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Abundance by John Weir

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

The first time I went to a Debtors Anonymous meeting, they passed a bag for dues. Dues!  At Debtors Anonymous.  A bagful of loose bills in my grasp.  Did they send around a fifth of scotch at AA?  It was all I could do not to reach in and fish out my rent.  I was two months behind.  Was I really expected to put my stash of quarters and dimes, culled from a jar of loose change – my only active bank account – into a stranger’s purse?

I passed the bag along.

This act of refusal seemed especially furtive and small, given the place. We were in a church basement.  All around me, the indebted were perched in folding metal chairs, defeated but eager to “share.”  They were aggressively bereft.  Their pious abjection!  Their terrible lives, doled out in three-minute bursts.  What if I were not the most desperate guy in the room?  Could I stand that?  I saw at once that I had based my self-esteem on the faith that I had lost more than anyone else.  That was my secret pride.

And now, for my sin, I was in church.  The room was heavy with the atmosphere of grim confession paired with pleading self-affirmation, interrupted by appeals to the Higher Power. It was part love-in, part revival meeting.

Yet the faithful seemed to know something I did not.  They were talking in code, and I was trying hard to get what they meant.

“This is a disease of vagueness and denial,” somebody said.

“I’ve been in chaos all week,” said another.

There followed a chorus of assenting grunts, like Satan’s host of rebel angels coming clean about themselves, cast down not to a dark opprobrious den of shame but to a church basement hung with last month’s Christmas decorations – paper snowflakes, trumpeting shepherds, tinfoil stars.  They went on naming their transgressions, in the language of the place:

“I’m an anorexic spender.”

“I’ve been isolating.”

“I’m a deprivation addict,” a woman said.  Then she started to cry.  “Does anyone have a tissue?  I just need a corner.”

Then suddenly a guy was “qualifying” – giving a careful recounting of his path to solvency.  Sitting in the lotus position, with his palms open on his bent knees, he had fifteen minutes to speak, but he took thirty.  Clearly not a deprivation addict.

“I’m a debtor and a gambler with a history of substance abuse and a sex addiction and a difficult relationship to food,” he said.  “Sex is a substance.  So are the Mets.  The fuckingMets.”

Then he said the words “my abundance” and cried without speaking for three minutes and twenty-seven seconds.  I clocked it.  I hate to watch men cry.  They always expect a reward.  But we were in the West Village, and the room was packed with straight women and gay guys with important haircuts.  Everyone was profoundly moved.  There was a “spiritual timekeeper,” a woman who was supposed to signal when the man’s share was through, but I could tell from the expression on her face that she was going to let him go on and on.

I wanted a cigarette.  I had started smoking again, and I was spending whatever money I begged, borrowed, or rescued from the depths of my couch on a pack-and-a-half a day, bought a pack at a time.  Sure, I could smoke more cheaply, take a day trip to Long Island and pay forty-eight bucks for a carton.  Even figuring round trip train fare to Oyster Bay, that was still better than shelling out thirteen bucks a pack to the guys at my corner deli.  But I wasn’t smoking, I was stopping after this one.  Every cigarette was my last.  In any case, I never had forty-eight dollars all at once. So I was smoking provisionally, taking it one day at a time.

Finally, the guy stopped crying and started to talk.  He had a dreadful life.  Poverty, abuse, alcoholic parents, homelessness, drugs, demeaning sex, lousy jobs. Yet by the time he finished his story, he was solvent and ready for love, like the end of a Jane Austen novel. I didn’t join in the supportive applause.  His resurrection felt staged.

He dried his eyes, and we were asked to write.  No wonder we were treating debt as a narrative device: I had stumbled into a twelve-step Writers Group.  The place was jammed with novelists, their unsold manuscripts swelling their hard drives. Sheets of paper were handed around, printed with writing prompts.  We had twenty minutes to answer the following questions:

“Are you ready to let God remove your defects?”

God?  Is extracting my defects?  Will there be Novocain?

The next question said:

“What does it mean to be ready?

