Tag: flash

The Victim of Words

I don’t know how many of you can say this, but I spent a week in a famous psychiatric ward in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital called Bulfinch Seven, a restricted area that was also sometimes reserved for the victims of words.

I had parked my rental car on a hill while visiting from Mexico, and I had neglected to turn my front wheels left and then roll back, anchoring the back of the wheels against the curb. A policeman had pulled up beside my car, a Toyota Prius, and asked me my name as he wrote out the ticket. I thought it a good moment to make a point about his more than likely monoligualism and I said to him, “You mean, Cómo te llamas, come lagañas! don’t you?”—What’s your name, go eat eye boogers!”

The policeman said, ” You can tell me in English, or I can increase the fine—for civic insolence.”

I doubted that there was a law having to do with “civic insolence,” and so I said. “Qué te importa, Mr. Policeman, tu hermana, la gordota!”—What’s it to you, Mr. Policeman, your sister, the great big fat one?

What started out as irritation on his face changed and became a detached, even scientific look. And so I thought it wise to inquire, “Qué te pasa, naranjada?”—What’s up, orangeade?

I had noticed—I admit, too slowly—the man’s complexion, and thought he might be Sicilian from the North End, or a Sikh from the South. And as my fortunes would have it, he answered me in—of all things—Spanish.

“Nada, nada, limonada.—Nothing, nothing, lemonade!” he said, with a perfect accent.

He was smiling, but still looked detached—a fact that gave me pause.

“I’m going to ask you to get into my pinche patrulla,” he said—in a reasonable tone—get into the goddamn patrol car.

Hard to explain, but I gave him one more blast. Plus, I didn’t intend to get into his pinche patrulla. After all, I was on my way to a reading—therefore, by implication, a writer of possibly some note. And so I gave him my cleverest shot.

“Güero, güerumbo, de un pedo te tumbo, de dos te levanto y de tres te retumbo!”—Pale face güerumbo (gware-rumbo, a nonsense word that gives sound and cadence), I can drop you with one fart, pick you up with the second and put you on the ground again with the third.

Not exactly the most delicate school boy taunt, but I was, I suppose, much worked up about reading from my novel and about the fawning looks I hoped to elicit from exciting young women half my age.

Before I knew it, he had cuffed my hands behind me and had me—the real güero güerumbo—in the back seat of his patrol car. And that is how I landed in Bulfinch Seven.

But it so happened that my agent—that’s literary agent—had driven up behind us and then followed us to the Bulfinch looney bin where they gave me a small pink pill. With a few calls on his iPhone my agent, one Henry Salisbury, arranged to have my waiting audience of twelve people shifted to the hospital, where I—now a calmer self—read to them and to the rest of the patients from my novel about a modern detective sent north into the United States to try to retrieve territories stolen by that country. Though their applause was not as strong as I would have liked, and everyone in my original audience was at least sixty, one unofficial attendee sitting in the back of the ward clapped with some enthusiasm—who was none other than my arresting officer, who later told me he was a distant relative of Santa Ana, the president-general that lost one leg to the French in the Pastry War of 1838, called himself His Most Serene Highness, blocked American invaders at Saltillo in 1847, delayed obese General Winfield Scott’s advance on Mexico City from Veracruz and, in the end, essentially lost half of Mexico to the Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848—for fifteen million dollars.


I hope I’m not misleading you on the subject of your research. You’re ready to record? All right—I’m trying to remember when it began. Probably with the usual things, like imitating my father’s voice and style with a note to the principal of the elementary school, excusing me from gym class, then from arithmetic because of my brain tumor, then from lunch period—so I could go out behind the baseball backstop and slip into the woods, where I smoked Philip Morris cigarettes and met with girls too brain impaired to attend school.

How did I get them to come there? By imitating the principal, with invitations to join a softball team that would consist equally of elementary school children—without concern for mental development.

Later, when I was in high school, I studied, then submitted—without return address—unknown works by Hemingway, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters. I submitted them to publishers, claiming they had been discovered in this or that archive nook or rare book library.

At first, there were nothing but rejections. Then, gradually, experts began to pay attention. A letter here, a short story there, a poem, even a thin novel hitherto unknown. Literary and library journals could not resist the fact that priceless pieces had been discovered, and they began to publish them and attribute them to the Brontës, Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway.

I studied other languages and with the years managed to place essays by Camus and Thomas Mann, in clotted Courier type. Once even a pornographic piece by Richard Wagner. The submissions were always anonymous, but written with such skill—on blank pages ripped from old books—that academic journals fought with each other over who presented the best argument for their authenticity. All the while, I worked as a quiet librarian in Orange, New Jersey.

In time, I grew bored with these shenanigans and began submitting work of my own—with the result, over and over, that I was accused of borrowing, i.e. stealing the style and vocabulary of known authors.

I had a few successes with small literary magazine, where the gatekeepers—usually severely male—were so schooled in mimicry and where so many of their submissions were youthfully imitative, that my own lingering trickery went undetected.

I married and had a daughter—a delightful child with equally generous measures of intelligence and heart. When she went away to camp, I wrote her news and stories I had not made up. By college, she began to complain to her mother—we were no longer together—that she no longer knew me and—more troubling—that there was something inauthentic about me.

When my ex-wife told me this, with an expression between gloating and reprimand, I spent the rest of the day and night drinking enough whisky to kill an elephant.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to a psychiatrist, who told me to explore my relationship with my parents, both of whom had had careers in persuading people to trust them. My father, a financial advisor, had been warned a few times by his firm, for irregularities. And my mother had been a painter of modest talents, who openly painted copies of Breughel, Rembrandt and the Impressionists for clients in Santa Monica, California with blue hair and rooms to decorate.

After some years of therapy, I joined an ashram to learn how to meditate and give up wants in the material world. I spent time with a number of the lovely apostles of the promised more spiritual life, practicing the arts of defense and rendition. While my daughter, though always polite, grew ever more remote from me.

When my granddaughter was born, my daughter softened and allowed me to play my role as grandfather. She even allowed me to tell the child bedtime stories. And over time, something happened whereby I began to tell stories that were different from my earlier ones and clung more to the questions my granddaughter asked me. About whether bears could talk with children, and had I ever talked with a bear or an elephant. I did not want to lie to her, so I said I hadn’t. She was three or four, and so she suggested we could go to the zoo and try to talk to a bear and maybe an elephant.

And so we went to the zoo. And then we went again. And then, again. We tried other animals as well. None of them actually talked to us, but we made up stories about what they said and laughed because some of the stories were funny. And besides, we were happy to be with each other.

I began to go back alone, and when other people weren’t around I talked to the animals by myself. And something changed, and I learned something that seems too trivial to say. But I will. That there is no reason to disguise who you are. My granddaughter and the elephants were who they were—and pretended nothing more.

My time to leave the earth has come now—as you can see for yourself. On her last visit, my lovely ex-wife held my hand and said it was too bad we had not spent more time together—in every aspect—over the last twenty or thirty years. My daughter weeps uncontrollably when she visits. And my granddaughter—now a wonderful writer at the age of twenty-five—sits beside my bed and tells me in many different ways which animals I should visit and what I should say to them when I go to join them.

That is my story about forgery. It may not have been what you wanted. But there it is.