ARTS

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February 19, 2002

Dear Diary

Real quick before we get started

Lagaan deserves to win the best foreign film Oscar over Amelie. I haven't seen Amelie, but unless it is four hours long and about cricket, it is probably not as good as Lagaan.

A long story about nothing in particular

I worked in a pet store once. One time a guy came in and asked me a question. He didn't want a dog or a cat, which meant he was going to leave empty handed, because it was a really small pet store. We had two puppies and three kittens. We didn't have any fish that week. Someone had dropped a piece of soap in the fish tank and the fish ate bits of it and died. We had fish supplies, though. But he didn't want fish supplies.

He wanted to buy a baby. A human baby boy. I don't really know why he came to that particular pet store.

I guess I should clarify that when I say "guy" I mean "little kid." He couldn't have been more than five, but he was on top of his shit, at least as on top of his shit as I've ever seen a five-year-old be. He seemed smart. Like he was going to get smarter than me and many other adults one day, but at this point, at age five, he was roughly as smart as me, but he didn't know as many words or something. But even if he was exactly as smart as me, you'd just assume he was dumber because he was a kid so he had the deck stacked against him. Then again, if this kid was so smart, I don't think he ever would have come to a pet store looking to buy a baby. If he were really smart, he would have gotten the baby somehow. He wouldn't have come to me for help.

I told him we didn't sell babies and that if he really wanted a baby he would have to earn one. But I told him that if he really, really wanted that baby, and worked hard and loved God, that God would give him a baby. But he did not like my answer. He said that he didn't want to wait for the baby because that would be at least 10 years before he could have his own baby.

He wasn't interested in fatherhood so much as brotherhood, he said.

I asked him why he didn't tell me that right off, but he got a kind of pissed-off look in his face in the middle of me asking the question so I stopped asking it.

Then he started talking a lot, real fast. It almost seemed like a speech he had memorized but I don't think it was. He said he used the term baby but maybe he was more interested in a toddler, because his parents were killed in a weird car crash in England and that he lived with his aunt or something in a hotel and that there were witches trying to kill him and that he had a pet mouse that told him he needed a brother to defeat the witches.

I asked him if he had stolen that story from a Roald Dahl book.

He stopped. Then he admitted that he had.

I asked him why he hadn't at least tried to change the story so that it had at least a puncher's chance of fooling me, like maybe take out the witches and the mouse. And why would have his parents died in a car crash in England and not in America? And when exactly did all this happen? And why wasn't he at school?

He said he wasn't at school because it was President's Day and then he asked me why I was questioning his background if I didn't have a baby or a toddler or even another five-year-old to give him. He became convinced that we had a baby for sale. He said he just wanted a brother and that it wasn't any business of mine for what, that it was jerky of me to have a baby for sale and not tell him about it. He made another comment about lunch counters in the South and said I was worse than Hitler.

I told him that insulting me was not going to help him get a baby.

He said something about trying to start a band and he felt that a brother would be necessary for success, given the examples of the Kinks, Oasis, and to a lesser extent the Black Crowes.

I questioned his dismissal of the Black Crowes, saying that they were a very popular band in the mid-'90s and continue to enjoy a modest success even today, despite the fact that Lions did not sell well.

He told me to shut up.

I told him that I was really entertained by his asshole little kid routine but I felt bad monopolizing all the asshole time and that he should run along and go share his talent with the other little assholes. I told him that he could start a little assholes club, and they could have their meetings right here in the store, and I wouldn't ever tell anybody that the club wasn't his idea but right now, I said, I have work to do.

He told me to shut up again, and then pointed out that there was no one else in the store, and that there was never anyone in the store, except for bums and people taping flyers in the windows.

I told him that while we were not the most popular pet store in town, we did have a few loyal customers. I asked if he wanted a puppy or a kitten.

He said he already had a dog.

I asked if the dog had a name.

He hesitated and then said Charlie.

I took this to indicate that Charlie was not a real dog but a dog that he had just made up to make me stop asking him if he wanted a dog.

Then he said that he needed someone to grow old with because his parents were irresponsible and independently wealthy, because they hated each other and were rich and still attractive and young enough to not have to resign themselves to a life together, and that made him very sad. He continued, saying that his parents hated each other (which I already knew from before) and that they'd never have another son to be his real brother, and that he didn't want a half-brother because it would be half-asshole parent, even if the other half was from a really nice person.

I asked him if he had low self esteem, because if he thought a half-brother would be half-asshole because his parents are both assholes, wouldn't that make him all asshole?

He said that somehow the opposing asshole vectors of his parents balanced themselves when combined, kind of like the eye of a hurricane, and that he operated in that eye, he operated in the middle of a swirly asshole vector hurricane, and that was why it was especially sad that his parents hated each other, because they were somehow right for each other even though they were both jerks. Even jerks can feel love, he said.

At this point, I felt bad for him. First of all, it's sad to see a five-year-old come in and have to tell lies to you. And then the truth comes out and it's even sadder than any lie you could make up for sympathy.

