"By the way," I say, "my name's Brad." Throwing it out casually with none of the force I used to just tell that great story about my uncle and the cat, and not nearly as much interest as I'm showing in, say, your eyes. And yet it's the thing I want you to remember most.
I want my name to drop like ten tons into your psyche and stay there. I want it to grow vines, I want your thoughts to swing from the R and leap screaming from the D. I don't want you to just remember it, because then it will be no better and no worse than a million of those little tidbits we remember just because, like the price of a sandwich at the restaurant downstairs or your bank account numbers. I want it to be the thing all those tidbits get filtered through and tossed aside as summarily unimportant compared to the glorious syllable. I want you to think of all the words that are so lucky to rhyme with it. I want it to be the caption in the bottom left corner of all your memories. You shouldn't see a sight or smell a smell without thinking of it, fondly, or aching with jealousy, whatever the case may be. You should shout it mid-coitus, and also in crowded elevators and the backs of cabs. Each and every time, anyone around should nod approvingly.
When you can't remember the name of your country or the name of your god, you will remember my name. And you will call it out even if no one's around to hear.
The car ride back to the Von Esterburg place is awkward, just awkward as hell. I really should be feeling a sense of triumph right now, I really should. This is good, I’ve done good work, I should be proud, and sort of, sort of I am. But more I’m just hoping we don’t get pulled over on the way back, because I don’t want to explain this to anyone. I don’t like making right turns on the way back to the Von Esterburg place because I have to turn my head back and forth to see if anyone’s coming, and when I do, I have to face the fact that there’s half a kid sitting in the seat next to me.
I try to make conversation. “So…” I say, “What’s your favorite sports team?”
“What sport?” half a kid says.
“Uh…I don’t know…baseball,” when what I really want to say is, Jesus kid what the fuck there’s only half of you ONLY HALF JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. But I don’t.
“The Blue Jays,” the half a kid says with his half a mouth. One eye, one ear, one arm, one leg. ‘Till a couple of days ago he had twice as many of all these things. He seems to be doing okay, though. I’m doing okay, too, if I don’t look directly at him. Julian is his name. Julian Von Esterburg, the half a kid.
I pull up the drive to the Von Esterburg house. House is too weak a word, the place is a glacial fucking estate. Rich kids are weird enough. Now the Von Esterburgs have a rich half a kid. But I am getting paid, paid well, and soon he will be off my hands. I have two hands. He has one. The weird thing is he doesn’t seem to mind.
“The Blue Jays are a really…The Blue Jays are a really good team.” We’re walking up the hill to the house. I am walking. He is hopping on the only leg available. He only has one lung, so this is really taking it out of him, breath-wise. “My favorite player is…Edgar Wesley is my favorite player.”
“He’s a good one, alright.” We are at the front door, thank fucking God. “Catch your breath, there, slugger.”
“It’s hard cause…cause I only have one lung.”
“…Now in Quyanji, which is a…if you’re not aware, Quyanji is a small island republic in the South Pacific, the child slave market is, is huge and it’s apparently a lot cheaper to feed and clothe a half-child than it is a whole one.” It’s a stupid explanation for why I’m just bringing back half of their child, but it’s the truth, the Von Esterburgs seem to be taking it okay.
“Well,” says Mrs. Lillian Von Esterburg, “well why can’t the Quyanjuns just cut their own children in half?”
“Quyanjians,” says Mr. Markus Von Esterburg.
“The native inhabitants of the island republic of Quyanji are called Quyanjians.”
“Well, why can’t they just cut their own children in half?” she asks me.
“It’s actually not a cutting, uh, they don’t cut them in half, so to speak,” I say. “I believe it has something to do with lasers. That accounts for there being no scarring or blood of any kind.”
“Half-children,” says Mr. Von Esterburg. “Genius.”
“Regardless, why don’t they just laser their own children?”