I didn’t have a pen.  Could I ask to borrow somebody’s pen at Debtors Anonymous?

Then:

“Why aren’t you ready?”

Why were these questions so hostile?  I thought about asking the crying guy to hold me.  Ready?  I don’t think I’ve ever been ready.  I wasn’t ready to earn money, and I wasn’t ready to spend it.  I certainly wasn’t ready to keep it.  I wasn’t ready to get things, and I wasn’t ready to have them taken away.  Who decided I was ready for the credit card sent to me by American Express in 1988? It came unbidden, pre-approved, with a $1,000 line of credit.  I had just finished grad school.  Credit card companies like nothing more than MFAs and PhDs in English Literature. They love the Humanities.  If you were inclined to spend wisely and plan for the future, you would not be getting a degree in Creative Writing.  American Express meets an English major, they see two words: penaltiesand interest.

Yet when their card came in the mail, I thought I had gotten a man from the Lord.  I was twenty-eight, an out of work white guy with two useless degrees, a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction.  My credit card was Prospero’s wand.  Americans don’t get rich or feel free unless they have slaves, but I found another way: American Express.

Then the bills came.  Who had money for that?  I paid them on time for a while, and then increasingly late.  Soon I was getting dunning notices, and final warnings, and pink slips with black block letters.  And because I was sending all my money to American Express, I couldn’t pay the IRS, and the difference between the government and a collection agency is minor but distinct: The government can freeze your bank account. Which is why I don’t have one.  So what?  You can’t lose what’s already gone.  Am I a deprivation addict?  When I’m left with nothing, I recognize myself.  Abundance would crush me.

I was $50,000 in debt, and that was my life.  It’s what I did.  I owed things.  I tried to file bankruptcy, but there was a fee.  A fee for a bankrupt!  “If I could pay for this, I wouldn’t be here,” I told the man behind the Lucite window. We were in one of those big 19thcentury buildings where they keep the terrible agencies that audit your taxes and revoke your driver’s license and refuse to lend you money on your retirement fund.  I knew he wouldn’t help me.  Still, you get two choices in life, suicide and hope, and I was sure I would kill myself wrong and end up not dead but maimed, with bad insurance.  So I picked hope, and watched the man through the window.

At last he spoke.  “I can’t do nothing for you,” he said, a smile of bureaucratic glee spreading across his face.  Then he pushed two forms through the slot at the base of his window.  I have measured out my life in government forms.  Forms to declare and forms to refute, forms to document and forms to deny, forms to justify and stipulate and itemize and plead. “I already got plenty of forms,” I told him, and he snuffled and wiped his nose and said, “Well, now you got two more.”

I took his forms home and threw them in a drawer stuffed with bills.  Not exactly bills.  They were beyond bills.  They were not even any longer patient reminders to pay bills.  Warnings and disconnect notices, they were orders to put up and to appear, to represent myself in Small Claims Court, to respond to final statements.  Everything was past due, it was always already too late.

Why aren’t I ready?  I’m just a debtor, that’s all.  I don’t have a reason.  In any case, reasons don’t help. Neither does blame, which is too bad, because I’m half Catholic.  The other half is Episcopalian, and I learned two things, growing up: Everything is your fault, and no one can help you.

What I had instead of reasons were boldfaced warnings from the IRS, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and the Parking Violations Bureau. Con Edison took away my light on a regular basis.  How many nights have I spent alone in the dark, which is not a metaphor, without a phone because I also owed money to Verizon?  In the black of night I couldn’t read the books I bought compulsively at Barnes and Noble with lousy checks.  The books I didn’t read for which I hadn’t paid covered the walls of my apartment like the lining of a uterus.

I slept in a dark womb hiding from a law firm in Bayside, Queens.  It was the local strong-arm of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, to whom I had been reported by Columbia University, from which I hadn’t officially graduated years before because I still owed them $3,000.

