, indeed!

I know you hated living in L.A., and it sure seemed like you’d forgotten all about your pals at the Executive Room — even though, irony of ironies, you sing about us almost every night of your life.

Still, I was really happy to get your e-mail, if only to assuage my guilt over how things ended between us.  I’ve always felt bad about that. I didn’t mean to call you a creepy little garden gnome, but I was stoned (like the businessmen?), and let’s face it, you weren’t exactly a perfect gentleman, jamming my hand down your pants like that. After all we’d been through, we should have ended things on a higher note — like the one you hit at the chorus of the studio version of “Innocent Man.”

Anyway, you asked what the old Wilshire crew is up to these days, so I’ll fill you in.

John, as you imply in your song — cruelly, he’s always felt — never did become a movie star. Casting agents thought he was too short, and that he had an “old face.” He had some small parts in some indie films, and one time he was in a commercial for Taco Bell. But he had a problem with heroin — Captain Jack took him to his special island — and then he had a problem with VD, and then he became a Scientologist.

He left the Church after ten years, after they’d robbed him of his youth, his money, and his street cred. He’s married now — again — and living in I think San Pedro. He had two kids from his previous marriage — twins — who are doing well, even though they sometimes get mistaken for the Menendez brothers when they hang out in Beverly Hills.

I haven’t seen him for years, but he friended me on Facebook a few months ago, so I told him I’d heard from you and that you sent your regards. I won’t relay his exact response, as he had some not very kind things to say about you, your ex-wife, and your daughter. He did mention that he hoped the tabloid reports of you quitting the sauce were true, as you “could be a pretty decent guy when the microphone smelled like something other than beer, wine, or hard liquor.”

Also, although I know he digs your stuff, especially Songs From the Attic, he does not list you among his favorite artists on his “info” page (but you’re first on mine, even though, let’s face it, everything kind of went downhill after Glass Houses).

Paul, as you probably know, is a pretty successful screenwriter — his forays into real estate and novelwriting ended about the same time your six-month stint at the Executive did, and he’s always been amused that you chose to affix those labels to him — who has been nominated for as Oscar several times, and won a Golden Globe. He’s not on Facebook, but I run into him at fundraisers every once in awhile.

I called him up and told him about your out-of-the-blue note. He said he barely remembered you, but he knows the song, of course, and he thought it was so weird that you characterized him as being too busy for marriage; the reason he didn’t have a wife was not because he didn’t have time, as you suggest, but because he’s gay. “It’s West Hollywood,” he said. “Why else would I spend all night talking to a sailor?”

Not that David was a sailor, as I’m sure you know. Not in the conventional, McHale’s Navy sense. He was in the JAG corps, and after completing his civil service, started his own firm, specializing in wills and estates. There’s a lot of money in that sort of work, especially in Los Angeles, let me tell you. He probably has more net worth than most of the fly-by-night movie stars in this town.  He drives a Bentley! If you had only used David as your attorney instead of Elizabeth’s sleazy brother! But at least you won *some* money from the lawsuit.

Ramon was relieved of his manager duties in 1973, not long after you left and took our best customers with you. He kept opening up new restaurants and clubs, but never had the success he enjoyed with you tickling the ivories. Which is probably why he drove up the PHC and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1977. Not that you should feel bad about that. Even if he did quote “Tomorrow is Today,” off Cold Spring Harbor, in his suicide note. I mean, the guy was majorly screwed up. Paul thinks he has multiple personality disorder.

As for me, your politics-practicing waitress? Well, I work for the state government in the Department of Education. That was after serving on the city council for many years. I’m married — my husband is a vice president at Universal — and we have two lovely children, Michael and Jennifer. We live up in Coldwater Canyon, next door to Carrie Fisher. But you probably know all that, if you’ve Googled me.

What you’re after — I’m assuming, now that you’re once again divorced and needy — is what I’m doing emotionally, if I ever got over our time together that summer. I did fall for you pretty hard, I admit, even though I knew you liked Elizabeth more than you liked me. I always thought she was a bitch. All the girls did. She was the kind of woman that other women dislike — trouble, in other words. Oh, she’s got a way, alright!

