A new story for Christmas 2014. Hope you enjoy it.
‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ I said, one day, ‘if you only had to be friends with your friends when they were – well, when things were going right for them.’
‘There’s a word for that,’ John said. ‘‘Fairweather friends’.’
‘Yeah!’ I remember I felt really glad, really elated, to learn that there was a word for that. ‘Wouldn’t it be great? It’d be like – it’d be like a whole other life.’
‘Tell me how.’
‘Well. If I didn’t even know that bad stuff was happening – well, look. Matthew would be sober. Lauren wouldn’t be crazy. Charlie wouldn’t be so intense all the time. Jeannie would – well, I guess the twins would still be alive.’
‘Or at least you wouldn’t know that they weren’t.’
‘Well, yeah,’ I said.
‘Jeannie isn’t your friend,’ John said. He held up his silver pen. ‘She’s your sister.’
I waved a hand: whatever. What I liked about talking to John was that I could be as dismissive as I liked, and he wouldn’t get mad, even though he was a grownup. Couldn’t get mad. Man, I could really be a obnoxious little prick if I wanted to. It was great.
‘I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a fairweather brother,’ was all he said.
‘Well, I want to be one anyway.’ I looked up at him. Whenever I looked at him he always made the same face: like he was embarrassed for me to be looking at him, like because he had spinach in his teeth or had spilled sauce on his tie.
He raised his pale eyebrows and said: ‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ I said, and went back to watching the ceiling. I guess I drove him crazy. I heard the dull squeak of him rubbing a dry forefinger across his front teeth. He was self-conscious of his teeth. Because he was British, I guess. The Brits, they have the world’s worst dentistry. It’s the pits of dentistry. I guess that’s why they have Oxford university and we have Hollywood. Who gives a damn how your dentistry is when all you do is write essays on goddamn history or whatever?
Anyway I’d rather have Hollywood.
I said to John: ‘Where are you from, anyway?’
‘I know that. Whereabouts?’
He paused. I wondered if maybe it was bad manners in Britain to ask where someone’s from. That’s the thing about Britain. You never know what might be bad manners, in Britain.
Then he said: ‘Hull.’
‘On the coast.’
‘Guess you have ships there?’ I’d already guessed that. A ‘hull’ is a part of a ship.
‘Certainly do.’ He paused and then there was a sound that I knew what it was without even looking round. He’d set down his pen and his notebook on the little table that stood next to his seat. I knew that once John set down his notebook he might start saying anything.
It was when he laid down his notebook that I thought John really earned his hundred bucks an hour.
‘Know what we don’t have?’ he said suddenly. He sounded kind of excited.
See? You never knew the shit John would start saying once his goddamn notebook was out of the equation. It was great. I folded my hands behind my head.
‘Vowels.’ I heard him shift in his seat. I guessed he was settling into a lecture, maybe folding his own big white hands behind his own big white head. But when I looked round he’d done the opposite: he was hunkered forward in his seat, and his hands were knitted together in the space between his knees.
I looked at him and he didn’t look embarrassed.
‘You have spinach in your teeth.’
‘Never mind that. Can I tell you a story?’
‘Is it long?’
‘Because I don’t like long stories.’
‘It’s quite short.’
‘I lose concentration.’
‘It’s a story about the English language.’
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I met his eye again. His eyes were – well, his eyes were just eyes. Eyes are just pool-balls or cocktail onions that happen to be in your face, if you ask me, although nobody does ask me, of course, except John. But his face was all lit up.
I sat back.
‘Sounds like a laugh riot,’ I said. ‘Go ahead.’
‘Well, it’s the story of a journey,’ John said. ‘Picture the English language. It starts its journey on the west coast of England. You can see it there, in Liverpool – you’ve heard of Liverpool, Joel? The Beatles?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, dully.
‘Then you’ve heard the accent. That’s the English language warming up. Listen to it. That’s English doing calisthenics.’ Then he did the accent – ‘Don’t even go there’, he said, high-pitched, stretched-out – and I laughed. He was right. Just listening to him say it made my goddamn mouth tired. I don’t know why my mom was paying John a hundred bucks an hour to make fun of the way the Beatles talked but it was funny anyway.
John went on.
‘So that’s the warm-up, that’s the language getting ready for its long walk east. Then it sets off. It gets stronger, fitter, as it goes. Its vowels become muscular. In Lancashire they have rippling vowels, bulging vowels, more vowels than they know what to do with – ’
I was hoping he’d show me, do another dumb voice to keep me entertained, but I guess he was getting worried about me losing concentration, because he just carried on.
‘ – and then it ploughs on, through Yorkshire, shedding vowels as it goes, and then finally it arrives, panting, exhausted, at the sea, at the end of the land – and it has only one vowel left!’
‘Errr,’ John said. I laughed again.
‘Your folks talk that way?’
‘They certainly do!’ John was laughing too. ‘You know the most romantic thing you can say in Hull? Er lerve yer.’ He giggled. ‘That’s why I was a virgin till I was twenty-four.’
It was a surprise to me that he wasn’t still a virgin now but I didn’t say so.
‘Your go,’ John said.