Why didn’t I pay Con Ed on time?  I had the money.  For a minute. I promised myself not to spend it. I lied.  I spent everything.  I wasted it all, not even on a weekend drunk like Ray Milland pawning his typewriter for a Gin Rickey in crisp black-white-white New York under the Third Avenue el.  I didn’t have a typewriter to sell, or an el to stumble under, but I had the Strand Bookstore, where I sold my books.  I bought them full price in August and sold them for one quarter their cost in November.

No one is meaner than the guys who buy your books back at the Strand.  They know exactly what filthy habits you have welcomed into your life, what acts in cubbyholes and dark corners you cannot even afford except by selling on Friday morning the volumes of existential philosophy you purchased Monday afternoon.

I owed money to co-workers and ex-boyfriends and dead friends and my shrink. My shrink!  I went to his office every week for ten years and for five of them I didn’t pay.  We sat together in his sunny room in his beautiful leather chairs discussing why I couldn’t afford to be there, and then I left without paying.

I fled therapy and moved to Texas, which is what twelve-step programs call “doing a geographic.”  That’s how America was settled: Thousands of white people in pointy hats got in big boats in order to run out on the Parking Violations Bureau, and their reward was Connecticut.

I had a teaching job in Texas that lasted five months, but I agreed to continue therapy on the phone, because: I can’t let go!  I don’t break up with people, I just turn out one day to be living in Houston, and then my phone gets disconnected.  Who can reach me?  Not my fault!  It’s possible my therapist was my oldest living friend, excluding my brother and my parents who I hope aren’t reading this, and one ex-boyfriend whom I dumped twice in ten years and whom I still owe $1200.  I owe my shrink $5000.  I stopped calling both of them.  I stopped calling everyone.

They were all creditors.  I owed something to everybody, money or love or an explanation or an email message. My family, my friends, my longtime service providers, the IRS, Mr. Locke from American Express who called me every day, twice a day, more faithfully than any lover.  “This is Mr. Locke,” he said, my morning wake-up call.  His voice was thunderously low.  “Hi, Mr. Locke,” I said.  “Mr. Locke,” I said, “do you realize you’re my most successful long-term relationship?”

The group leader at Debtors Anonymous told us to put down our pens.  I wasn’t done.  I needed more paper.  Nonetheless, it was time to read, out loud, what we wrote.

The woman beside me volunteered to speak.  She set aside the page of questions on which she had written nothing at all.  “I won’t read what I didn’t write,” she said.  Her hands were folded in her lap, and her voice was clear and low.  She was in her forties, wearing a blouse and skirt, and her hair was pulled back off her face and held in place by a clip.  She paused a long time, but without tears.

I knew what I wanted her to say.  I wanted her to say, “I hate the world.”  “Some are gonna rob you with a six gun, some do it with a fountain pen,” she would say. “America, I have given you my all and now I’m nothing.  Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”  She didn’t say that.  She didn’t say, “I’ll pay my back taxes when abortion is free on demand in Texas, why are one million young black men in prison, when will George Bush finally admit there were no weapons of mass destruction?”

She said nothing like that.

Instead, she talked simply and plainly for exactly three minutes and her story was so stark, so uninflected by program lingo, that I was ashamed of myself.  She was in worse shape than I had ever been. Yet she spoke without a trace of self-pity.  She stated facts, and didn’t stop for applause.

I would not have survived her life.  Yet she said, “Every morning, I get on my knees.  First thing.  And I thank God for another day.”

Well.  I was furious.  Thank God?  For another day?  Every morning, I wake up angry that I’m not Brad Pitt.  How dare she?  The meeting lasted twenty minutes longer.  I said the stupid serenity prayer, and then I ran outside and smoked three cigarettes – two of which I bummed from passersby – before I calmed down.

 


John Weir is the author of two novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and What I Did Wrong.

