Prologue to The Kingdom of Absurdities, a novel. Available on Amazon or audiobook on Audible.

Clouds 1–9, Umbria, Italy. Photo by me.

Looking back, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back, he could always blame it on her, the pierced, tattooed, i-Poded brunette, Prada sunglasses black areolas around her eyes, cell phone cradled in one hand, a double-tall no-doubt nonfat caramel-laced coffee monstrosity in the other, as well as a fake diamond-encrusted leash looped around her right wrist trailing back to the trendy midget dog du jour, she of the thrift store chic and Neiman Marcus makeover who walked right into him on Pine Street without looking up and then blamed the ensuing caramel-laced mess on him, supplying the Damascus moment so necessary to those waiting to see the light. Looking back, he could comfort himself with the ridiculous notion that no matter what decision he made it was always the wrong decision, but in the history of wrong decisions this one ranked right up there with invading Stalingrad in the winter. Looking back, somewhere in the fog and mist of memory, was the answer, the WHY. He needed to know the WHY. Why had he walked away from his comfortable life, why had he embarked on this mad course, why had he convinced himself he could easy adapt to a new and different environment of sand and sun, far from family, friends and personal history? Looking back, he couldn’t stop looking back, especially into the swirling Seattle fog, mist and rain of that last particularly nasty Pacific Northwest winter. Could a simple crushed heart among the Cascades really be the root cause of all of this?

***

It was Saturday morning and there had been a steady rain for what seemed like months, even though it had only been a few weeks, weeks of rain, cold, wet, miserable, never-ending rain. Rain slicking the streets, rain sliding down buildings, rain filling the gutters, rain blowing back off the brim of his purple and gold UDub baseball cap and dripping down his neck like ice needles pricking his spine when he walked to Bauhaus Café for a double latte and Sachertorte, a world defined by rain. This day, his birthday, would be defined by rain as well.

Chase stood at the window, watching the drops streak down the glass with metronomic, monotonous regularity. Gray clouds drifted low in the sky, oppressive and heavy as poured concrete. He refocused and looked at his liquefied reflection in the glass. Thirty. He had crossed the shadow line and become firmly ensconced in the weighty, inevitable responsibilities of adulthood: full-time job, a relationship, overpriced apartment in a trendy area of town, credit card debt, 401(k) retirement account, all the responsibilities of the strenuous life raining down on him like rain, rain and more rain, the moss and scum of responsibility growing seemingly without end.

He was not alone. Most of his friends were gaining wives, weight and offspring. Friends who had once howled rebel yells of drunken glee in Frontier Square and slobbered like satyrs over Ecstasy-stoned coeds were now pushing strollers through outlet malls and discussing the lifestyle advantages of Bed, Bath and Beyond. They took their responsibilities seriously, chiding Chase at Saturday afternoon football get-togethers for not joining the regimented ranks of the Great American Family. With each prod and push, Chase found himself looking back on the lost undergraduate days of chaos and entertainment, and the desire for a grand, reckless act of irresponsibility started to grow inside him like an organic, living thing. Gorky once wrote to Lenin, “We artists are irresponsible people.” There was just one problem: Chase wasn’t an artist.

He was not alone. Chase turned and looked back at the mass of curly, golden hair corkscrewed across the bed pillows like the explosion of a rogue star. Agnes. Agnes was German and her hair was the only chaotic thing about her. She had regimented their so-far brief time together into a nonstop series of rules and regulations, clockwork-mechanized-and-choreographed routines that left even Chase’s friends laughing and wagging the “just wait” index finger at him.

They had been together a little over four months. She was a psychology major at UDub, an exchange student from the medical school at the Universität Ulm, born and raised among the winter-resistant pines and fun-resistant Schwabians of the Schwartzwald. Chase had always been attracted to tall, blonde equine-striding shiksas, but here was an über-shiksa, the real thing, a honey-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan granddaughter of the Thousand-Year Reich. Sixty years ago, her grandfather would have had him shot. She was absolutely irresistible.

Agnes opened her eyes and stared up at him.

