@

 

Cover_NarrowRiverWideSkyThe Minnesota relatives visited. Our grandfather had visited us. He walked among the thistles and goats and chickens while we showed him where the events of our lives happened – the place where I fell off the horse, the place where Brian found a big frog. The goats sniffed his shiny shoes.

Uncle John lived in a cottage behind the house for several months after he returned from Vietnam. He needed some time alone, Mom said. He’d gone to “Dog Lab,” become a medic, and served two tours. He left again to Minnesota, married aunt Barb and adopted the little boy she’d had from her first marriage, and they visited the farm. I remembered he said he wanted to spank his little boy one hundred times. After he spanked the child and joined us outside by the livestock gate, he said he’d counted pretty high, but didn’t get to a hundred. We’d heard a cry per strike. Mom told me not to speak about it as I stood beside her counting heart beats, blocking out the crying. I don’t know how many smacks I heard.

Viet_Thanh_Nguyen_The_Sympathizer

The guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast is Viet Thanh Nguyen . His debut novel, The Sympathizer, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is available now from Grove Press.

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

Nowhere Men

By D. R. Haney

History

Errol Flynn at the courthouse

I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.

“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”

He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Evidently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right?  You’re six-one.”

paramount theater marquee

My love affair with movies may have begun with, though not necessarily at, the Paramount Theater in my hometown in Virginia. It’s no accident that the Paramount shared its name with a Hollywood studio; in the early days of the movies, studios owned theaters throughout the country, a practice eventually stopped because of antitrust laws. The Paramount in my hometown was built in 1931, when theaters were palaces, or anyway designed to resemble palaces, so as to treat the little people, then in the grips of the Great Depression, to a fleeting sense of grandeur. The grandeur of the Paramount had dimmed by the time I first saw a movie there forty years later, though the marquee alone, with its hundreds of blinking bulbs, thrilled me as a child whenever I glimpsed it from the backseat of my parents’ car. It made me think of the nightclub marquees I’d seen in Elvis Presley movies on television, quick establishing shots that cut to Elvis performing onstage for girls who, driven wild by the music, spontaneously danced on tabletops and spent the night in jail after the compulsory brawl. There were no such clubs where I grew up, as far as I knew; the Paramount was as close as I could get. From the ticket booth, just below the marquee, a long, wide corridor with a slight incline led to the concession stand and, just beyond that, the theater, and to walk the length of the corridor, ascending step by step, was to have a growing sense of anticipation. The carpeting was dark red, almost burgundy. The only light came from tiered chandeliers with dangling glass beads, and, on either wall, there were gilded-framed murals of powdered-wigged, eighteenth-century aristocrats, shades of Gainsborough. In later years, before the Paramount went out of business (it’s since been restored and reopened), tickets were sold inside at the concession stand, where, when I was child, posters of movie stars were sold: Brigitte Bardot in black leather on a chopper, Raquel Welch in the fur bikini she wore as a cavewoman in One Million Years BC. Victoria Vetri, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, likewise appeared in a fur bikini as a cavewoman in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, the first movie I remember seeing at the Paramount; and Vetri, as well as Welch, stirred things in me that, as a Christian child, I wasn’t sure were right with God.


7.  Our dog Pierre, a black French poodle, came to us from a wealthy acquaintance of my father ( we learned a little later, Dad had also borrowed money from him). He was well behaved and groomed in the shape of an hourglass but after only a few months he resembled a bushy sheep. From empty fields we trekked through he got thistles and thorns and fleas. Every few months we’d dump some laundry detergent on him and hose him down for a shower. When we camped out in the backyard in the summer, Pierre slept between us, a kid brother. My brother and I would fight over who loved him best: He’s my dog, I’d tell him; He’s my dog, he’d tell me.

 

A year after we got Pierre, my dad told us that the owner wanted him back; “The bastard,” my father muttered, “over a few lousy bucks.” The next evening, the man rolled up in a big car. My dad slipped a finger beneath Pierre’s collar and dragged him outside. I heard the two men exchange words. Then my dad walked back in the house with Pierre.

“He’s yours for keeps.”

We cheered, and jumped on Pierre: “Thanks Dad!”

My mom came out from the bedroom, where the shame of our family debt had sent her.

“What’s happening?”