A Week in the Life of a Slug

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

 

Monday

I came into work this morning on 95, taking 395 via the Capital Beltway, before exiting South Washington. This takes you on the southwest side of the Pentagon, directly under the flight path of American Flight 77. On your right you can see where the limestone exterior walls are a shade lighter. Arlington Cemetery is on the left.  As we turn onto the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac, JFK’s tomb is directly behind us, and the Lincoln Memorial—framed by an unusually late-season full bloom of cherry blossoms—lies directly in front of us. The driver knows Henry Bacon lets us cut over to Constitution quicker than 23rd(still don’t know who Henry Bacon is), so he’s not new to this. And look! There’s a trucker convention next to the Vietnam Memorial. Then it’s past the Daughters of the American Revolution, all the way up 18th, which is where I tell the driver to let me out, just before we get to Pennsylvania Avenue.

No money is shared. Nothing is exchanged. No feedback or stars or tips. No conversation this morning, or really most mornings. I have no idea who my driver is, or what he is doing in our nation’s capital, and this unknowing seems a crucial part of the reason this whole thing even works. This enterprise is known as slugging. And I am a slug.

Slugging is legalized, recognized, ad hoc hitchhiking. Unionized bus drivers coined the terms ‘slug’ in the 1970’s. A slug is a rider. The riders waiting at bus stops would happily get in the car—any car—that would take them up to the Pentagon. The fact that the ride was free was of less import than the fact that the ride was here, now, ready to go. Of course, the bus drivers didn’t like this, because it meant less bus fares from paying passengers. This was especially grating for the bus drivers because the slug drivers were effectively taking advantage of the centralized nature of the bus stop pick up routes—slug drivers knew where the people would be located, and that they would be in need of a ride. Hence, the derogatory ‘slug’. Back in the early days, slugging was basically Springfield to the Pentagon; your options were limited. But getting to the Pentagon gave you access to the Metro, which could deliver you to various points in and around D.C. That was enough.

Today, there are multiple points of egress throughout Northern Virginia (even as what constitutes ‘Northern Virginia’ expands ever southward and westward), just as there are various points of ingress in Arlington and the District of Columbia. This is mostly cribbed from articles cited on Wikipedia, which also erroneously states that hybrid vehicles are currently allowed to drive the HOV lanes without additional passengers (this regulation changed in 2014), so reader beware, and take this history of slugs with a measure of salt.

 

Tuesday

It was a bus this morning, mainly because the unpublished etiquette of slugging frowns upon the use of personal electronic devices larger than a phone, and I had work to do on my laptop on the way into the office. I’ll confess to enjoying the looks of pity and expressions of empathy I receive when I divulge that my daily roundtrip commute totals just under two hours on good days, and frequently approaches the three-hour mark on the regularly-occurring bad days. But secretly, and perhaps shamefully, I mostly enjoy my commute. I usually work in the morning, sending out emails to clients and colleagues well before I know they’ll be in the office. And contrary to LinkedIn’s assertion that such a practice is merely virtue signaling for the striver demographic, I have actually found that my early-morning emails receive a much better response rate, especially when I need a quick turnaround or a timely response. To be sure, buses are slower, and this morning is no exception. What would normally take me 40 minutes in a slug takes over an hour. However, the fact that I’ve already sent out a half dozen emails, edited a weekly newsletter, and RSVP’d for an industry roundtable tomorrow evening lessens the impact of a 75 minute trip into the District.

Thanks to the decentralized nature of slug routes and the fact that the pick-up points overlap with the bus routes, I don’t have to rely on a bus to take me home in the afternoon. The existing public commuter bus system, which is slow but relatively reliable, supports and enables a transit ecosystem in which slugging is possible. Without the knowledge that at some point, all else failing, a bus will eventually come along and take you to where you need to go, it is unlikely that slug riders would be willing to take a chance and hope that a slug driver will pick them up on a given morning. And absent the existence of slug riders in a central location, it is unlikely that a slug driver would be willing to go out of his way to organize a carpool with the same flexibility inherent in slugging. The sometimes-plodding, ever-unionized, and seemingly inefficient public option enables the existence of a much more efficient, cost-effective, and faster private option. Much as it ever was.

