My 2011 worst-seller NVSQVAM, in all of its sample-chapter glory, coming to you from my fevered brain (literally, I’m so sick I couldn’t see straight enough to walk into the building where I work without repeatedly bumping against the doorjamb like a broken Roomba) on a shitty Monday:
Still available for purchase HERE, at Nine-Banded Books and also on Amazon.
The cat meowed. The cat meowed. Lester looked at his own
stocking feet. The cat meowed. Lester looked at the bathroom sink. It
needed cleaning; it always did, even on the evening of the days it got
cleaned, because the ill-fitted faucet leaked a slow but endless stream of
rusty water from its neck.
The cat stepped into the path of Lester’s gaze, fixed him with her own,
gave the foul basin a disdainful upward glance as it dripped on her head,
fixed him again, and meowed. Lester jerked his head away. Mustn’t look
at Frieda. Mustn’t look. Don’t give in. Discipline kitty.
According to recent cat psychology, merely looking at the rotten
screaming beast encouraged her to go on. And on. Evelyn had researched
the science with her usual cold thoroughness after she adopted the stray
cat out of the goodness of her heart, without discussing the business with
any of the other humans in the building. She had given her husband
bounteous free advice on the subject.
“Don’t yell at her like that!” Evelyn would yell. “She’s just a cat! How’s
she supposed to understand what you’re saying? Negative attention is
attention too. You need to teach her that meowing makes no difference
“MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA,” Frieda commanded. Lester mumbled
vague imprecations toward his socks. The opportunistic creature
always followed him into the toilet. There he was captive and didn’t have
much to do except pet her. Well, that and defecation, at which he usually
failed anyway. “MEOW…prrrrrrr… MAW MAW?”
Lester’s mind wandered, as it often did, to escape the minute irritations
that filled the vacuum around him; while the old brain was off its guard
his eyes took the chance to look instinctively at the source of the ongoing
noise. In triumph, the cat yawped her velvet mouth wide. The mouth
proclaimed a tiny horror that would befall Lester if he did not obey her
will. “MAAAAH! MAAAH MAAAAAAAAAH!”
Lester sighed; as he felt his raw nerves prepare to pop he stretched out
his hand to rub her head. It was the easiest thing to do. He tried once
again to release his bowels. It was impossible, however, to do so in the
position which Frieda’s satisfaction required.
Miserable little leech. He petted harder than was pleasant for the cat.
She looked up at him with a sad question in her big grey eyes. He winced
at the nastiness of his thoughts. A bit of affection was all she wanted,
trapped in this human-hut, and his resentful resistance made Lester feel
miserably—he also winced at the onrushing pun, though it was less bad
than others that could have come to mind, he supposed—petty. But he
had given up on trying to control the relentless gloom and spite of his
interior dialogue, and he hated being browbeaten into faking outward
bonhomie so those around him could be happy in his stead. Even if those
others were cats.
He finished the petting with a restrained slap, leaned back and tried
to insist on the business at hand. He closed his eyes, thought of Trojan
horses opening up and spilling out their guts. Frieda began to scream
louder than before. You want more of that? Little masochist. —Fuck, I’m
not supposed to be looking at her.
Not that cat psychology could earn him peace: even now, between the
cat’s screams, he heard his son Martin in the living room, singing along
to a recording of Rigoletto with an obnoxiously perfect Italian accent. He
heard Evelyn at work on her Spanish PhD dissertation, typing efficiently,
the keys of her computer clacking brightly. The sound of somebody near
one succeeding while one fails. Lester’s guts clenched into a fossilized clot
of Precambrian worms.
In defeat, he blew his nose into the piece of toilet paper clutched in
his right fist, and threw it at the wastebasket. Frieda attacked the paper,
knocked it off course and into the shower. She meowed some more. It
was hard to avoid looking at her, because something deep in Lester’s
brain wanted to hit her so hard that her head would splatter on the opposite
wall like a furry water balloon. This thing was begging him to let
it look, let it get a bead.
Instead, Lester picked up the cat brush from the back of the toilet and
groomed the creature so violently that she howled and ran from the room.
“You wanted attention!” he yelled after her. She made a pitiful noise like a
human baby, which made Lester’s face turn red. “Fuck you! I don’t bother
you when you’re on your litterbox!”
Evelyn yelled from her study: “Lester, that doesn’t work! And maybe
she has a legitimate compliant. Maybe she’ll shut up if you fill her food
dish. For once!”
Lester zipped his worn black corduroys. He wanted to spit. ’For once!’
As though he were a child who had begged mommy for a kitty and then
neglected it! Ha! It was her goddamned cat! It felt like they were having
the old diaper-changing arguments all over again. Which he had of
course lost. You wanted the baby. You wanted the cat. And I’m the irresponsible
bastard who just happened to disagree with you. I’m not changing
the damn animal’s diaper!
He looked into the mirror and stuck out his tongue. Just as the cartoon
version of her would expect the cartoon version of him to do. He hoped
the image would bounce off enough reflective surfaces to make its
way into her goddamn study. He could never yell back at her, even if an
amazingly witty retort popped into his head, because Evelyn had a way
of yelling without seeming irrational, and Lester didn’t. Evelyn projected
a veil of reasonableness over all of her yells. Lester didn’t buy it, but she
did. Which was enough to make him feel like a bad person for not buying
it. Which made him pretend to buy it, and inwardly seethe.
He was aware by now that his fundamental unease in the company
of other humans had not been an adolescent phase. But it was too late.