“Morning,” he smiled, the weight inside him momentarily lifted. “Do you remember what day it is?”

“Of course,” she yawned, “it’s Saturday. Why would I forget what day it is?”

“Yes, but it’s a very special Saturday.” Chase rubbed his hands together, like a child anticipating a treat.

She raised up on one elbow and looked from Chase to the window. “It’s raining. So what? Mein Gott, it has been raining every Saturday. What’s so special about that?”

Chase frowned momentarily, felt the weight returning, then fawned like an Elizabethan courtier. “So, Schatz, what did you get me for my birthday?”

“Why would I get you anything for your birthday?” She looked genuinely puzzled, rubbing sleep from the corners of her eyes. “I do not understand your American obsession with birthdays. In Deutschland, if it is your birthday you must bring coffee and küchen for everyone at the office. People go to great lengths to avoid admitting it is their birthday.”

Chase felt like the Stürm und Drang of the storm clouds were now moving inside him. “Ah, romantic Germany’s dead and gone-”

“We Germans are very romantic, Schatzi. We invented romanticism. Unless you forgot about Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin-”

“Alright, alright.” Chase held his hands up, palms out, in surrender. He hadn’t read Goethe, Schiller or Hölderlin. Agnes was always lording her classical European education over his provincial American one, taking every opportunity to demonstrate her bilingual superiority in things intellectual. She also lectured him about the superiority of Der Deutsche Arbeitsplatz: thirty-five hour work weeks, six weeks of paid vacation, state- and religious-sponsored holidays second in number only to Italy, the near-impossibility of being fired, as well as full medical coverage (but not dental, which explained why dentists were some of the richest and most hated members of the vast beehive of the German middle class, and explained why her live-in boyfriend back in the Heimat was a dentist: Jörg the Zahnartz). The German workplace certainly sounded superior, with employees no doubt breaking out in spontaneous choral renditions of “Ode to Joy” around the water cooler.

Chase had to admit he felt envious. He worked as a copywriter for Heminge and Condell, an advertising and PR firm located on the 65th floor of the Columbia building, and was in the midst of working sixty-hour weeks on the “Call me, Ishmael” campaign for an overpriced perfume called Ambergris. He found himself with increasing frequency gazing out the conference room windows overlooking Eliot Bay and dreaming of escape, escape far beyond the last outpost of the San Juan Islands.

“Listen, I’m really tired of all this rain. Let’s rent a car and go somewhere. How about Portland? According to the weatherman, it’s not raining in Portland. We could drive down and see the Columbia River Gorge.”

Schatzi, we cannot. No, we simply cannot.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? We have not planned it. We need to plan these things in advance, weeks in advance, sometimes months. How many times must I explain you?” She sighed deeply. “What exactly are we going there to see? Where are we going to stay? Where are we going to eat? These things must be planned and confirmed before we can go. Then there is the anticipation-”

“We’ll just wing it!”

She shook her Medusean curls. “Hab’ich nicht verstanden. What is this ‘wing it’?”

Chase could sense defeat looming on the horizon, a Spanish armada of defeat. He thought about launching into a passionate defense of American spontaneity, the mythos of being on the road, getting your kicks from Route 66, seizing the day, living on the edge, embracing the freedom of random movement, merry pranksters one and all, the currents and forces and cross-purposes, the play of counterpart upon counterpart of these democratic vistas, but by now he knew it would be hopeless.

“Forget it. It’s just an idiomatic phrase.”

Agnes wrapped her arms around herself and smiled. “Come back to bed, Schatz. Aren’t I enough to send you to Cloud Sieben?”

Cloud Seven. The German idiomatic phrase. No wonder cross-cultural relationships were so difficult. Never mind the troubling existence of Jörg the Zahnartz, with his six-figure income, his BMW, his love of Beethoven and Mozart, his library full of great European works of literature, philosophy and psychology, not to mention his ski condo in the Italian Dolomites.

With Agnes, Chase would never be on Cloud Nine.