Good question. American children are better nourished, maybe. Fatter, and thus you get more out of each peace. I don’t know the answer for sure. And looking for the answer isn’t easy. I don’t find out the answer from the pilot on the connecting flight to LA, or the flight from there to Jakarta, or from the three Greek women sunning themselves on the boat to the tip of a peninsula, or the man rowing the little ferry full of leaks all the way to Quyanji. The answer isn’t on the dock, neither is the other half of Julian Von Esterburg.
He’s not among the desperate-looking half children carrying crates off the shitty little boats, staring at me with one pleading eye. I show them a picture. Nothing. I cover half of it with my hand. Still nothing.
Jesus, I think, you’d think you little kidnapped American half kids would look out for each other. You’d think you’d kick right in the nuts any stranger that wanted to strap you down and laser you in half and ship you across the ocean. You’d think I’d learn to stop accepting these assignments.
You’d think a lot of things. But on Quyanji, probably a lot of them are wrong.
They say God has a plan for all of us.
I'm not so sure about that. I think they may have gotten the name wrong. God, I don't know. But sure as shit Lothario Japan has a plan for all of us.
One week after he bought the orphanage and every last orphan in it, he's already grooming prospects. I see him down in the basement one afternoon, training this little Puerto Rican kid in throwing knives.
"Knives," he explains, "are the only truly silent projectile weapon."
"What about arrows?" the kid asks. Sharp kid. I would've asked the same thing, if either of them knew I was there, standing in the doorway.
"Not arrows. Knives." He chucks one and it plants itself dead center on a picture of the Pope, who's on the front page of the newspaper, which is push-pinned into drywall across the room. I don't think Lothario Japan has anything against the Pope. He may, in fact, be Catholic. I've never asked.
After a few more, the kid's starting to get it. At first he hits the masthead, then the little box with the current temperature, the "ears," as they're called, then the headline reading "Mayor promises corruption crackdown." I know what all these things are called, the things the kid's dissecting with whizzing knives, I was a journalism major. Before too long he's planting them in the Pope's miter. I know what that's called, too, I minored in Comparative Hat Studies. What can I say, it was a weird school.
I go back upstairs, so do Lothario and the kid, before too long. "Not bad, Ernesto, not bad at all," says Lothario Japan. Ernesto's holding the shredded newspaper like a trophy buck, but he drops it as soon as one of the orphans comes in and yells something about a really big bug out back. They both dash out the kitchen door. "That kid's really going to be something," says Lothario Japan.
I pick up the newspaper. The Pope, for the size of his picture, just gets a caption and a jumpline. The top story is the one about the mayor, him promising to come down hard on the city's "pimps, pushers, purveyors of pornography" with "renewed vigor." Of course, with the rips from the knives it looks like "renexed vigot," but those aren't really words. For such an important story, it has a really weak lead. I'm a journalism major, I know these things. Something about the Mayor reading to underprivileged children at the big public library downtown in three weeks.
I don't know if you know anything about libraries, but I spent a lot of time in them as a kid. And the one thing they emphasize is above all else, snooty witchy librarians tapping on signs, is quiet. Every kid knows that. All the kids at the Mayor's underpriveleged reading day sure did. So when a little Puerto Rican boy in the back row stood up and, from a distance of thirty or so feet, stuck a knife right between the Mayor's eyes just as he was turning the page, it's not like he was breaking the rules. The rules about being quiet, anyway. It was so quiet that before anyone figured out where it came from, he was able to slip out the big revolving doors and book the fifteen blocks back to the orphanage and squeeze through a hole in the fence.
His eyes light up when he sees something in you, like the arc of that kid's throw. That's why I don't waste time worrying about God's plan for us. I know Lothario Japan has one that's much more interesting.
It's the details that can kill you.
That's why I try to block them out, or let them run together. If, in my memory, we're in your white Civic SE and the radio's playing "I Can't Drive Fifty-Five" and the hula girl on your dashboard is shaking furiously, then I'm going to have to remember what we're talking about and the way you pronounce the word "forever" and what we did at that stoplight. But if, in my memory, it's just a boy and a girl driving home on a Saturday night from a football game, then you could be anyone. And it's not anyone I miss, so we're fine.