He had two of the creatures attached to him now, and there was nothing
about being married to Evelyn to give Anyman good traction for
complaint. It was fine to think nasty thoughts about her when she was
yelling from her study, but all couples yell. And her long black hair and
her smooth pale skin and the breasts… and the memory of who she was
under the slime of these domestic years… made Lester forget. And she
cleaned the vile sink every week, without mentioning it. No matter how
angry she got.
Still, as he cleaned the soggy paper from the shower, Lester continued
to mutter. After all, he wouldn’t put it past her to be mum about the sink
simply because she was trying to see how long he would let it go without
giving her a gold star for it. You don’t notice anything I do for you! Now
clean that litter box! He felt vaguely angry and vaguely guilty and couldn’t
tell which feeling was causing which. He felt as though his head were
being steeped in a vat of lye, like a lump of lutefisk. And he felt stupid.
How could he get worked up over a cat who was just acting like a cat?
It wasn’t the cat’s fault that he never had enough leisure time to pet her
without a panic attack coming on.
He liked petting Frieda, actually. Even if he hated her name. She was
named after the autoportrait painter Freida Kahlo. How many cats were
running around killing innocent rats under the name of that self-absorbed,
crypto-aristo charlatan! He cringed at himself for thinking such
a prefix as ‘crypto’; maybe his friends who told him he was a live version
of Rick from The Young Ones had been right. He tried to remember the
faces of the friends who had once called him ’Rick’; he hadn’t seen them
in half a decade; suddenly he felt half-drowned in a wave of nostalgia, but
it washed him mercifully soon onto the shores of his present irritation.
Kahlo had become famous in Mexico, but as far as Lester knew she was
mostly German—an ethnicity which had never been considered exotic
in the cool way, so it had been hushed up pretty effectively despite the artist’s
habit of painting self-portrait after self-portrait with utter candidacy
regarding her moustache. The very thought recalled Lester’s mother, and
he shivered. C’mon, brain. If I don’t stop remembering things today, I am
going to throw up.
To Lester’s mind the only decent name for a cat was ’Fucko.’ Fucko
was cute. Naming your cat ’Frieda’ announced to the world that you had
grown up at a time when it was ’cool’ for American daughters of chiropractors
to finally learn the name of a third-world artist. Announcing so
unconsciously clearly that you had come of age during said time meant
that today’s kids didn’t need to lift a jaw to call you an old fool, because
you had already done it to yourself. She might as well have named the
Lester suddenly felt a bit of mental math stumble through his skull, and
was struck by the number of years that had passed since he was young
enough to be target-marketed by the pop-culture industry—an honor he
had scorned for political reasons while it was his. But suddenly he missed
being thought relevant enough, even as a mere dot in a demographic plot,
to be subjected to dystopian manipulation.
He put his elbows in the sink-filth, tried to look like David Bowie, and
thought to the mirror: “I am a doctorate student in classical letters, and
have no recollection why I ever decided to do such a thing. I am the only
drop of blood in my line to have ever learned any more Latin than is in a
mass, and it’s too goddamned late to impress anyone. I am married to a
chiropractor’s daughter who is writing a brilliant dissertation in Spanish,
which is useful, gods damn it, and she named her fucking cat after Frieda
Kahlo, and she wants me to feed it. I am forty thousand dollars in debt
for a degree that people will only make fun of unless I become a college
professor, which means my life is over except for the part where I make
myself available as a font of knowledge that nobody wants, and meanwhile
my country is pissing away everything it has on a war that makes us look
like 300 million Stooges, so even if I wanted to try to get a regular job to
pay off the loans I’d be screwed blue anyway. But I’m a lucky guy, because
furthermore I live in the West and do not live in a radioactive mud hut in
Lester giggled. ‘Radioactive mud hut.’ Good one. If I could work that into
Frieda, who had either forgotten the mis-brushing or had changed her
tactics, silently wrapped herself around Lester’s feet. A pleasant tingle
crept from the nerves in his toes to the bottom of his spine. He sighed
and bent down and pet her. She purred: “Nice human.” Lester sighed
again, looked at his watch, panicked slightly, and wondered how long he
would have to go on petting to keep her from starting up the whining
again the moment he stopped. He was at a loss to explain to himself why
he was unable to be nice anymore, even to a ludicrously cute, soft cat,
without expending a sickening effort.
But if she screamed to be petted when Lester had no time to do anything
for himself, her selfish noises underscored his time-starvation. Her
natural greed reminded him of his endless duty to work. He spent eight
hours a day, weekends included, on study. But to make an income he also
had to be a teaching assistant himself. And he had to be a father, which
had not been part of the plan; cat-guardian, ditto. So Frieda’s insistence
upon her mammalian emotions—her appalling feeling of entitlement—
made self-pity burble in his guts like a pound of half-cooked chicken. She
had needs, which she translated into rights. He had the right to be a brain
on a stick, and the duty to be a warm father to his family. He wanted to
lock her in a shower. He wanted to yank her tail. She seemed to smell this
on the breeze, and ran out.
“MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH,” she said from the kitchen.
He staggered in after her. “For the love of Apollo, what the fuck do you
want?” He checked the cat-food bowl just in case—it was brimming, but
he dumped in another two cups and watched with satisfaction as a mess
toppled onto the floor. He got another cup of coffee, his fifth of the morning,
went back through the kitchen to his study, kicked Frieda gently on
the way (wasn’t that a better statement than ignoring her?), and sat down
to the endless suffering of a doctoral dissertation that he was too old,
tired, and stupid to write.