“I’ll be frank with you all. The guy took one look and kinda choked; I guess ol’ Pierre is so shabby looking he don’t want no part of him anymore.”

 

We must’ve had Pierre two three years before he got sick. His poop was the color of charcoal and the back porch was crisscrossed with bloody skid marks. His stopped eating his dog food.   Lying there on his side he’d take us in with an eye and sigh. He seemed to be saying, “Help.” At night he howled. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, it got so that we had to shove him in the garage at night, what we’d nicknamed “the dungeon.” Come morning we’d run out to fetch him from “the dungeon.” Pierre, Pierre, we’d sadly sing. He’d meet us at the door, his tail wagging barely, shivering all over.

 

It was a Saturday morning when we found him dead in “the dungeon.” My dad came out of the house to make sure. We cried~~our world would never be the same without Pierre. We grabbed a couple of shovels, and start digging next to the fig tree. We planned to go six feet, but stopped at three, plenty deep, it seemed. Now we had to get Pierre, still in the dungeon into the hole. My brother said he’d do it.  I was relieved because I didn’t know if I had what it took to carry his corpse. When he stepped out of the garage with dead Pierre in his arms, I was in awe of my brother’s courage. He dropped Pierre in and we start shoveling. When the dirt reached our feet, we packed it all down with the shovel’s flat side, and out of two sticks and twine, we made a cross and drove it into the ground.

I asked our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Chamichian, where animals go after they die.

“Since they have no souls,” she said; “nowhere.”

“Even dogs?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Did this mean that I’d never see Pierre again?

“No. But you will see your grandparents, and uncles and aunts.”

When we got home, my brother and I yanked out the cross above Pierre’s grave. Since he had no soul we were afraid it was a sin to leave it there.  After the winter rain, I thought, after all the earth gets churned, there will be no spotting Pierre’s grave. The seasons will erase his resting place. After we are gone, nobody will know he is there. All we’ll be able tell the next set of kids is, “Pierre, our dog, is buried beneath the fig tree.” But who knows whether they’ll believe us, no matter what we say, what matter what history we leave behind. Who knows whether they’ll even care?

 

8.  Around age ten, we got real guns for Christmas; a revolutionary addition to our arsenal, which up until then was confined to slingshots. From a small cylindrical carton we’d pour BBs into the barrel’s spout and with just a few ratchets of the handle the gun would get pregnant with enough pressure to kill.  Its like we were sorcerers, the guns our magic wands, and the bb’s our evil spells.  We would strike things down from a world away.

 

Sparrows were all over the yard. From one branch to the next we’d watch them hop, their tidy little bodies turning this way, then that. The first one I shot fell from the tree and hit the ground like an overripe peach. We hardly found a mark on the bird; only a bead of blood swelled from its breast. I was disappointed: I expected something more dramatic. It hardly seemed worth it. Outside of its twiggy legs, politely folded up against its chest, it was unremarkable, common looking as the dirt upon which it lay. After turning it over and studying it’s every feature, we buried the sparrow. Above us, in the trees, dozens of its fellows were busy doing whatever it was that birds do. Strange how they hardly noticed when one of their own was gone.

 

9.  On TV, the Vietnam was on. It was part of our lives, like the San Francisco Giants, except the war respected no season. They showed bodies lying in a field, or in a ditch. It was always raining, and looked very far away.

“What a shame,” my Dad said.

When they posted that day’s score, it was never close: we always killed twice as many as they killed. I kept waiting for the Americans to win. In any game I played, either time ran out or there were no more pieces on the board. How else did you decide when the game is over?

 

10.  Up from our house the miser Madame Hovanessian, who handed out walnuts for Halloween, lived. Her stockings, the color of rubber bands, gathered in rings round fat ankles, and she had several wiry whiskers sprouting from her chin. Three stubby palm trees where pigeons, plump as cantaloupes, roosted ran alongside her driveway, and even though you couldn’t see them, the whole crown of the tree boiled with their voices. We’d gather rocks on our way home from school and from the alleyway we’d sling them into the fronds. After a week of trying, not only had we failed to kill a pigeon, not a single one even flew away in fright. Only their warbling suddenly stopped. One second the air was full of their voices, and the next second it was dead quiet, just like when a teacher suddenly hollers at a classroom of kids. After a while, we couldn’t care less if we killed the pigeons. This was another kind of game. Silencing them.