***

They made love for thirty-seven minutes, then spent the afternoon apart. Agnes went to the UDub library to continue her research on Wilhelm Wundt, while Chase walked in the rain past Pike’s Place Market, the fresh smells of salmon and hot, roasting coffee in the air, then uphill to the Columbia Building to continue his work on the “Call me, Ishmael” perfume campaign, preparing the carrot for the capitalist stick. He watched the rough cut of a commercial, a sultry redhead with a cell phone in one hand and a bottle of Ambergris in the other, leaning into the camera and saying in a husky, sex-drenched voice, “Call me, Ishmael,” then spent the rest of the day in the conference room, staring out at the rain falling across Eliot Bay. At seven thirty he took the elevator back down to ground level. Watching the monorail glide toward the lighted dome of the Space Needle, he realized it had been weeks since he’d seen the natural, sublime majesty of Mount Rainer towering over the other end of the city.

***

They met up again at eight and, in true German fashion, Chase took Agnes out for his birthday dinner at Wild Ginger. Sitting at the satay bar, picking at a skewer of grilled scallops, trying to ignore the noise of the Saturday night crowd, he felt that living thing continue to grow inside him.

“What is wrong, Schatz?” Agnes stared at him, not so much with a lover’s concern but with the professional interest of a clinical psychiatrist.

“Nothing. It’s just…have you ever noticed that all of the Nazi leadership had two-syllable names? Hitler, Himmler, Heydrick, Eichmann, Goebbels. No wonder Hess fled to England.”

“Freudian displacement.”

“Hess?”

“No, you. There is obviously something wrong and you try to displace it with a crude joke, which by the way, I find not funny. My grandfather was a member of the NSDAP, a minor government official in Augsburg. You know what he once told me? ‘Never trust a man with brown eyes.’ Need I remind you that you have brown eyes?”

“Actually, they’re hazel. And Jörg?”

Her own blue eyes frosted over like an Arctic iceflow. “Jörg is not open for discussion.”

“Displacement,” Chase muttered, then returned to grappling with his skewered scallops.

After dinner and after-dinner drinks, they walked back to Belltown, returned to his apartment, and then made love for thirty-seven minutes. Afterwards, Agnes picked up a Festschrift on the life and work of Jacques Lacan and read for a half hour before drifting off to sleep. Chase didn’t.

***

On Sunday, they walked in the rain to an exhibit of Blau Reiter paintings on loan from the Lenbechhaus in Munich to the Seattle Modern Art Museum, an outing Agnes had planned only two weeks in advance. Chase was almost impressed by this act of impulsiveness.

Strolling among the Kandinskys, the Klees, and the muscular curves of Marc’s blue horses and fractured cubist deer, Chase felt some of the alienation and discomfort of being an undereducated American who didn’t have an expert’s knowledge of art that Agnes and her kind seemed to inherit in their DNA. He wouldn’t have minded the intelligence gap between them so much if she hadn’t insisted on dominating him at almost every turn with her knowledge.

Chase had no desire to dominate anyone; he just wanted to discover and develop his self in the classic American tradition of Emersonian self-reliance and Whitmanesque self-expression, to pick his way along the prickly path of individuality into the promised land of happiness, as guaranteed to him by the Constitution and two hundred and twenty eight years of free experimentation.

Chase had met Agnes at a UDub party for new exchange students. His old grammar school friend Louis Monastery taught in the comparative literature department, and Chase had tagged along with him after their weekly Thursday night dinner. Louis lived in a Victorian mansion on Queen Anne Hill he’d inherited from his grandmother, called lesbians “daughters of Sappho,” thought the novel dead after Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and played Berg’s Wozzeck whenever Chase visited (“music to murder your girlfriend by”). He had been pushing Chase to become more international, to adopt a more European point of view on the world, and after one look at Agnes, with that wild hair, those cheekbones carved by Bernini, lips bee-stung and swollen, ripe as red plums, he considered it good advice. Now, he wasn’t so sure. After all, it had been the Europeans who’d embraced Fascism. The near-constant Teutonic push from disorder to tyrannical harmony was starting to disturb him. The more order Agnes imposed on his life, the more disorder he attempted to allow to leak back into his life.