The Swamp

 

Wednesday

The primary decision I face each morning is which commuter lot to drive to. The 234 lot is nearest to me, about 12 minutes away depending on whether I leave early enough to avoid the school zones on my way. It is the preferred lot for riders living near Quantico Marine Corps base and has a steady flow of both riders and drivers heading north to the Pentagon. The other option is the Telegraph Road/Horner Road lot, which is about 20 minutes away but has more bus lines in the morning and more slug drivers in the afternoon. Making the wrong choice can cost you upwards of 40 minutes, and despite what I just said about not hating my commute, I’d rather not be commuting, all else being equal. If I need to get into the office as quickly as possible, I’ll do 234, and take my chances on catching a bus in the afternoon. If I know that I need to be home as soon as possible after work, I’ll likely go to Telegraph/Horner.

This morning, I decide on Telegraph/Horner. Once there, I see that the slug line to the Pentagon is moving quickly, so I make my way to that line. I stand just behind a man in fatigues who, if my limited knowledge of military insignia doesn’t fail me, is a corporal in the United States Army. In many senses, the military is the lifeblood of slugging, with the Pentagon being both its birthplace as well as its most frequent destination. Riding with a fellow slug or a driver in full fatigues is common. I’d thank him for his service, but the restriction on speaking outside of a driver-initiated conversation outweighs even the debt of gratitude we owe our nation’s service men and women.

Tonight I am attending an industry roundtable for which I have previously RSVP’d. I was, that is, until a minor medical emergency arose at home that required my attention and presence. After clearing my calendar and making sure that I’d be available for a conference call, I contacted the multi-state inter-regional transit authority, which has a program called “Guaranteed Ride Home”. This program, which is funded by states, municipalities in the region, and the Federal government allows registrants to make use of a taxi cab four times per year, or once per quarter, at no cost to the rider (other than a tip, which is both expected and appreciated). After calling the transit authority, I receive a message from a taxi cab company who informs me that my driver will be outside my office in three minutes. I take the elevator down, get into the wrong cab, get out, and then get into the right cab, which takes me back to Telegraph/Horner. I arrive home in time to avert any scheduling crisis owing to the medical mishap. All is well, all is well.

 

Thursday

Despite slugging’s self-police prohibition against slug riders speaking unless spoken to by the driver, the astute rider can pick up on some clues that may serve as an indicator of the driver’s willingness to engage in a conversation, as well as the topics a rider might broach. Of all such signals, I’d estimate that the radio station is the most reliable indicator of a political affiliation, as well as the driver’s willingness to engage in conversation. Spotify playlists or albums, audiobooks, or silence do little to betray the driver’s sensibilities; the only meaning that can be derived from such is the fact that that’s what the drivers wants to listen to. But if they listen to a radio station, they may be telling you something. A guide, of sorts:

WTOP 103.5: D.C. area news, from Richmond to Baltimore, from the Chesapeake to the Shenandoah. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s and when it breaks.This driver is actually making a statement that they don’t want to make a statement. It’s the radio station equivalent of a damp beige blanket being dropped over the warm embers of political fire; vanilla extract used to drown out all other ideological flavors that may manifest; a panacea of anodynity so overpowering in its blandness that everyone knows not to say a thing.
WAMU 88.5:Probably left leaning, and would entertain conversation about the topic being discussed, especially if the topic is of particular local concern and has limited relation to politics or international affairs. Note that this only applies to the NPR station that simulcasts during the morning commute; if they are listening to an NPR podcast, they are practically begging you to ask them about the topic of the podcast.
Bloomberg 99.1: All business, all the time.Allows the mid-level executive to entertain the illusion that he is receiving a personal, private daily briefing in the style of daily briefings that C-suite executives might have received as recently as 15 years ago.  This driver is perfectly pleased to make your acquaintance and may later attempt to add you to his personal LinkedIn Network. So that you, reader, may know more about me, this is the station that I would tune into most mornings, were ever I to become a driver.
WGTS 91.9 Christian Music Radio:I’ll admit to some surprise at the ethnic and racial diversity of the drivers who tune in to radio with an explicitly Christian worldview and purpose, a surprise which is likely the result of my own experience growing up in the suburbs of D___, where Christian radio was synonymous with white Evangelical Christianity. But based on the placards of saints and bumper stickers adorning their cards, drivers tuning in to this station include Egyptian Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, Ghanaian Pentecostals, Latin American Roman Catholics, and the occasional white Evangelical with whom I’m more familiar. I don’t speak to these drivers both out of respect for the rules of slug etiquette, along with a desire not be on the receiving end of proselytization.
WFJK-FM 106.7 The Fan:G-d—-t Redskins. Seriously, just g-d—-t all to h–l. The f—–g Eagles (THE EAGLES!) are now god’s gift to this midnight green and charcoal silver earth and what the h–l is Snyder doing about it? Not a d–n thing, that’s what. RIP, burgundy and gold.