He turned on his seven-year-old laptop computer. The seven years had
collapsed so fast the thought made Lester’s stomach hurt. The e key was
held on with a nub of rubber cement. By the time he was aware of the machine’s
import, Martin had been ready to nickname it Mother Courage.It groaned at length.
Dear old bastard takes longer to warm up every
day—knows I need more seconds of not having to think. He had gone to
grad school in part to get away from mindless jobs. But thinking constantly,
always with a mind to how it would look on paper, and about the
same subject all the time, had begun to make him feel at least as braindead
as waiting tables had. More, in fact, since nothing unexpected ever
popped into his study. No goofy customers, no coworkers, hung over on
drugs unknown and vomiting cheerfully; his bolts of inspiration were so
weak and flawed that they were cause for more patching-up drudgework
He looked idly up at his bookshelves; they were sickeningly stereotypical
of his birthdate. I’m as bad as Evelyn and Frieda. The rows of scholarly
works and pleasure books (unread) were interspersed with careful
displays of toys: a few acquired in the proper hour of childhood, most
picked up with a laugh in his roaring twenties; a few he’d bought with
a less happy laugh in his sentimental early thirties. Star Wars figurines
and aliens, an Olivetti typewriter, a family of cheap stuffed bunnies, one
missing an eye; a skeleton’s hand supporting a purple wine goblet, made
of such cheap plastic it ruined tap water; Lester had stuffed its top with a
wind-up nervous hamster doll. In front of the goblet he’d placed a copy
of Jude the Obscure 7 so he would see it every time he looked up, because
he wanted to remember that he was dying to reread it. The title was obscured
by three years’ dust.
The computer said “SKRRRRROOOOOONK” and displayed a fuzzy
desktop. Lester gave it an unfriendly look. He rested his hands on the
keyboard and thought about the dozens of books on the late Roman
satirist Apuleius that he’d read in the past year. He couldn’t remember
a thing about the books, except that they were all about old Apoo’s
Metamorphosis, a work he had loved passionately till he announced officially
that he would write his dissertation about it. Now he felt an indifference
bordering on contempt; he knew, from his experience with his
master’s thesis on Juvenal, that the hate curve would only accelerate.
He tried to force his mind to relax into the suffering; predictably, it
squished out from under the pressure and wandered away again. He took
a loud slurp of the coffee and wondered idly when getting a doctorate in
classical letters had stopped being any fun. He couldn’t recall. He could
barely remember the past week.
Time had become generally funny. His adult past was flattening out
into a great mural of failures and irritations. Nothing seemed to have
happened any longer ago than anything else, including that morning’s
breakfast. Things that he had done when he was nineteen and drunk
seemed easier to explain than his decision to condemn himself to a lifetime
There was nothing he hated more than trying to organize his thoughts.
He liked thinking, but only for thinking’s sake. Forcing his clouds to fit
a narrative arc was like putting an elephant’s turd through a rabbit—or,
rather, it was like herding cats. It’s hardly realistic to claim that anything
in my head is as big as elephant shit.
The only plausible answer was that he had decided to do it because he
liked to type things. Keyboards turned him on. Not musical ones—he
despised those. —Oh, well, OK, fine, he had once been on decent terms
with them, but that was long ago, and now the sight of any musical instrument
made him want to be violently ill. Although he was still addicted
to having music on the stereo, thinking about how music actually got
played and who got to get paid to play it made him want to run out into
the University grounds naked and shoot urine at the hope-filled, glassy eyed
He ground his teeth and tapped the computer keys at random to a
four-on-the-floor beat. “kkadjdjjhhjkhkaklldhhahflhsedated.”
It was only keyboards made for typing that gave him sensual pleasure,
unadulterated by bad memories. Well, unadulterated by horrible memories.
He couldn’t remember ever not liking to pound on them, at any rate.
When he was very young, when his mother was alive, back when they
were still selling typewriters at Shopko, it had begun.
His mother would drag him out shopping so she could complain to
him about his father. But she would usually run into one of her insane
friends, who always talked very loudly and fast and smelled inexplicably
of urine, or so he recalled. She would then ignore Lester in favor of the
chance to complain to somebody old enough to understand. He would
happily sneak off to the appliance section of the store to tap and pound
at the display models.
He typed as hard as he could. The official-looking letters engraved
themselves deep into the paper at his command. If the store employees
hadn’t put paper in, he would type right on the pattens, even though
this made him feel guilty. He didn’t want to hurt the typewriters, and he
could see the permanent scars he pressed into the bare rubber, curses
made solid. But he couldn’t stop. Those neat rows of buttons, like little
plastic candies, called his compulsive fingers like bourbon would, years
later, draw his tongue. Tap tap smack-smack, I wanna be sedated.
By the time he left home, typewriters were going out of style. People
abandoned them in Dumpsters, on curbsides, in charity shops. In midwinter
he found one left in an alley, bleeding a spot of premature rust
into the shaggy snow, as though somebody had absent-mindedly carried
it out of the house and had suddenly become too tired to go on. He
hauled them to safety, filled his boarding-house room with unwanted
machines, all the more ludicrous and sad for their meticulous intricacy.
Their mechanical grace, wrought by generations of engineers, had passed
into waste, more pointless than a loom.
But they were good noisy toys. Each keyboard had a different feel and
sound. Hollow or thick. He would come home from whatever foodservice
job he’d settled for that year, drink cheap beer, and type nonsense phrases
to the slap-happy rhythm of the music he liked. Innocent. Wasteful.
When Lester thought about how much time he had spent playing with
typewriters, it seemed a shame that he had never thought of anything
worthwhile to type on them. Particularly now that such crap was his job.