I told him that the store had to close right then for lunch, and it did, technically. Usually I ate lunch in the store. That day, actually, I had already eaten lunch about an hour before then, but I left him there. I told him that I knew exactly how many dogs and cats we had and that they had better all still be there when I came back. I went for a walk. I went through the park. It was in fact President's Day, so there were kids everywhere. I didn't want to see any more kids so I went to a different, bad park with no children in it.

I thought about everything he said. I thought about how I didn't have a brother. I had a sister, and she was pretty cool, but she was a bit older and there wasn't much potential for a life-affirming siblinghood there anyway, she being older and more forward-looking, myself being something of a sad sack as a child. How good of friends can you be with your sister anyway? Then I realized that the store didn't actually have a baby to sell him, so wasn't it all for nothing? But then I thought maybe I could be his brother. He was five, but he acted older, and I was 20, and acted younger, so we weren't that far off. I decided to adopt him and take him to live with me and my roommates, with the caveat that he had to go to school and stuff, and maybe even, if his parents were in fact rich as he said, somehow trick them into thinking he was going to some weird boarding school, which would of course have the same address as our apartment. They'd send us tuition checks and we would take care of him. It made sense because I remember my childhood, and I think I remember enough of the stuff that my parents couldn't help doing wrong that I would be able to do it right with this kid, and then he'd have a great life. Then I thought it was pathetic to be 20 years old and already living vicariously through others, to be already writing off my own life as a wash but actively looking to prevent others from suffering as I have.

Then I reconsidered my childhood, realizing that while my parents had in fact made some small and large mistakes that they could not have helped making, even with the practice run of my sister to refer back to, that I had probably made some mistakes that I could not have helped making either, and that if I adopted this kid, he'd make them too. And he'd end up resenting me. And he'd move really far away when he got out of college. Worse, he would get into a really good school really far away, and then he'd really be gone. I'd never hear from him then.

Then I realized that I wanted him to be my son and not my brother. At this point, I thought maybe it was time to go back to the store and see what was up. I went back and he was asleep on the big window at the front in one of the dog beds. It was funny because it looked like he was for sale. Which was what he had wanted in the first place. But he couldn't buy himself. Although they cloned a cat last week in Texas. So babies can't be that far off. Then I thought about how my dad died for some reason.

He was a dentist and a heavy smoker, which I never understood. I mean, it would be harder to understand if he was an oncologist and a heavy smoker, but you'd still think that a dentist might have a slightly better idea of how bad smoking was for you. But his teeth never got yellow. But towards the end he had trouble breathing. Not the end of his life but the end of his dentist career. And that was weird because he was always wheezing and when he leaned over his patients they could hear him wheezing away as he poked around with his scrapey tools. I had that experience a couple times.

But he died in bed. But he didn't die very peacefully. He was on oxygen and dying from emphysema but he was still smoking because he never quit and he figured that why suffer from emphysema and quitting smoking when he was gonna die soon anyway, so he was smoking one day and he was getting feeble, and he dropped his cigarette, and his nurse was outside having a cigarette herself, because she had made him promise not to smoke unless she was around, but he wanted one so he had one, and he dropped the cigarette and lit himself on fire and died. The nurse came back and put him out with a fire extinguisher but he died from shock or something like shock, wherein the trauma of being on fire was too much for his old crappy body and he died. And that's how my dad died.

At that point I had been standing at the front window of the pet store for a minute thinking about my dad, so it probably looked like I was thinking about buying the kid who was asleep in the window to anybody who drove by, although I am pretty sure that no cars drove by, because that would have made me self-conscious and I would have gone inside, even though I usually don't consider cars the same way as I consider passers-by even though the only difference is that the people in cars just have to look out windows and they ain't yet invented the car that don't got see-through windows.

But I was thinking about my dad because at that point he had only died a few months ago, and it was still at the stage where thoughts like that still popped in my head. As you go on down the road, you will happily forget things like that. Then eventually a car did go by, and as predicted, I got self-conscious and went inside, after realizing I hadn't even locked the door to the store. Nobody had bothered to steal the puppies even though they probably were worth something. There were some nice fishtanks in the store, too. The kid woke up when I closed the door.

I never really thought about it at the time, but it is probably a good thing that no one walked by, especially not a cop or, even worse, a criminal, because a cop would have gotten uppity about there being a kid asleep in a dog bed in an abandoned — for all intents and purposes—pet store and the criminal would have stolen things or money or the kid, or possibly all three, which would have been easy, because the dog bed he was in was wicker and it had handles so he or she (the criminal) could have put the money and some of our stuff in the dog bed along with the kid and then walked off with all of it, using the handles to carry the dog bed. So I consider myself lucky. Because I probably would have gotten in trouble if that kid had been abducted.

I am tired of writing this story right now but I needed to write something for tonight so there it is. Sorry, it has no ending because I couldn't think of one. Maybe next week I will have an ending. That is not a promise.

Before I leave for the night

OK, so a lot of Bruce Springsteen songs are about people who fucked up their lives. But the thing I like is that sometimes the narrator isn't the person who fucked up, but a friend or relative. I'm referrring specifically to "Highway Patrolman."

And all I am trying to say is that sometimes I feel like Joe Roberts instead of Frankie Roberts, even when I am Frankie Roberts. Sometimes I feel like Frankie when I am Joe. And one time, I felt like the girl at the bar when I was Joe.