Friday

I’m nearly certain that the impetus for the no-speaking-unless-spoken-to rule for slugs has its origins in the ubiquity of politics in the D.C. scene. And not just because tastemakers and connoisseurs of etiquette have declared politics and religion to be the archetypal taboos of polite conversation. Rather, it has to do with the proximity of politics. Two persons sharing a ride in nearly any other city could disagree on politics, and their disagreement would likely extend no further than a matter of who they voted for. But when you catch a ride into D.C., there is a decent chance that the person giving you a ride filed an FEC disclosure for a PAC affiliated with the candidate you oppose, that one of your riders’ first jobs out of college was stuffing envelopes for a ballot initiative which you worked to defeat, or that she is a political appointee at a regulatory agency that increased your company’s compliance costs. It’s the specificity of political operations, combined with the intimacy of a ride shared with strangers, which makes an enforced hiatus a necessity.

But today is an exception. This morning, I ride with Keith, a retired Navy man who volunteers his time twice a week at the White House Office of Correspondence, which is exactly what it sounds like. He sits in a room with other volunteers and sorts the hundreds of thousands of letters that the President receives each week. Having worked at an agency where such letters sometimes get forwarded, I appreciate the difficulty in the task, with letter openers being required to correctly distinguish such bureaucratic turf battles and acronymic puzzles such as the FHA from the FHFA, ONDCP from DOJ/ATF, and EX/IM from OPIC.  But outside of that, I don’t know much about what the day-to-day operations entail; you’d have to ask Keith.

Keith loves the President, which is why he spends Tuesdays and Fridays driving his late-model Mercedes into the District from his suburban Virginia home to sort through his mail. It’s his way of giving back, he tells me. There’s an earnestness that I find confounding and appealing and naïve. He tells me about his Navy career, and how he enlisted at eighteen and wishes that his son, who lives at home and who’s not really the college-type, would enlist. It wouldn’t even have to be the Navy; Keith doesn’t hold grudges. But he’s glad to know that there’s a President who has America’s back. So glad, that he’ll drive two hours twice a week and pay $18 dollars a day just for the privilege of opening his mail. Then Keith asks me about the proper way to drop off slugs, since this is his first time after a buddy told him about slugging, and I explain: just drop them off on the side of the road nearest to the intersection where they’ll be getting off. For me, this is 18thand Pennsylvania. He thanks me and obliges, and as I get out of the car, he shouts at me his cell phone number and simultaneously requests mine and says, “I’ll call you when I’m leaving so that I can pick you up this afternoon.”

I don’t know if it is the breach of etiquette or the atypical gregariousness or the niceness of his car or the fact that he sees opening letters as a means of giving back that makes me remember Keith. Maybe it’s the feeling that by accepting a ride from him, I’m somehow complicit in the various aspects of the current Administration that I cannot abide. Or, on the other hand, it’s the semi-uncomfortable realization that in both the quotidian task of arriving at work, as well as the larger scale of living in this democracy of America, that I am–in a real and figurative sense–dependent upon Keith. And so I accept his offer, give him my cell phone number, and I get a ride home with Keith that afternoon.