When he finally got talked into loans and university, he went to the
school’s computer lab and typed his papers on Microserf Word.
At first whack computer keyboards, with their dampened clicks, were unsatisfying;
but like a whiskey drinker who cuts back to wine, he soon fell for
their subtle charms. Having something to type (other than the lyrics to
whatever song he was listening to) tickled Lester so much that he almost
liked to work.
But that was back when he was writing effortless bilge for his undergrad
breadth requirements. The crawling-through-mud-filled-with-broken-
glass work of learning the ancient languages had been done with
pencil and paper, which was sensual after its own fashion—which wasn’t
Lester’s. The sound of a pencil crawling over paper reminded him of
slithering snakes. And when he wrote a research paper these days, the
amount of mindless typing he got to do was a drop of wine in a swamp of
brow-furrowing Latin translations.
For all that mud-crawling, he was always going to be terrible at translating
Latin. He’d learned his modern languages when his brain was
young, with a beer bottle in one hand and a German comic book in the
other, and strictly for fun; he thought Greek and Latin would be fun as
well, but he soon learned that he didn’t do anything well under duress.
His wobbly hard drive crashed repeatedly under the weight of the Greek
tongue’s myriad forms while the fresh young students frolicked about
in the gardens of linguistics, smirking. It was like watching a swimming
class from the bottom of the pool. It brought him down so many pegs
that he forgot most of his German on purpose, because he was sure that
an idiot like himself must sound stupid in it. Now, every time he slowly
waddled through the slinky lines of Catullus, his mind’s ear still heard
some snot-face called Ogden correcting his syntax.
The pleasure of a keyboard under such mental conditions was like
being offered a sugar-free breath mint as you were being shut into the
iron maiden. He didn’t like the way modern scholars wrote, and his own
academic ‘writing’ was atrocious. Aside from the fact that he wasn’t a
writer in the first place, it seemed that in order to come up with a reasonably
exciting dissertation, he had to do a certain amount of speculation
about things that had happened too long ago to goddamn prove anything
about anyway. So much evidence had melted into the centuries that all
of his papers had to end with the admission that he still didn’t know
what the hell he was talking about and doubted that anyone ever would.
Typing “Lester Reichartsen” at the top was the only part that was fun
anymore—in fact it was the only part that didn’t make him feel as though
ants were eating his brain.
Just pretend you know what you’re talking about. He grimaced and typed
“Lester” at the top of the page. Then he took a drink of water, put a piece
of gum in his mouth, and typed “Reichartsen.” Then he typed the date, as
though it were an undergraduate paper. “November 10, 2007.”
Then he took another sip of coffee and added ‘A.D.’ to the date, the
way he had when he was a pencil-necked junior-high band nerd who
worried that his civilization would be destroyed by an atom bomb, and
that his school papers might chance to be the only documents preserved
for the benefit of future generations of archaeologically-curious radiation
mutants. Ah yes. I went into this because I’m a born archaeologist. So why
aren’t I digging a hole somewhere in Sicily? I like digging holes. Oh yes:
because you need a whole different doctorate to dig holes. Can I start over?
Can I have my life back?—Oh, let’s not ask the world’s saddest question
right now, shall we?
“November 10, 2007 A.D.” He hit return to begin a fresh paragraph,
then banged musically at the keyboard again, then erased the nonsense,
took his hands off the keyboard, and began running them over his skin
in search of things to pick at.
After a few minutes’ intent worrying at a boil on the back of his neck,
he Googled “dermatatillomania.” Then he picked up the few sheets of
notes that he hadn’t just taken in the margins of the books and articles he
was researching, and scanned them with little hope. He recalled having
felt inspired when he wrote them down, but now everything that wasn’t
stupid or obvious seemed nonsensical—a familiar pattern that had not
yet ceased to depress him. He put the notes down and picked up one of
his source books. He scanned his scribbled marginalia for one sentence,
just one goddamn phrase of his own, whose inspiration he could recall.
But it was just petty bitching about the real scholars’ writing styles.
He closed his eyes to do a breathing exercise Evelyn had recommended,
and his mind drifted back to the piss-smell of his mother’s friends. Had
he just imagined the smell? If not, why on earth did they all stink the
same way? And if he had imagined it, why would his brain cough out
such a thing? Or maybe he remembered it wrong. In the psychology 101
course he had to take as an undergraduate, the textbook had claimed that
people remembered the vast majority of their experience incorrectly, if
at all. But then why, when he went home to Wisconsin, were his relatives
just as ugly and insane as he remembered? “I only wish my memories
weren’t true,” he muttered. But if they weren’t true, what good would it
do him? They were still what he was stuck with.
He would agree to have Britney Spears’ memories implanted in his
head, he thought, if only he could let his goddamn brain get a goddamn
rest for once. If only his computer could do his homework for him—
he was more than willing to punch the keyboard in rhythm if it needed
He looked at his wristwatch and panicked. I’ve been sitting here for
twenty minutes already and tomorrow’s Monday bloody Monday again
and with its goddamn beginning Latin class and Tuesday’s fucking Honors
Greek, and those little smart-asses are just going to fry my brain for five
days and I won’t get a chance to get at this fucking fucking fucking paper
till next Saturday and god knows I’ll be dying for a treat come Friday afternoon
so I’ll wind up getting drunk on Friday night like I did last weekend
and so I’ll have to piss away half of Saturday tiptoeing around the house
while Evelyn fucking sulks at me, as though she didn’t used to drink like a
fish—I always should have fucking known she was a good little Protestant
girl at heart, Puritan bitch—like her precious father isn’t a drunk!…ha!…
Suddenly another memory popped up, waving its tentacles. It was related
to the typewriter memory, but it came from deeper, and who knew
what else was down there, never to come up? The memory seemed to
snicker: a freshman psychology textbook knew more about Lester’s mind
than Lester did.