 

 


Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.

One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”

With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”

Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.

(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.

And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.

We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.

We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…

“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”

I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.

I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.

As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):

“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.

Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…

V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.

“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”

–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964

It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.

What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.

The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.

As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.

“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”

–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897

I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.

It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.

Southwest Florida, 1976: at sixteen Kathy and I are not quite there. We are half girl and half woman. Our knees still bear the shadows of scrapes from roller skating falls while our hips and breasts swell and curve beneath our batik cotton sundresses. We kiss boys with skin as hot as toast, their tangles of sun-bleached hair longer than ours, whose surfboards hang out the back of their dented el Camino’s and who want more than we are ready to give.

When we aren’t at the beach after school we are at Kathy’s house where our time is not governed by parental law. Kathy’s mother left when she was five. She lives with her father and an older brother who returned from Vietnam to sit in a green webbed lawn chair in the middle of their backyard where nothing but scrub pine grows gnarled and deformed in a sandy soil of crushed shells. His chair faces away from the house and ringed around the base are empty cans of beer. When he first came home his head was shaved but it has grown back into long dark ringlets. He looks like Jim Morrison from the Doors and I tell Kathy this but she frowns and tells me she doesn’t see this even though I know she does. The only time he leaves the chair is to go to the 7-Eleven at the end of the block to purchase more beer. If you didn’t know that fact you could easily imagine the beer magically replenished itself.

For a while his high school girlfriend, (who he had promised to marry before he enlisted), came over in the afternoons. We hear them fighting and then having sex until they scream or cry or both. The roar of their pain crowds the narrow hallway of Kathy’s house that leads to the chain of bedrooms occupied by Kathy, her father and her brother. Their cries are like a fire given oxygen: his deep and guttural and hers high and reedy. They cut through The Stones You Can’t Always Get What You Want and force us out of Kathy’s room to the galley kitchen where we sit on opposite kitchen counters and eat Skippy out of the jar, (an anomaly for me since my mother insists on the peanut butter from the health food store that tastes like sticky dust, but Kathy shops for her family and so the choice is hers) the room is so narrow we can stretch our legs all the way out and rest our bare feet on the opposite counter.

When Kathy’s brother left for Vietnam he gave her his record collection. We worked our way into an appreciation of the Doors, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and the Rolling Stones. With the music playing we closet ourselves in Kathy’s room where she has lined the walls with Indian tapestries from World Bazaar and burns sandpapery cones of incense and we talk about how far we might let the surfer boys go, not as far as they want, but we want, oh how we want, and how that wanting is in danger of unraveling.

One afternoon her brother’s girlfriend walks into the kitchen for a glass of water and tells Kathy loving her brother is like fucking a ghost before she drops the glass onto the plastic sink mat and walks out the door. Instead of leaving she sits in her car on the street parked next to the mailbox. We know she is waiting for him to come out but when an hour passes and his bedroom door is still closed, she leaves.

The first phone call comes on a rainy afternoon. We are sitting on the carport, waiting out the storm, talking about the waves, about who might be surfing, about the possibility of thunder and lightening and riding our bikes in a storm to the beach. We dash out into the yard and hold our faces and arms up to the rain. We spin in circles like children yet our bodies ache for something else, for something more, to go back but at the same time to go forward. My skin, the hair on my arms, the blood coursing through my veins: everything quivers from the power of wanting.

We are soaked, my patchwork skirt clings to my legs, and my bikini top is visible through my t-shirt as Kathy runs to answer the phone. I see her through the window twirling the long black floppy cord stretched out now from years of pulling it down the hallway to her room. Her face is dark and then light, the fingers of her other hand flutter around her breasts, holding the thin wet material of her tank top away from her body. I press my face to the sliding glass door and she motions me forward, holds the phone out to me and opens her mouth as if in shock or surprise.

When I get there she presses the phone to my ear, I smell her musky shampoo on the receiver, I hear the sharp intake of breath on the line, a low moan, like the sounds Kathy’s brother makes when he is having sex with his high school girlfriend.

What are you wearing? The voice rasps. Are you all wet?

Who the fuck is this? I ask.

Kathy leans closer and tilts the phone so we both can hear. The guy moans again.