They paused in front of Kandinsky’s “Blue Rider,” the lone figure on horseback racing across the steppes of the Caucasus looking to Chase like one of his tribal ancestors trying to escape off-screen, pogrom-bent Cossacks. Suddenly he felt Agnes take his hand, something she had never done before in public. Her fingers interlaced with his. She pulled him close to her.

“Chase,” she said, her voice low, blue eyes looking directly at him, a slight thaw in their coldness. “I have made a decision.”

“You’ll take it, right? I agree. A Kandinsky would look great in the living room.”

“Why must everything with you be a joke?” Her eyes frosted over again. “I am ending my connection with Jörg. I have decided on continuing our story.”

“What?” Chase blurted, a patina of panic coloring his voice. While troubled by Jörg the Zahnartz, who phoned Agnes six times a week at 10 p.m. like clockwork, Jörg was also his safety net, a prophylactic barrier that kept him and Agnes from tumbling too far down the dark hole of commitment. Sure, he felt the occasional tug of sour jealousy, but nothing on the O.J. or Othello scale. It wasn’t that he was the poster boy for fear of commitment that the self-help books advertised men to be, it was more that Agnes seemed so devoted to making him feel inferior, using him to inflate her own sense of cultural superiority.

“You’re leaving a dentist for me? Are you crazy?”

“Yes, it is true. Meine Mutter will not be pleased. She has been waiting five years for us to get married.” Her eyes dropped and she lowered her chin, her lower lip puffed out in thought. “But Schatzi, I cannot stand him. I cannot stand for him to touch me.” She looked up and smiled, and for the first time Chase noticed she had a thin band of faded nicotine stains around her otherwise white teeth. She had never smoked around him. “Not like with you.”

“But he’s a dentist!” Chase argued.

Schatz. Rilke once wrote, ‘du musst dein Leben ändern.’ I realize it is now time for me to change my life. My life is now in America. With you.” She reached over and kissed him, then lingering a moment, bit his lower lip. He felt the slight sting from the pressure of her teeth as he pulled away. First it was Goethe, Schiller and Hölderlin, and now it was Rilke.

They finished walking through the exhibit, hand in hand, then made their way into the museum bookshop. While Agnes browsed the selection of books auf Detusch, Chase stared out the windows. It continued raining, the tourists huddled under collapsing umbrellas, the locals slogging through in waterproof parkas and baseball caps, dripping rainwater and depression.

Agnes walked up to him and held out a plastic museum shop bag to him. “For your birthday, Schatz.”

Chase took the bag, looked inside, then pulled out a copy of Goethe’s Faust. He flipped through the first few pages.

“But it’s in German!”

Ja. This will give you a chance to practice.”

“But I don’t know how to read German.”

“So now you can begin to learn. Really, you cannot expect to read such a masterwork in translation.”

“Masterpiece,” Chase corrected, then sighed. Yet another lesson in cultural superiority assertion. Chase had heard them all: Americans were such barbarians, Americans only spoke one language, Americans didn’t know art, or literature, or philosophy, or even history, Americans were fat, Americans were lazy, Americans were colonialist oppressors, on and on until he wondered why she spent her time with an out-of-shape cultural barbarian like himself.

“Whatever. I read books in English.”

“You read Harry Potter!”

“Yes, but you see I do not read the inferior German translations.” Agnes smiled her pained smile and pointed at the book. “You will enjoy it.” It sounded like an order.

Although Agnes spent most of her free time with Chase, she did have a small room in a boarding house near the university on a tree-shaded slope above Capitol Hill, near Volunteer Park. She returned there that evening, Chase assumed, in order to give Jörg the Zahnartz the bad news in private. Suddenly faced with an evening alone he tried reading, but couldn’t concentrate on Faust; the fact that he didn’t read German might have hindered the effort. He tried listening to music, but after the initial exhilaration of an orchestra in full volume, Beethoven began to bore him. How could anyone enjoy the slow parts? Maybe he was a cultural Visigoth after all. So, he settled onto the couch with a beer, a bag of potato chips and the remote control.