It was a memory of strips of black and dirty-white plastic, set in appealing
shaggy planks: the keys of a synthetic piano, calling him to tap
them to life. He had run off from his mother again—this time while she
was at the Claire’s Boutique looking at cheap ugly earrings. This time to
the electronics novelty store, Radio Shack, to pound at the synthesizer
The mean-spirited memory insisted that in fact Lester had liked the
synth keyboards even better than the typewriters, in those days before
failure was forever. Typewriters gave sensual pleasure, but nothing else.
They were sex without lust. On them he was impotent. On synthesizer
keyboards, he could… well, as a boy, he had felt that he could do anything.
Like what? Make the world move? Melt away the shell of shyness that got
harder every year? Cure his arthritis of the senses?
“Oh, god,” he said.
Rotten bits of grief broke loose inside his chest. He’d never owned a
keyboard. Not even when he finally got the nerve to start a band, called
the Incognito Mosquitoes, when he was twenty.
By then he was resigned to being a singer, too stupid to play an instrument.
He hadn’t learned to play anything while he was young enough
to get fluent because he had no instrument to play. There were no spare
jobs for teenagers in the part of Milwaukee where he grew up, and it had
never occurred to him to ask his father to buy him such a stupid treat.
He’d learned his lesson when he asked for a popular kind of jeans. He
shuddered as more memories tried to force themselves between his eyes
and the present world. Not that my present’s much to look at. Maybe that’s
why I’d rather think about…
“Oh, god,” he whispered again. Then he snickered nastily at himself. He
said “Oh, god” an awful lot for a bitter agnostic who half-pretended to
be a pagan for laughs. Was it really for laughs? Or did he call on Zeus for
professional credibility’s sake? It could be superstition: even if he couldn’t
believe in the god he’d been ordered to worship, he should try to honor
something, or something out there would… get him? He couldn’t remember,
it was a habit now… and it occurred to him that these were all recreational
cloud-thoughts. It was time to think like the properly trained
professional adult which he wanted to want to pretend to be.
He shook his head and blinked at the screen. It didn’t look capable
of framing grown-up thought. He looked down at the keyboard. If he
thought about it without mentally connecting it to the task, it was still appealing.
Clickity. Pretend the keys are black and white. Pretty soon you’ll be
pushing them up and down like a proper member of the club without even
feeling what you’re doing. Keyboards. Lovely noisy keyboards. Synthesizer
That’s what he wished he had been: a synth-pop musician. Then he
could have worked alone. As a musician. Back when he had feelings
strong enough to carry a tune…
He also wished that he had bought some antacids when he’d gone to
the store the day before. Christ knew when he’d get time to go again. He
wanted to buy some wine, too. Not to drink, really: he had to finish this
paper sometime, or else the last five and a half years (nine if you counted
the undergrad degree) would have been a waste, and he would soon be
forty, and a bum. Useless for anything but teaching deponent verbs to the
But just having a little security wine tucked in the cupboard wouldn’t
hurt. It would give his mind a cushion just by being there. He didn’t need
to drink it. Or at least he wouldn’t drink enough at once to erase a precious
work night—and they were all work nights, so the wine and its
security would last a long time. Happy security. Just in case wine suddenly
became the only thing that could stand between himself and, say, a
But then again, if he wanted wine he would have to make more time to
go to a special store on a separate trip. In the Bible-Belt13 town that contained
the only school that had offered Lester Reichartsen a place in its
doctorate program, liquor could not be bought at grocery stores. A righteous
ordinance kept the booze legally separate from the Pampers. As
though the booze hadn’t caused the diapers in the first place. As though
the spirits might leak, reach out and infect the slack-jawed hausfraus who
had innocently gone looking for diet Twinkies… the wholesome white
milk replaced with Ricard and water, like alien eggs in the family nest…
rather like Jesus, actually—didn’t he turn water into wine?
He laughed, then choked and submitted to a coughing fit. The grief,
under the sea of smart-assed thoughts, had spread up from Lester’s chest
into his throat; the smart-ass in him withered coyly; it was out of jokes.
His head felt dry inside. His heart pounded. It did that often now. He
tried to dismiss the palpitations as panic attacks—which was probably
true, but good luck believing it. He clutched his narrow chest, rubbing
at the skin, as though he could grasp the cardiac muscle and massage it
away from the brink.
Small wonder he was dying of a heart attack. It was the start of
November; he hadn’t done anything but work—weekdays and weekends,
mornings, nights, and during meals—since early September. All right,
he had taken this weekend off for a drinking binge, but that had been a
vile accident. He’d gone without sleep Sunday night to make up for the
Christmas break was on the way, but its centerpiece would be the living
hell of Christmas itself. These promised school vacations had done
a lot to lure him into academia. But they came at the expense of being
human for the rest of the year. And before he got this year’s break, on top
of teaching and taking classes, Lester would have to polish his load of
unhinged Apuleius ravings into a well-formed academic turd.