Fuck off, I shout and push the phone out of Kathy’s hand. It dangles a moment on the long loopy cord before it smashes against the table and we laugh out of nerves and fear and excitement. We are standing there like that when we notice her brother walking up the driveway with a six-pack. He is shirtless and shoe-less and his chest looks remarkably like those of the surfer boys we like to kiss. He disappears around the house and reappears in his lawn chair. It doesn’t matter that it is raining. He settles himself and the beer in his usual position.

After that first afternoon there is a pattern to the calls. A half an hour after we get in the door from school the phone rings. The caller asks what we are wearing. He tells us what he will do for us. He tells us things that we have to guess at their meaning, he tells us what we can do for him. There is a lot of heavy breathing on his part. We are scared and thrilled by the game because we are newly sixteen and virgins and the idea of sex is ever present. We lay on the floor in Kathy’s room shoulder to shoulder with our feet pressed against the door in case anyone tries to come in, the cord squeezed between the frame and the latch. The calls last no longer than ten minutes and after my nerves jangle, my legs feel like rubber, and in my chest nests an apex of anxiety. After several calls Kathy acts funny and says she wants to be alone. As I leave, her brother twists around in his lawn chair and stares as I take my bike from the crumbling concrete slab. I wave, but he turns back around before my hand is even in front of my face.

One day I ride my bike to the beach after leaving Kathy’s house. I find Daryl, the sweetest of the surfers, the one that I have the deepest crush. His mother is a teller at the bank where my parents have an account. He tosses my bike in the back of his car along with his surfboard and we go to the apartment he shares with his mother and he shows me his room with the surfing posters and the blue plaid bedspread. He kisses me and opens a beer and takes a sip and hands it to me and I do the same. We kiss again and our teeth are cold when they accidentally hit. We laugh and readjust positions and when Daryl tries to kiss his way down my neck I start to cry. Embarrassed I make my way to the door. Daryl jogs after me outside and says: Hey, I like you. Did I do something wrong? I can’t even look at him as he lifts my bike out of the back of his car and holds it steady until I get on.

I pass the 7-Eleven and notice Kathy’s brother outside the store. He is leaning against the glass, and his eyes are closed. He lazily strokes the skin below his belly button with his fingertips and my stomach squeezes and then as if he senses someone watching him his eyelids flutter open and he disappears inside the store. Through the glass I see him remove a six-pack of beer from the cooler and put the money on the counter. I pedal fast to beat him to his house and when I get there I follow the phone cord down the hall to Kathy’s room. I press on the door with my full weight but it doesn’t budge. Kathy, I whisper, let me in. When she doesn’t answer I push harder and say her name louder. Again, there is nothing and I slump down on the floor to wait. It is crazy to feel jealousy but I do. The guy has chosen her. I try to think hard if she has better responses to his questions and I realize I am mostly mute, always listening, slightly embarrassed by the way my body is reacting to the sound of a stranger’s voice asking me the color of my underpants. It is Kathy who is always ready with an answer, Kathy who always seems to know the right thing to say and I wonder how she has gotten so far ahead of me when we started in the same place.

I get up to leave because no matter what my mother expects me home for dinner. I know what I will see before I get there. My father will have arrived home from work and taken a shower after a long hot day fixing pools. He will be on the carport having a drink while he pokes whatever is cooking on the grill while my brother runs soccer practice drills on the patch of adjacent grass calling out to my father over and over again: Are you watching? Dad, are you watching?

My father will look up at me and wink and the ice will rattle in his glass as he raises it to his lips. Nice to see you sis, he will say. How was your day?

I will drop the kickstand on my bike in the shade of the carport. I will allow him to tug on my ponytail as I pass although I will pretend to hate it and squirm away. I will enter the coolness of the laundry room, slip through the landing strip of a kitchen, and push wide the swinging doors into the dining room where the phone sits on a desk. I will lift the phone while my mother, still in her white uniform, asks me to please make the salad. I will dial Kathy’s number. I will hold my breath when I hear the busy signal. Before I put the phone back in the cradle I will whisper: light blue with lace, just to hear myself say it out loud and then gently, quietly, I will hang up the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE LOTUS EATERS

LotusEatersI was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. After the towers fell, the only person in our office who didn’t seem numb or scared or uncomprehending was a gentleman who, of his own volition, calmly ventured into the street to get sandwiches for the whole staff.