Ah, what might have been, had you picked me instead!  But you never had much use for my “Peter Pan advice.”

But I’m very happy with Tom, who, in addition to his tremendous business success, is also a former semi-professional hockey player and underwear model, and a well-known poet (although his poetry tends to be ponderous T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound-type stuff, and not nearly as fun as your lyrics for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”; sometimes I do have to work hard to keep up with his clever conversation!). We live a happy, private life, although the sex tape we made with that Brazilian model did leak on the Internet a few years ago, starting a “scandal” that forced me to leave electoral politics…but you probably read about that, too.

Likewise, I’m sure you’re better off with the path you chose: your three failed marriages (Katie Lee? She’s Alexa’s age!), your lifelong battles with alcoholism and depression, your legal troubles with your string of rapacious managers and record company executives, and your authorship of “Tell Her About It.”

But it’s really, really great to hear from you! I hope your boating endeavor goes well (I found out about it from your Wikipedia page). We have boats here, too, you know — Catalina is a nicer port than anything on Long Island — so if you’re ever in town, give me a shout. Maybe we can go have a drink. No, wait, scratch that, you don’t drink anymore. A coffee, then. There are some hip places in Echo Park you might like.

Best to you, Bill.

xoxoxo,

Karen

P.S. I totally remember that gin-and-tonic-happy old man. He was gross. If I had a nickel for every time he pinched my ass…

P.P.S. I’ve attached a photo of you from that summer that David took (there I am in the back, all the way to the right).

 

 

 

 

I called you from Utah because I wanted to hear your voice underneath the unending vastness of the pale blue afternoon sky, against the haunted emptiness of the waiting land.

I wrote you letters and sent them across the sea because I wanted you to come home to find them waiting, and hold them in your hands, and know the truth – that I wouldn’t leave you, no matter how separated we were by distance and by chance, by helpless accidents and unforgiving wreckages of the past we never had a chance of preventing.

I said goodbye to you for the first time, so long ago now, in the night at the airport terminal, and as I stood and watched you walk away through the loneliness of San Francisco International to Laura’s waiting car I wanted so much for you to look back at me, and you did, and the look on your face when you raised your hand uncertainly to wave cuts through me still.

I’ve stood guard over that moment; it’s too important to me to ever lose to the untrustworthiness of memory. Just as I’ve held all of my memories of you close to me and safe; just as now I’ll hold on to what it was like to see you, again.

I don’t need to replay the past and painstakingly construct new bridges of possibility of what you or I or we could have done differently on foundations of everything that has passed – but there is warmth in these recollections, and I allow myself the comfort of drawing them out when I need.

Of walking through the heavy rain in Japantown. Waiting for you in the lobby, my shoes soaked from flooded sidewalks, and rainwater still running down my face.

Of night through the Mission, waiting on street corners for the lights to change, walking through rivers of people in twos and threes, catching words and phrases in Spanish, light and sound and scent painting the streets and the two of us moving together. You told me then that being with me felt like being let out of prison; I didn’t know what to say back, because I knew I couldn’t say anything that would mean as much to you as those words did to me.

Conversations and coffee, and early mornings, and late nights. Market Street, 18th, Church. The J and the Muni and the stairs up to your apartment, and that cold light that washes over the streets of San Francisco in the late afternooon, that threw long shadows along the corridors of my house and warned of the heavy fog to come.

Today I stood on the sand of a Malibu beach and saw a girl who wore the same windcheater you have; for a second with the sun behind her she could have been you, and I wanted to take your hand and walk through the surf and over the rocks. Because while we’ve spoken of large and sweeping movements between us, so many of the missing parts were the small ones, the tiny brushstrokes of shared experience, measured in seconds and minutes and hours.

Now there has been so much I can’t know where to think it all begins and ends; I searched for understanding in our words and our silences. I needed to know where every piece fit together so I could still the terror of losing you that welled up in me whenever we were apart. I would have found something to be scared of no matter what – the flaws in me bend that way and without you, I might never have known who I am.

Whatever else, you have given me that. Whatever else, you have given me the knowledge of what it is to be loved, and now I want you to know that it was that, and it was you, that opened the doors of the world to me, who took my hand while I walked through. Whatever threads wind themselves around us to knot and catch our limbs or guide us home, wherever and whoever I am, and whoever I become, I will carry you with me, and the knowledge that everything changed because of you.