Why didn’t they give him more time? Why couldn’t they bloody wait
till after Christmas? (And why, he wondered, was he starting to use the
word ‘bloody’ all the time when he had never been to England? It sounds
fucking ridiculous.) Was the world going to end because he hadn’t shared
his stupid made-up opinion about a book he wished he could have just
sat back and enjoyed? Just to prove he could teach Latin to nerdy undergraduates
who would probably do most of the teaching themselves
Nobody made the medieval monks write doctorate theses. They were
allowed to just go about their goddamn sacred business of saving the past
from erasure; nobody demanded or even wanted their opinion. But now,
oh no, you couldn’t just pass the torch. You had to crap on about it. Look,
it’s a fucking torch! It’s made of fire! And boy, do I have some new things to
say about fire… fire reminds me of my… whoah! I’m the first one to compare
fire to my dick, I’ll bet… owie…
The problem with getting a doctorate in classical letters, he thought,
was not that it was useless. It was that anybody smart enough to actually
do it, wouldn’t spend that much effort on anything but their own
creations. Why couldn’t he have studied something modern and easy?
Then he could have made something himself, too. Some music. In the
down time. That I don’t have. Because I wanted to do something ‘interesting.’
Nothing’s interesting when you’re forced to do it for ten hours a day!
And they need Spanish teachers so badly now that any smug bitch could get
a Spanish doctorate and have 23 hours of the day left to pick her toenails…
He put his hand over his mouth to make sure he hadn’t said any of that
out loud. But since he heard no return shot from Evelyn, he assumed
he hadn’t. Her study was one thin wall away from his, and yet he heard
nothing but her computer keys, clicking away, without a pensive pause or
irritable sigh, nor an instant’s sarcastic mutter in pidgin Latin.14
He tapped his palms on his thighs, then lit a stick of incense: he needed
pleasure to counterbalance what, in the end, was just another shit job. He
had never found any pleasure that could replace the daily binge-drinking
of his days in the food-service industry. But incense was OK, even if it
was for hippies. In the instant before his asthmatic bronchial tubes began
to vibrate and clutch up, he felt zen.
Then he thought he ought to turn his stereo off. That would hurt, but
he never worked with music on. He just sat in front of the computer and
imagined himself into the world inside the song. So he turned it off. The
asthma attack got worse.
He grabbed his inhaler from the top of the stereo, sucked in a dose,
and held it as he looked longingly at his new albums: a Reigning Sound15
LP, some odds and sods the Stiff Little Fingers16 had put out in the 90s,
which would no doubt be horrible but what the hell. It occurred to him
that he had no idea what the punk kids in the Bible Belt listened to these
days. If there were any. Probably crap. Or so it would seem to him, since
he was old.
He sighed. Then he coughed and blew his nose into a Chinese takeaway
napkin, which inspired him to whistle a brief snatch of a Ramones tune
before remembering that his wife, on her side of the study wall, would
goddamn giggle if she heard that. He was in no mood to make anybody
else giggle today. No offense to the better half.
God damn though—did she always have to sit down at her desk ten
minutes before he planned to sit down at his? Did she do that on purpose?
It made him feel like he was on stage; he couldn’t have any goddamn
peace. Not that he had any anyway, thinking away in drearily acceptable
circles like some kind of mental factory worker… or a primitive robot,
turning every time he hit a wall to wander off and hit another…
Lester scratched his ears. Why did all these recreational thoughts pour
into his head when he was trying to work, instead of, say, over dinner
when Evelyn wanted to talk about something he didn’t want to admit
he found killingly dull—her stupid paper on language-teaching methodology,
which was going so well, for example—so that he could have
something of his own to think while he smiled and nodded? Or better
yet, why not have them surface while his colleagues in the classical letters
department were blathering about their work? If I have to hear Cook start
in one more time about his brilliant new reading of Plato’s… Plato’s…
He shook his head again. “Jesus, just work!” he hissed to himself. “It’s
not Cook’s fault if you can’t read Plato without having an aneurysm! Let’s
get this fucker done so we can get tenure and sit on our asssssssssss.” He
heard a faint giggle through the wall. He swore under his breath and
slapped the stereo back on. Then, as though Evelyn could see as well as
hear him, he arched his eyebrow comically, seriously, as he plucked a
dog-eared, scribbled-in tome from a stack of library books.
Guilt pecked him: he’d ruined the book. He killed every pretty volume
he borrowed from the nice institution that fed him. But they fed him
generic peanut butter. And the library had never complained—probably
because he was and would remain one of two people who had ever
checked out the books in question. Still his compulsion to write in books
made him feel guilty and superstitious, especially since the comments
were on the order of “My ass!” and “Do less drugs, Sherlock!” Little wonder
if books were out to get him. They wanted revenge.
But when he tried to take notes in a notebook, like a real scholar, they
made no sense to him later. It was like reading a stranger’s diary. He
needed the physical structure of the book, his own coffee and food stains,
to help him feel his way back to his thoughts. Once he got lost in the
structure of an essay, he was like an eyeless Oedipus in a labyrinth. Only
not that cool.
The abused book now in his unwilling lap had been written by a descendant
of Emily Dickinson. We might be a nation of nouveaux riches,
but names, he reflected bitterly, are still what makes the anthropod:
Emily Vermeule, who had gotten her ancestor’s personal name to recoup
the losses of feminine marriage, had become a leading 20th-century classicist,
and had lately and gloriously (for a classicist) died. Her book had
been recovered in plain red library cloth but it was beautifully furnished
inside with reproductions of ancient funerary art. The writing, though
erudite, was careless; Vermeule glossed over the gaps between her facts
and the poetic notions she wished to prove with gusts of supercilious
prose, swinging between constipation and hallucination. Lester could
find no reason to grant that the coexistence of her success and her lineage
could be unrelated.