The History Channel was in the midst of a ten-part series on the Hitler Youth, Discovery Channel had a documentary on Nazi doctors, and as he flipped over to the Food Network, Chase half-expected to be confronted with Eva Braun’s favorite strudel recipe. Why this continuing American obsession with National Socialism and the postage stamp-mustached, one-balled, Austrian failed artist whose first real job had been Chancellor of Germany? Chase almost felt sorry for Agnes and her fellow Deutschlanders for living in a country that would forever be defined by the madness of those dozen years. Then again, her people had been responsible for the systematic, near-extermination of his people. That certainly tempered his sympathy. He finished the beer, switched off the TV, and stared up at the ceiling. He considered calling Agnes, but then decided he didn’t want to appear needy. He hated to admit it, but he felt lonely and a little lost without her controlling presence.

He called his parents at their horse farm on Vashon Island instead, updating them on his life and arranging a weekend visit far enough in advance to satisfy Agnes. Then he switched the TV back on, drank another beer, finished off the bag of chips, and eventually nodded off during a late-night sports wrap-up program. He woke up with a start, his mouth heavy and thick from too much beer and too much salty starch, brushed his teeth, flossed, then shuffled off to bed alone.

***

He returned to work early Monday morning and spent twelve-hour days working and polishing the presentation with Team Ambergris, snatching fifteen minutes for a tuna sandwich on rye at his desk for lunch, and later arriving home too exhausted to think about dinner. By Wednesday, when the campaign was completed and he had time to check his personal email, he realized he hadn’t heard a word from Agnes. Every relationship had its quota of lies, and he wondered what she had told Jörg regarding her decision. After five years together, the lies between them must have calcified thick and hard into a simulacrum of trust. Now that false sense of trust would be shattered for good. The start of a relationship really was the best, Chase reflected, when both parties felt the necessity of opening their hearts and expressing honest emotion in the attempt to build strong, lasting bonds, before that truth began to melt away into the river of lies flowing over day to day life.

He dialed her number from his desk, but there was no answer. Perhaps she was in class, or scurrying through the library stacks on a scholarly research mission with the zeal of a missionary in the Congo. He left a brief message, went out to lunch at McDonald’s with a couple of colleagues, whose thought processes rarely moved beyond the pleasure principle, and along with his super-sized meal had a yawn-inducing discussion about the subtle differences between homogenized American beers, homogenized American films and homogenized American music. Agnes may have quoted Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (he’d looked up the reference on the internet), but Chase didn’t need to confront the Apollo Belvedere to realize he needed some changes in his life, too.

After lunch, he checked his email again, and sandwiched between offers for penis enlargement pills, mortgages at lower than depression-era rates, herbal Viagra, and Thai mail order brides, was a message from Agnes. Chase opened it and read:

Ich möchte mich entschuldigen: dafür daß ich angenommen habe, daß ich vielleicht eine Zukunft mit dir haben könnte. Dafür, daß ich dir Hoffnungen gemacht habe und daß ich bis jetzt unsicher war. Es muß schrecklich für dich sein, auf mich zuwarten, auf ein Zeichen, auf irgendeine Regung meiner seits. Kalt und heiß bin ich für dich. Das verunsichert dich und schafft kein Vertrauen zwischen uns.

He scrolled down through what appeared to be pages and pages of Goethe’s Faust. Confused, Chase wrote a quick reply, asking her to clarify her message; since he couldn’t read German, it couldn’t possibly have been meant for him.

When she hadn’t answered him by Friday, he had no other choice than to believe the message had been meant for him. He got as far as “I would like to apologize…” with a Langenscheit’s dictionary, a scratch pad and a large measure of growing frustration before calling Louis Monastery.

***

Pine trees dripped rain, shaking in the breeze outside the office window on the third floor of the Communications Building. Chase rested his nose against the glass and felt the outside chill. Louis leaned back in his padded chair and fingered the four laser-printed pages. “It’s definitely a break-up letter, my friend, but she’s breaking up with you, not him.”