“Fact check, Tyler! Was gorgonzola even invented in 1970? It (gorgonzola) seems like a more recent development (You should really check this out yourself, but I’ll ask your mother—you know how she loves cheese.).”

“Have you considered the implications your bank heist might have had if placed in the historical context of the Taiping Rebellion [1850-1864] rather than gangland Chicago?”

“I think you’d like to reconsider the line ‘The derelict howls that issued from under the subway platform brought his thoughts inexorably back to Vietnam.’ Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon, and before that Prey Nokor before being annexed by the Vietnamese from the Khmer in the 17th century) doesn’t have a subway and won’t have one until 2014, I think. Or is your narrator in New York now? Are we supposed to believe he was also in Vietnam? I thought that was another character with the same name…What’s going on here, son? Are you on pot?”

“Once again, I’m afraid, you confuse correlation with causation (didn’t I suggest a reading of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature some time ago?) when your narrator says, ‘My father, I saw as if through a kind of gauze. He was there, but ephemeral, his head always in some arcane history book and his temper—if interrupted from his study—was legion.’ What a shit thing to say about one’s father, eh? Your narrator is an ingrate. Did you know that in China, if a child didn’t show sufficient filial piety he could be EXECUTED? Your narrator should think about that. Just saying.”

“Have you considered writing under a pseudonym? I know there are a lot of Smiths out there, and Tyler is not a common name. But it’s not an uncommon one either, and when you throw in your middle name (pretentious), people are going to know who you are and, more importantly, who I am. And that will embarrass the hell out of your mother. Which is not to say that this book will ever be published. Most books aren’t. I mean, the ones that are published obviously are, but works like this are tough, almost impossible, to get into print. Especially if you’re going to stick with the three names thing (pretentious).”

“Here’s a bit of something, son: Your narrator is a maudlin inebriate (like Churchill—but you didn’t hear that from me), so I naturally wouldn’t expect him to give great speeches on love. But Jesucristo: “We never knew if we were falling in love or just getting scared.” I mean REALLY. Have you forgotten my casual remarks at the dinner table on Plato’s Symposium when Aristophanes speaks so eloquently on the subject of love, and where Socrates gives one of the most compelling explanations of love’s origin ever recorded?  The Symposium did have a variety of dilettante drunks hanging about to enjoy the conversation, though, a role your narrator could conceivably fill, as he is both drunk and unskilled. Socrates’ speeches in the Symposium and in the dialogue of the Phaedrus are sublime, and infinitely more resonant than your generation’s post-modern formulas for love—you know, the ones that spring forth from our endless stream of capitalist infomercials and pseudo-intellectual brain candy, like “Men Are From It’s Okay To Cry/ Women Are From Attend My Seminar And Pay Me Money.” 

“Socrates on a scooter, Ty. It seems someone isn’t familiar with the expression “Barba non facit philosophum. Just because you spent some time doing acid and looking at Monarch butterflies at Esalen with your African-American girlfriend, doesn’t mean you’re Franz fucking Fanon. Then again, nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. Speaking of ventures, how did you manage to spend $10,000 living in a “tent” in Palo Alto for three months? Were you building a superconductor? I guess when you were small and we’d say to you, “Son, you can do anything you want in life,” we didn’t really anticipate that you’d interpret “anything” as synonymous with “nothing.” I’m not trying to browbeat you, you understand. I just want you to recognize that a.) We love you very much no matter what and no your mother didn’t make me say that; b.) If you don’t tear up that credit card, I’ll tear you a new one (and I don’t mean another card), and c.) I think we’re doomed. How are the Rockets supposed to make the playoffs with this bunch of assholes? I have to question Tracy McGrady’s dedication. Call to discuss.”

“Fact-checked gorgonzola for you. It seems you’re off the hook, as my junior colleague Dr. Munz, who teaches HIST 351, Europe 4th Century C.E to The Crusades, says that gorgonzola was invented sometime after the sack of Argentia by the Huns, but before the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibelines. (I know, I know. There’s a 500 year window of opportunity between those dates. Pretty damned imprecise. That’s why Dr. Munz isn’t getting tenure, but you didn’t hear that from me).”

“Your mother says you should write a children’s book.”