‘Tell me about the American language,’ he said. I waited for him to pick up his notebook again but he didn’t.
‘We speak goddamn English, dumbass,’ I snorted.
‘Tell me about the journey,’ he said. ‘Say it starts in the south. Then what?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Where does it go?’
‘North,’ I said. Where the hell else was it going to go, if it started in the south?
I hesitated. I wanted to know why he hadn’t picked up his notebook. I guessed he was trying to get me to exercise my creative side, my right brain, or, or, or some goddamn thing. So I just said: ‘Why?’
And I thought that answering his question with another question might throw him, embarrass him somehow, send him into one of those pink-faced fits of Britishness he went into every once in a while, but it didn’t. He just said: ‘I want you to make me laugh. Like I just made you laugh.’
I looked at him. He was still sitting forward in his chair. But his face was pink. He was smiling uncertainly.
It’s not as though I would’ve minded making him laugh. I can be as funny as the next mental patient, I guess. It was just that I wasn’t in the mood. I wanted him to understand that, sure, I’d be happy to make him laugh, some other place, or maybe even the same place but some other time, but that I just didn’t, I just wasn’t in the mood –
But I didn’t know how to say that and he just sat there with his knitted hands and pink face and grinning British dentistry.
So I sat back and said: ‘It starts out in the south and sounds dumb. It heads north. By the time it gets to New York it’s different but it still sounds dumb. By the time it gets here’ – Hartford, Connecticut, I meant – ‘it just sounds – well, it sounds just as fucking dumb as it did in the first place.’
There was a silence. A leaf dropped off John’s houseplant. He never watered that goddamn thing.
I heard him sigh quietly, shift in his seat.
‘It’s got a name, you know,’ he said.
‘That vowel. That noise, err, that stupid slack-jawed noise. It’s called schwa. That’s what linguists call it. It’s the sound of the lips doing nothing, the tongue doing nothing, the sound of a dead mouth. It’s the sound of people not giving a shit,’ he said. ‘Everyone talks like that where I come from. Everyone. Schwa,’ he said.
Then he picked up his notebook, and clicked his pen.
‘So – ’
‘I could tell you something else,’ I said.
Another silence. I decided not to look round. I hadn’t heard him put his notebook down but I decided I’d say what I wanted to say anyway. I decided it didn’t matter whether he had the fucking notebook in his hand, and what sort of a life was it, anyway, I thought, when you had to ask a guy whether he had a notebook in his hand or not before you’d even talk to him.
I decided that whatever was in his hand, unless it was his goddamn dick, it was all right with me.
‘Two Christmases ago,’ I said, ‘Jeannie and Mike came over with the twins. My mom baked the ham and Jeannie brought everything else. Mashed potatoes and all that crap.’
I liked this story. I was telling it to John – even though there was no reason why he would give a shit who brought the goddamn mashed potatoes – because I was thinking that, well, John spent all his time talking to fuck-ups, and, what’s more, talking to fuck-ups about their fucked-up families, too – and I was thinking that even for a hundred bucks an hour that’s no goddamn picnic.
‘We have turkey in England,’ John said.
I rolled my eyes.
‘No kidding.’ Seemed like I wasn’t the only one who lost concentration during a boring story. ‘Listen. Charlie, that’s my friend, he came over too because his parents had booked this skiing holiday in Colorado or someplace, but he’d broken his dumb leg and couldn’t go, so he came, and Lauren, his girlfriend, she came too.’
I paused. I figured I must have sounded like a boring bastard.
‘Then Matthew, that’s Jeannie’s schoolfriend, but he’s always lived just up the street, he came too.’
‘Mm-hm,’ John said.
‘And that’s when the story starts, really,’ I said. I was scared he was going to lose interest. I hurried on. ‘What happened was, Charlie’d brought this canned asparagus. I’d mentioned my Mom loved asparagus, and the stores don’t carry it at Christmas, so he’d found this specialty food store, and he’d spent like sixteen dollars on this big fucking can of asparagus.
‘Only my mom’s lost the can-opener. Dad’d used it for a tyre-lever and it was in his toolbox in his trunk at the goddamn construction site. So. Matthew jumps up. He’s nuts. Grabs a kitchen knife. “Stand back!” And he starts stabbing at this can like a goddamn psycho – and all the while Lauren, Charlie’s girlfriend, she’s yelling “Don’t mar the asparagus! Don’t mar the asparagus!”.
‘Well, Mom serves it up and believe me this shit is plenty marred. It’s in bits. Then my dad comes in. Just home from the site. Looks down at his plate. He doesn’t know this was a sixteen-dollar can of asparagus.
‘“Canned greens on Christmas,” he says, real sad, I mean real tragic. “This is a sad, sad god-damn day.”
‘And he looks just so sad that we can’t even help it, we all burst out laughing, I thought I was going to shit myself laughing. All except Lauren and Charlie. And Charlie keeps going: “It’s the top name in canned spears. Really. In canned spears, it’s the top name.”’
That’s the story.
John was laughing. He wasn’t in hysterics or anything. It’s not like I’m a professional comedian or whatever. When he was done laughing I looked round.
He was smiling.
‘Feel better?’ he said.
‘Kind of,’ I said.