Chase turned away from the window and warmed his nose by breathing into the triangle of his pressed fingertips. “Why is it in German? She knows I can’t read German.”

“Humiliation. My guess is she wants this to be a humiliating experience for you. Boy, the general of hot desire really stuck it to you this time.”

“Humiliation and German. There are two words you’d never use together in a sentence.”

“Now Chase, just because your team lost six million to their team, that’s no reason to harbor a grudge.”

“Louis, I think you may be a closet anti-Semite.”

“Far from it, my friend. Family scuttlebutt has it one of my Hungarian relatives on my grandmother’s side was a follower of Moses and Theodor Herzl.”

Chase reached over, grabbed the pages out of Louis’ hands and flipped through them. “So, what does she say?”

“You really want to know?” Louis slipped off his glasses, kneaded his eyes and laughed. “I’m sorry, it’s just this situation is so absurd it could only happen to you.” He took the pages back and slipped on his glasses. “Let’s see. She wants to apologize for giving you the impression that you two had a future together, uh huh, that she gave you hope, even though she was uncertain, uh huh, that it must have been terrible for you waiting to hear from her, uh huh, and she knows she’s running hot and cold with you, uh huh.”

“No shit. A romance of rose and ice.”

Louis paused to laugh again. “I’m sorry. You know what Nietzsche said: ‘the short tragedy always gives way to the eternal comedy of existence.’”

“I suppose he said that in German, too.”

Die kurze Tragödie gieng schliesslich immer in die ewige Komödie des Daseins über und zurück.

“I think that would qualify as pretentious, Louis.”

“You should add Nietzsche to your reading list. Sorry.” Louis held up a hand. “Hold on, this part is great. Uh huh, uh huh, un huh — ”

“Uh huh, what?”

“She says she tried to educate you, to get you up to Jörg’s level, but that ultimately cross-cultural relationships can never work, especially with an American.”

“Not funny, Louis. Remember, you’re American, too.”

“Yes, but I’m an American with a Ph.D. That puts me in the top one percent of educated Americans.”

“Louis, that also puts you in the top one percent of assholes. Remind me why we’re friends again?”

“Speaking of friends, she also says that you two can never be friends, because, well, because this is one fucked-up Frau. Consider yourself lucky to have escaped the clutches of this one.”

“So why the hell did she tell me she wanted to be with me and not him? I’m the one who didn’t want anything serious, and now I’m the one getting dumped.” Chase shook his head, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “And stop laughing.”

“I’m sorry. You know, it’s better to be the dumper than the dumpee. Perhaps she sensed that by raising the stakes in your relationship, you were thinking about dumping her. She just beat you to the punch. That, or you really are the stereo-typical Dumbo Americano and there’s no hope for you.”

“Fuck you, Louis. Oh hell, good riddance to her.”

“I’ll get the Wozzeck CD.”

“Please don’t.” Chase leaned over with a pained expression on his face. “Why do I feel so bad? Damnit, why do I miss her all of a sudden?”

“Because, my friend, you don’t have a clue as to where your next slice of custard pie is coming from. Deprivation is a powerful emotional stimulant.”

“Thank you, Dr. Monastery. Louis, I’m going nuts. And not just because of her. It’s everything in my life. I really don’t know what I’m doing any more. Most of my friends are married, and most of them want to see me married. I don’t want to see me married. Part of me just wants to run away and be a kid again.”

“That’s called celebrating the joys of being single, my friend. Don’t let one Teutonic twit ruin it for you.” Louis crumpled the sheets into a paper wad the size of a baseball and tossed them in the trash.

“Next you’ll be telling me there’s plenty of fish in the sea.”

“There are plenty of fish in the sea, my friend. Do you know that the majority of university students are now female? Here at our own esteemed institution, 60 percent of the students are female.”

“Yes, and off limits to you.”

“But not to you.”

“Great. So now I start acting like Humbert Humbert in the elementary school parking lot in Lolita.”

“You have read a book!”

“Thanks, Agnes. Do you know she gave me a copy of Faust in German?”

“Well — ”

“And if you quote Goethe in German I’ll kill you.”