The details can kill you, they really can. Because we're nothing but a collection of little nuances, it's the uniqueness of these collections that hooks us and keeps us there. The things you want to revel in when you have them at your fingertips are the things you want to shake yourself free of when they're gone. And if you can't slap yourself into amnesia, you're going to want to squint 'till the past gets fuzzy. That’s what I’m doing. And it’s working.
The goal, I guess, is to strip away all your definition, the things that made you stand out in the first place. I’m making them non-descript, average, boring, even. Your smile becomes just another row of teeth. Your laugh could’ve come from anyone. I will never find another person on Earth with quite the same eyes, and so I’m not remembering your eyes in particular. I’m remembering you had nice ones, because so do millions of other girls, just look around. None of them are yours, but if I can’t recall yours, what does it matter? It makes you that much easier to forget, that much easier to replace.
As Vera, you are irreplaceable. As just some nice girl, ringers are a dime a dozen.
I’m sanding all the edges off my memory, the things that catch when I try to tear them out. All that sweet and subtle uselessness, I’m throwing it away, and moving on.
I can’t move on if I’m stuck at that stoplight in my memory, the music loud but it not really mattering because we don’t have to talk over it when what we’re doing isn’t verbal. I can’t leave that behind. But if it’s just another kiss, then I can file it away, and I can do the same to you and every bit of my past that features you as well. I’m changing the names and broadening the scope. You and me become just some guy and just some girl.
I don’t get a tightened chest by thinking of this guy and just some girl. Their story could be anyone’s, it’s so average, and it doesn’t make me wistful to think about it. The details can hurt you but the broad descriptions can’t. The only one who ever mattered becomes some girl I once knew, and then it doesn’t hurt so bad, because hey, it could be anyone.
And it’s not anyone I’m crying for, so we’re fine.
Lothario Japan bought an orphanage.
St. Anthony's on 52nd, you know the one I'm talking about. Big old gargoyles and wrought-iron bars. Wire-thin kids milling around in the back lot staring wistfully through holes in the fence. Yea, that one. Lothario Japan bought it. Then he adopted all the kids.
I once saw him take home a girl from Club Lamar, this girl weighed 320 lbs if she was an ounce. Her name was Gwen, but we all called her Shamu's Mother, because we are heartless bastards. Anyway, he did what you do with girls you take home from Club Lamar, only he did it faster and dropped her off on a corner with cab fare and called it a night.
Word got back to Sylvia. Word always gets back to Sylvia. If you have a word you don't want to get back to Sylvia, forget it. She find out everything, and she found this out. We were all expecting thrown objects and punched walls and murder-suicides, knowing Sylvia. But the thing we got, none of us expected: bumpkis. Nothing.
He explained it later, this relationship magic we'd all remember for the rest of our lives: "Among the cardinal rules you must remember, gentlemen," he said, "is that it's not cheating if she's fat."
Apparently it's true, because three weeks later Lothario Japan and Sylvia were married in Vegas. Sylvia must be following the rules too, because suddenly she's all about sumo wrestlers.
Anyway, he can't decides if he wants to turn the orphanage into a club or a safehouse or what, someone suggested an authentic Chinese tea-house, and Lothario Japan didn't bother to note that teahouses are Japanese because he's never been there, Japan, that is. So it just sort of sits empty. He has the orphans out working the streets, hobbling in front of speeding cars and shaking the drivers down for insurance money, having coughing fits in front of gullible old people, picking pockets, snatching purses, capturing pigeons for Lothario Japan's personal collection.
And the two love-birds loaf around the top floor, where the infirmary used to be, making frequent use of the shitty old sickbeds. Plaster chips fall from the ceiling; we try to play bridge and ignore it.
Sylvia comes down later in a bathrobe and asks me if Yoshiro's called yet.
I ask her if she should really be playing the field now that she's married.
She says there's no field in sumo, it's really more of a ring.