And so now that the last storms have passed, with so much fear at last drained from me, with my feet on solid ground, I can leave this country again tomorrow night, freed from what has been, and want happiness for you. I can leave this place we have found between us because it is a good place for us, I think, and while we may not share it, neither does it have to hold us tight and pull us down to the earth. I can leave behind everything that is not what has been, wanting only for you to know how grateful I am for you and what you’ve left me with, and how much I hope you find love and peace in the solace of days.

“I don’t have to tell you the contradiction,” Rik says about the phallic name of the place as we walk in.

Pho Hung, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Las Vegas, has three statues and a waterfall just inside the front door. We slip past the sounds of dripping water and find a twelve-foot-tall fertility-inspired centerpiece covered in fruits and vegetables. It towers above rows of tables and chairs.

We sit near the end of a table and stare at the giant plastic garden before some butterflies across the room catch our attention. They’re on a wall in what looks like a framed poster. It’s at least six feet across. “Are those butterflies real?” I ask.

Rik jumps up and heads to the glass-encased frame. “It is!” he says. His voice is naturally dramatic. He’s a DJ. But he could easily be a radio actor, or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3.

We haven’t even ordered yet. But I walk over too and see that it isn’t a poster. Inside the glass frame, dozens of butterflies, every color imaginable, lie frozen in time. The center column is filled with moths. Not little moths, but huge moths. Gargantuan moths. The kind that could terrify a kid on a jungle night if one were to flitter in front of the moon.

“Let me tell you about an iridescent blue butterfly I saw at a Darwin exhibit on the Berkeley campus last year,” I say. I search the rows for a blue glowing butterfly. “It was neon come to life. It was a sky. Or an ocean. Never seen anything like it.”

Outside, Chinatown in Las Vegas is booming. Spring Mountain Road is filled with endless Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Strip malls are decked out in Asian décor. There’s a tattoo parlor next to an Asian food restaurant next to a Boba shop. You can get an apple slushy, grab some goodies from a Korean grocery store, then swing by the Asia-themed Starbucks on your way to a casino with spinning slot videos based on the movie Jaws.

Everywhere you can get a foot massage. $19 for thirty minutes. Their “open” signs flash. Their neon signs beckon. Near a donut shop there’s a handwritten note on an empty storefront. At least one strip mall owner is sick of the local foot fetish. NO FOOT MASSAGE. NO HAIR SALON.

Rik’s been in Las Vegas ten years now. His hair is graying like mine on the sides. He has a beard but no moustache. He’s soft spoken; a big guy. He wears a GUINNESS shirt a lot.

He’s from Mendota in California’s Great Central Valley. It’s further north than Bakersfield, a town that now boasts nearly 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40-percent unemployment. That was his childhood playland—the cantaloupe center of the world—until he was in his early teens.

Before Vegas, his family moved from Mendota and lived in Fresno, once home to Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist/novelist William Saroyan. Many people, myself included, have been taught to believe that John Steinbeck was the big Central California writer because he lived in the Salinas Valley and wrote Grapes of Wrath. But Saroyan preceded him as king. He wrote the short tale, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, (1934), which was taken from the 19th Century song of the same name. He also wrote The Human Comedy, (1943) and won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, among many other writings.

*     *     *     *     *

Rik’s eyes search the restaurant from behind dark-rimmed glasses. “Have I told you my William Saroyan story?” he asks.

Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts.  We get caught in small talk. It’s several minutes before we get back on the topic.

“I told Bonnie my Saroyan story,” he says. He’s talking about our mutual mentor, Bonnie Hearn Hill. She just released Taurus Eyes (2010), the second book in the Star Crossed Series. He gets on the subject of her husband, Larry Hill, whose short story collection, Saroyan’s Bookee was published in 2008 on Mark Arax’ imprint. Arax recently wrote the widely popular nonfiction work West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (2009). But that’s another story.

Larry, who is in his late 70s, is a wonderful writer. Don’t believe me? He recently won the 2010 Bellevue Literary Review Prize for Fiction for his work, Cocido, which I hear is online, but I have been having a hell of a time finding it.