He reread a page, squinted, and snarled. “What is this shit, Vermeule?”
Such pictures and ideas should not be taken entirely seriously as
comments on the metaphysics of the soul; or rather, metaphysical
and metapsychical theories should not take themselves too seriously,
for ambiguity and confusion are built into this ancient series of halfthoughts
and no one would tolerate their eradication in any matter
which touches him personally.
He pushed his fists into his eyes. “What the fuck does that mean?! That
no one would tolerate the eradication of half-thoughts? Or that no one
would tolerate the eradication of ambiguity and confusion—or that no
one would tolerate the eradication of such pictures and ideas?! By ‘no
one’ do you mean no one ever including now, or just no dead people?
And I don’t even want to think about the metaphysics of theories taking
themselves seriously. The reader begins to take the theory of having a
drink very seriously indeed.”
He smiled at that last line and tried to type it into his computer, which
had long begun to display his screen saver.
Just as well: the old nag took long enough to get back into active mode
for Lester to talk himself into sagely forgetting his quip. Such stick-upthe-
ass Anglophilic funny-man crap would have to wait till he had his
own lecture classes in forty years; then he could torture the youth with
whatever jokes his desiccated heart recalled. But for the moment he
was writing for his elders and betters; any reference to his own crutches
would no doubt be judged a bane to the scholarly tone he was supposed
to fake for their satisfaction. And since the sentence was the anchor of
the passage that had begun to take shape in his mind, it would all have to
be rethought. And without the joke, there probably wouldn’t be much to
the passage anyway.
And it was all he could come up with. And all he was likely to come
up with, today at any rate… And if he didn’t have a finished, polished,
defended, comprehensible and conventional yet utterly revolutionary
dissertation in print by May, he could look forward to being either unemployed
or a lecturer at some godforsaken hellhole with a broom closet
for an office till the death-gods called him home or he defaulted on his
student loans and got dragged to some dark pit by government men in
sunglasses and… ohgodohgodohgodohgod…
He went back to cursing Vermeule aloud, in a swollen buffoon voice,
hoping to mar Evelyn’s concentration if nothing else: “Damnation and
hellfire, O Vermeule, why must I wade into a field befouled by your influence,
your affluence, you insipid cunt?! Thy overstuffed kopf bleateth! This
makes about as much fucking sense as your great-aunt’s poetry. Bornfamous
cunts… fuck you and the Mayflower you rode in on… oh shut
up, Lester. She can’t help it she’s the major dead authority on the subject
despite being unable to write her way out of a cardboard sarcophagus…”
“Honey,” said his wife through the wall, “she’s dead. So she annoys you.
So she was famous. Whoever the hell she is. She’s dead. So let it go.”
“Let it go?! Everybody I write about is dead! If it weren’t for the dead I
wouldn’t have this crap job at all!” He cracked his knuckles and muttered:
“Wish I’d been something easy and stupid like a Spanish teacher.”
“I heard that!”
“I wanted you to… I’ve given up and decided to make this ‘taking shit
out on people’ day.”
“God, Lester, why don’t you go out for a walk or something? I can’t get
any work done with you sitting there snarling like some… some…”
“Go ahead. Say it. Snarling like some old fucking middle-aged weirdo
“That’s not even close to what I was going to say.”
“HEEEEYYYY DADDEEEE!” A small, well-formed head with regular
features popped around the corner and pushed its way into Lester’s study,
smiling attractively. Lester shuddered. The head’s apparition, when sudden,
made him dizzy. This was probably because the head, since the beginning
of its owner’s slow but accelerating approach to the age of reason,
had provoked a desire to rip and pop it off its young, unbent neck far too
often for Lester to go on thinking of himself as a non-monstrous person.
“Hello, Martin,” he said, trying to sound un-begrudging.
“Daddy,” Martin giggled, “what’s a crank?”
“A crank means your daddy is a failure, Martin,” said Lester. “And not
even a normal failure. Daddy is a special failure.” He offered the child a
facial contortion that was technically shaped like a smile.
“Honnnneeey,” Evelyn said to the wall. “Your daddy doesn’t mean that.
“God, are you guys stupid,” said Martin.
“Martin!” said his mother.
“I know what crank means. I was just joking,” said Martin.
“And your point was…?”
“That you swear too much. I was dissimulating my knowledge of the
meaning of the word ‘crank’ because I wanted to highlight your overreliance
on words you shouldn’t say around me. But god-duh! I know
what ‘crank’ means. God-duh! Do you guys think I’m a baby? You don’t
even notice how old I am. Do you know how old I am, Dad?”
Lester festered under his son’s smug grin. He doesn’t even look like me.
He’s too fucking good-looking. Look at that cleft chin. Punch it. Smartmouthed
little smarty. Oh, God, I’m sick. Did all men feel this way about
the mouths they had to feed from time to time, he wondered, or was he
mentally deranged? “We just gave you a birthday party last week!” he
“Some party,” said Martin. “We ran out of cake.”
“Serves you right for being so popular.”
“There were only five kids there!”
“I can’t help it if none of your friends’ parents ever let them eat sugar.
Stop hanging out with the little hippies! Hang out with the little rednecks
in town so you can learn how to take a punch… God, I thought Tork’s kid
was going to vomit right through till his birthday. He probably ate more
cake that day than he’s eaten total food in his life… I mean, what do you
want from your old man? When I get my job at Harvard you can have a
real birthday party with hookers, OK? We did what we…”
“LESTER!” Evelyn’s voice made the dividing wall shake. Lester smirked
and wondered whether, when she was thus reduced to the role of sitcommom
censor, she regretted her insistence upon carrying the unplanned
pregnancy to term.