 

 

 

 

The Spermist Theory; or, Yet Another Explanation for the Existence of Donald Trump by Matthew Gavin Frank

in Issue One/Nonfiction

ON THE TV BEHIND THE BAR, DONALD TRUMP LOBS  rolls of paper towel to the citizens of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. I am surrounded by cocktail napkins and rocks glasses drained of their bourbon.  On one such napkin, bedizened with little green martini glasses leaking an anfractuous ogee of four hovering bubbles meant, I suspect, to evoke the intoxicating qualities of the paper elixir in the paper conical coupe, I find myself absent-mindedly drawing sperm and egg with the pen with which I intended to transcribe the more infuriating of Donald’s absurdisms for an essay I planned to write.  The bartender is quiet and watching the screen.  The only other patrons— two middle-aged couples cloaked in the shadows and cherrywood of their booths, are also quietly watching.   

Though, in the little square cordon of the cocktail napkin, sperm and egg are never to meet, perhaps out of mutual hauteur, I bless each scribbled gamete with the silly, but seductive powers of preformationism, tiny little animalcules who need simply a few drops of water and some sunlight to grow.  From one of the booths, in between blurry sips and slurred stories of polling location violence and the rigged election rumors, I swear I can hear one of the other patrons invoke for the sake of some appropriately absurdist, but seemingly-crucial argument, Nicolaas Hartsoeker—the 17th century Dutch mathematician, inventor of the screw-barrel microscope, and unrepentant Spermist, whose penchant for strange, sexist, and just-plain dumb conspiracy theories braid, for the time being, with those now leaking against their will from Donald Trump’s wet mouth.    

In fact, Hartsoeker’s theories seem to thicken with Trump’s psychopathic versions of platitudes like spicy mustard around the similarly colored lights that dangle from chains over each of the crumbling booths.  Here, in this light, with one drunk patron uttering, “Praise Hartsoeker,” just as Donald on TV, oozing with slimy id, kisses the microphone without its consent and utters, “Very good towels,” it seems that maybe, given this mad and bemusing context, that a sperm can indeed hatch a little man all by its lonesome, without the trouble of that fickle egg.  

Praise Hartsoeker (failed wine merchant, successful interrogator of Ptolemaic dioptrics), for peering through his microscope at sperm cells and seeing the fully-formed little men already living inside them, who themselves must be in possession of their own sperm)!  Of course, this claim, defended at the time as a reductio ad absurdum, could not predict that so many years later, it seems to me now an appropriate explanation for the manifestation of Donald Trump, who may very well have been incubated within the sweaty locker room confines of a lonely sperm cell.  At this point, what else can explain this?  

Anyhow, what most excites me here in the bar, as I struggle against heartburn, anxiety, and clotting impatience, is the way that Hartsoeker and his Spermist congregation drew on—and impacted subsequent—alchemical theory (to which the prematurely born and possibly autistic Isaac Newton subscribed) in that, citing fidgety Renaissance physician, occultist, and founder of toxicology Paracelsus, “the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the Arcanum of human blood, and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living human child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller,” and with much smaller hands, and a pale orange hue.  

Donald Trump says, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”  He sits with shoulders slumped in a black windbreaker behind a press table.  He breaks the wind.  He looks “somewhat like a man, but transparent.”  He is bloated and babyish—mutant foolish— as if conjured in some medieval basement lab burbling with tinctures of wisteria and flirty flagella, this homunculus having descended to us from our own worst instincts, if not from those transparent little oafs incubated in zucchini and Seabiscuit’s great-great-grandmother.  

 


Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction/Hybrids Editor of Passages North.  He persevered through this past winter via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind.

Alumni Association by Anonymous

in Issue One/Nonfiction

“He went to Harvard, too,” Bill added. “Before the Rhodes Scholarship, he had a full ride at Harvard.” My wife and Bill’s wife were still scraping the stuffing and turkey and cranberries into the mismatched plastic containers we’d carry into our offices for lunch for the next three days. Even though Bill technically still held the offer from Dewey, they had him holed up at Brookings for the time being. The hiring partner had called it a “developmental associateship”, which was a stretch even for Dewey, especially since they would go under not six months after that. 