I tell Rik I met Larry in an art gallery in Fresno. I explain that the entire room was filled with his paintings. A masterful abstract expressionist painter, Hill’s eye for beauty ties a peculiar modernism to lost generations of abstract artists. Splashes of color you might see in your mind but would never think to recreate, Hill can put to canvas.

Meet him and he’s quiet at first. But you immediately get the sense that he’s lived. I mean really lived. I’ve seen it in his paintings and in his eyes. “He’s an inner artist,” Bonnie says later in a telephone call.

She tells me she’s the opposite. An outer artist. Gabby. (Like me at times. I guess I capture a little of both worlds.)  She tells me that around fifty years ago Larry Hill was at Jackson Jones Liquor Store in Fresno. She said he and Saroyan reached for a bottle of wine at the same time. A magical moment. “He worshipped Saroyan,” Bonnie said.

At Pho Hung, Rik recommends Hill’s story “Tranquillity” that’s set in the Central Valley town of the same name. He points out the strangeness of the two L’s. I later get a glimpse of the book and start thumbing through a few pages. But Rik winds up taking it back.

I later write to Larry Hill and ask him if he’ll tell me his William Saroyan story. Apparently, he and Saroyan were both avid gamblers (as was my dad), and they shared the same bookee. But more important was Hill’s adoration for Saroyan, and the strange liquor store experience.

He writes back within a few days:

Hi, Nick.

It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.

I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.

“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus  leads.

He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.

No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.

“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”

From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”

I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.

Larry

*     *     *     *     *

The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.

“When I was in seventh grade, a teacher gave me a book Saroyan wrote,” he says. “Every two weeks the library would get new books and I would flip through them finding everything Saroyan. I was obsessed with him. It wasn’t normal.” He says his teacher told him years later in a chance meeting that she wasn’t in class on a few occasions because she went to hear Saroyan give talks. She felt bad for not inviting him and carried the guilt for years.

Rik speaks slowly. The words roll off his tongue, bounce into the desert restaurant unveiling a mind’s eye cinematic view of California’s Great Central Valley. Mendota version. Dusty town. Smell of cantaloupes in the air. I can see the dirty purple sunsets along imaginary agri-rows. Melons and vineyards; Rik wandering down Mendota’s sidewalks. Old men riding bikes downtown. Baptist churches with their big-haired polyester preachers of the late 1970s. Every farm town and city is an imaginary dust devil away from the next.

He talks about Fresno next. I imagine drive-thru dairies. Milk in bottles and factory smokestacks. Grape vineyards surrounding a city like barbed wire.

“When I moved to Fresno I lived downtown,” Rik says. “It was 1981. I was sixteen. I had a 1965 Chevy Stepside that my dad got me. Then Saroyan died. I was devastated.”

I half expect Rik to choke up.

He goes on. He picks at his soup. It wafts in swirls of steam like spirit-filled incense. “I knew where Saroyan lived. After he died I drove past his home.  What was amazing was there were boxes of trash outside of Saroyan’s house along the street. All of a sudden I found myself parked next to the curb throwing the boxes into the back of my pick-up.

“And it wasn’t just any trash. It was every Christmas card, postcard and letter ever written to Saroyan,” Rik says. “There were articles too. I took them home and over the next few months I locked myself in my room and read every single one.”

I’m in shock. When I think about this moment in our conversation I imagine my jaw unhinging, bouncing on the table, then onto the floor and up the fertility statue. It gets lost among plastic tomatoes. “What did you do with it all?” I ask.

“I began giving away Saroyan’s postcards. All of it. I gave them to teachers, to friends, to anyone I knew who loved Saroyan.”

“Imagine what the family would do if they had that back. I can’t believe anyone would throw all of that away,” I say.

“Really said something about that family to me at the time,” Rik whispers. His eyes squint nearly shut.

“Do you have any left?”

“Maybe in a box. Probably not. You just lose stuff over the years,” he says.

A few days later I’m in his garage. I see piles of boxes. I want to tear through them, unearth an archive of lost literary history. But I just pass through. The door behind me closes. In my mind I claw at the wood to get in.