“You didn’t answer my question,” said the accident. “How old am I?”
“Not too old to get up on your old man’s lap,” said Lester, because he
supposed he should say such a thing. Then he felt a pang of guilty affection.
Lester was, he realized, acting a bit like his own father. And now, as
Martin sneered up at him, it became clear that he had clearly inherited
Lester’s overcrowded teeth. Ah, we do live on in our little ones. Maybe he
really is my biological son. Lester hauled the kicking child onto his lap. He
poked him in the nose. “You’re eight.”
“My dad is soooooo smart,” said Martin, rolling his eyes. Then he closed
them and put his head on his father’s shoulder. He put his thumb in his
mouth and murmured: “When am I gonna get my party with hookers,
“You’ll have to wait,” his mother growled, “till well after we can afford a
house big enough for me to work in peace!”
Lester snorted: he could hear the keys of her computer work away as
she bitched. He wanted to break the thing in two over her head. “What’s
that supposed to mean? Are you surprised that we’re broke? Neither of us
has even got heshit’s PhD yet…”
“So get it! Get to work! Jesus!”
“I can’t work with you over there… snickering at me all the fucking
“What’s time, Daddy?” said Martin. “And who is—”
“Martin, I think you should go in your room and look at dirty pictures
so you won’t hear mommy and daddy fight.”
“NO!” said Evelyn. Lester heard a grunt, a light bounding step, and she
appeared in his doorway, cheeks aflame. “We’re not fighting! No way!
I’ve got too much to do to argue with you now.” She was still wearing the
same grey cotton peignoir she’d donned at the beginning of the weekend.
She looked good enough despite herself that she might as well have
declared a full-out war, since she could have won it with one concession.
Her black hair curled messy over her angular shoulders, into the valley
between her round breasts; her eyes were narrowed to not-quite-vicious
slits, like a panther about to fellate its prey. The peignoir, however, had
begun to smell; there was a coffee stain at the neck.
She didn’t notice the smell, of course. It was the weekend. Time to
work. And deep inside the professional pedagogue, there was a punk rock
girl in her who remained immune to her own body odor; unless
his memory was dreaming again, there had been a time in her life when
spilled beer was her eau de Cologne. When she was absorbed by her
work, she backslid.
Oh, how bloody absorbed by her work she was. She was no musician;
she was a failed writer, a prolific one, and even in Spanish she could type
through a nuclear war. Lester wanted to strangle her till she was blue. Just
to punish her lucky neck for having such powers of concentration. They
were so great compared to his that she seemed invincible. Supergirl in
pajamas. Well, superheroes are pretty much in pajamas anyway.
Evelyn put her hands on Martin’s well-shaped shoulders. Didn’t get
those from me, Lester thought. “In addition,” Evelyn was saying, “he
looks at too many dirty pictures as it is without being ordered to do so
by his paterfamilias.”
“It’s not my fault that I can outwit the porn blocker on your computer.”
Evelyn’s lip curled, but in the interest of winning the non-argument
with her husband, she let that go. “Come on, Martin. You’ve got homework
of your own to do. Leave your dad alone, he’s a goddamn bear.”
Martin widened his eyes like a cartoon child on a greeting card. “What’s
a bear, mommy?”
He disappeared, laughing uproariously, headed no doubt to write the
best book report in school history and then recline on the sofa with the
complete Shakespeare and Gummi Bears.
Lester looked after him blearily, then rested his hands on the keyboard,
as though Evelyn had interrupted something brilliant. “So we’re not
going to fight?”
“Are you deaf? I don’t have time! And there’s nothing to fight about…
sweetie. There’s no point. You’re not yourself. Take a break, Lester!”
Evelyn sounded lightly hoarse, perhaps with exasperation. It dawned on
him that he might not have been fun to live with of late. How long was
‘of late,’ he wondered?
“If you don’t get up and take a walk, I am going to kill you.”
Oh. Well. He did want a walk. Maybe a brilliant idea would occur to
him. Or maybe he would stop being miserable. Have a look at something
besides the smug books and faded computer screen. Focus his eyes on
something that was more than ten feet away.
Ha! Fat chance. I’ll just stare at the ground and walk around the block till
I think Evelyn can stand me again. He rarely looked up from the ground
when he went for walks, since there was no street in town that wasn’t
numbingly plain and filled with blank-eyed locals. There were so few
streets, anyway, that even had they been draped with fairy tulle and lined
with castles built of marzipan they would have been too familiar to budge
his mind from its sullen rut.
But a walk, in any case—a rhythmic, calming, brainless motion—
sounded better than the cat and the son and the Vermeule-Dickinson
bitch and the budding Spanish professor smirking through the wall and
the pool of failure that seemed to spread under his desk chair every time
he sat in it. It was like working in a dirty diaper.
“Ugh,” he muttered. That was his worst mental image in weeks.
Evelyn had begun to talk again: “Either go for a walk or stick a bottle
in your hole. If you don’t quit muttering while I’m trying to work, I’m
going to buy a Carpenters CD and wake you up with it every morning
for the rest of your life.” She turned on her heel and stalked back into
her study; as soon as her foot-stomps ceased, her computer keys were
I’d rather listen to the Carpenters for all of eternity than listen to that
fucking clicking. “There isn’t a court that would convict me for murdering
you if you did that,” he muttered; but Evelyn could hear that he was
already digging among his jackets.