The point is that Bill wasn’t above taking his lunch into work, which was one of those small things that helped me feel not so acutely the professional distance mandated by the fact that he had gone to Chicago while I had only gone to Saint Louis. But whatever professional distance occasionally manifest as between us seemed slight when compared to the distance between either of us and a Harvard undergrad who later became a Rhodes Scholar. 

“I think I knew that,” I lied. I couldn’t let on that I didn’t know that, since anyone who knew anything would have known that. “I don’t really think we really care that he’s not technically an alumni. If he agrees to speak, that’s all we need.” 

We were speaking as obliquely as possible about him. It was as though our ability to further the conversation depended on speaking about him while never actually mentioning who it was we were speaking about. To name him would be unseemly. Vulgar, even. 

I said, “He’s been hard to get a hold of. Others in his office have been more responsive.” 

Bill and I hefted the folding table up onto its side and folded the legs under before preparing to slide it under the futon sofa. 

“Personal staff tends to be kind of insular,” I continued. “I imagine they get requests like this all the time from different groups. But I’ve had more success with committee staff.” 

Bill’s kid crawled over in his onesie to watch what we were doing. 

“Are you looking to get staff,” Bill asked, “or are you trying to get their boss to come and speak?” He lifted his son and the two fell back onto the futon. Bill bounced his kid up and down on his knee. “I could talk to him on Sunday when I see him next time. He’s busy, but the conference isn’t until May. I think he’d consider an invitation to speak.” 

This was good news. A personal invitation would almost certainly yield better returns than my email solicitations, notwithstanding the care I took in crafting them. Still, I hated asking for favors on Sundays—it felt like a violation of the spirit of the Sabbath, even if it was the most convenient. 

Bill said, “The only thing is he seems really sad all the time now.” 

  “I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” I said. “My sister-in-law got divorced this summer. It’s been hard for her to go to church. I guess it’s good that he’s at least going.” 

Bill didn’t react to this. He seemed to care less about whether the Rhodes Scholar was going to church than the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar and was sad all the time. Bill didn’t really seem to care if people went to church, at least not in the same way I did. I guess that’s the perspective you bring with you when you get baptized as a teenager—as Bill had. I think I knew even then that Bill had checked out of going to church. Maybe his silence was his way of weighing the religious distance between us. But it was a distance that somehow authenticated our friendship. Maybe the professional distance performed the same function for him in authenticating our friendship, but since I was the junior partner in that relationship, I’m just speculating. 

My wife perked up at the mention of her sister.  “Are you talking about the guy who just left? The one who brought the corn?” 

Now I regretted not sampling the corn. 

“Yeah,” Bill said. He was now rolling a ball back and forth with his son, cheerfully oblivious to what was obviously a soiled diaper. “Twice divorced in the space of a decade. He’s basically a leper.” 

Bill’s wife now took the opportunity to take a break from the dishes herself. “But at least they didn’t have kids,” she said. “It would just be so much harder with kids.” She picked up her own kid and pulled out the wicker weave basket from the cube shelf that stashed the diapers and wipes. Both the basket and the shelf were from Ikea; we had the same ones in our apartment, but in the birch color. 

I wanted to bring the conversation back to strategy. “I think it would be great if we could get him, as well as my Bishop. They both serve in the same role for their respective bosses. Of course, one is in the Senate, the other’s in the House.” The important thing was that the composition of the panel could withstand the lowest degree of scrutiny. Since most of those in attendance would be undergrads, it wouldn’t be that high of a bar to clear. But I wanted to make sure that the speakers—whom I had not yet confirmed—would note the attention to detail. They were my audience. 

“If we can’t book him this year, then maybe next year,” I continued, now more to myself than to anyone else in Bill’s living room. “I get the sense that if he declines this year, then we’re laying the groundwork for future conferences. He’s the kind of guy who we’d love to get now. He’s clearly going places. Even if we’re just setting ourselves up for the future, we should make the invitation. It can’t hurt.” 

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