“Goethe? Who’s Goethe?”

“Jesus, Louis, I have a degree in English and she made me feel like the village idiot.”

“Did you bring up the Third Reich?”

“As often as I could. I get the distinct impression they think of it as their Greatest Generation.”

“Trust me, the intellectual strength of Europeans is merely turning their weaknesses into moral superiority.” Suddenly, Louis grinned like a gargoyle. “I’ve got an idea. Have you ever considered the military?”

“Not funny.”

“I’m just kidding. How about graduate school?”

“Louis, that’s like asking me if I’ve considered prison.”

Louis swept his arms around the modest office, filled with books, journals, stacks of student papers, and posters for comp lit conferences in exotic, far-off destinations like Pocatello, Idaho and Worcester, Massachusetts. “Ours is the power and the glory, the kingdom come, PC’s will be done.”

“Sorry, I don’t see myself as the scholarly type. It’s bad enough writing ad copy, let alone acting like a trained academic seal.”

“I resent that remark.”

“You should, you bastard.”

“Hear me out. As a grad student, all those fish in the sea would be fish in your sea.”

“So now you want to live vicariously through me?”

“Of course not. I’m just thinking of your best interests. Why not go back to school? You said yourself you wanted to run away and be a kid again. It sure beats working for a living.”

“True.”

“And a few years down the line, mail a copy of your Ph.D. to Agnes.”

Chase started to smile. “Why would I do that? Besides, if I showed up here on the UDub campus, Agnes would think I’m stalking her.”

“That’s really pathetic. Forget about her, Chase. Aryan princess meets Jewish frog prince and they live happily ever after? I think not. Not even Hollywood could make that one work.”

“Schindler’s List 2: The Reverse Diaspora.”

“This time it’s personal…” Louis rumbled, in deep, movie-trailer-announcer voice. “Okay, look, she ended her neurotic goodbye note with ‘Laß mich gehen.’ So, let her go. It’s time for you to reengage, my friend, to get tangled up again in the rich thicket of reality.”

“How the hell do I…did you just say ‘rich thicket of reality?’”

“William James.”

“God, you really are pretentious.”

“I’m an intellectual. I’m paid by the state to be pretentious.”

Chase laughed, despite the corkscrew pain working its way into his heart. “Would you write me a letter of recommendation?”

“Of course. That’s how the game is played. Look, take the GRE next month, pick a nice warm place where it doesn’t rain, and apply. Forget Agnes, forget Seattle and move on to whatever fate has in store for you.”

“Interesting idea. The passionate pursuit of knowledge as cover for being a pussyhound. I like it.”

Louis picked up a literary journal called Bombast off the desk and flipped it open. “You think I got into this racket for the pursuit of knowledge? The goddamn PC mavens have ruined everything. Look what I’m stuck with. Assistant professors actually write this crap, just to get tenure. No one would willingly write this crap. Hell, no one would willingly read this crap. Believe me, if you can write ad copy you can write this crap.”

Chase looked: “‘You Don’t Know What I’ve Got’: Transgender and Genital Displacement in the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Deuce Coupe.’”

He chuckled. “Good title.”

“Art made tongue-tied by authority, as the Bard once said.”

“If you consider the Beach Boys art.”

“Everything is art these days. Pop songs, a shark encased in plastic, reality television, porn, even, god help us all, criticism. Learn to harness those nascent powers of observation, leech on to the trendy theory du jour and voila! You too can become a critic.”

“Pussyhound, Louis, pussyhound.”

“Think it over, Chase. I’m serious. This could be the change in your life you’re looking for.”

Chase stood up and started for the door. “Thanks again for the translation service. I’ll call you tomorrow, after I murder a half dozen martinis tonight.”

“Need some company?”

“Nope. I’ve got to solo sometime.”

Louis snapped off his best RAF officer salute, palm forward. “Good luck, Captain. Give Jerry a wake-up call for me.”

Chase returned the salute. “I don’t know about applying for grad school, Louis. Still…” As he headed out the office and toward the stairs, he heard Louis shout, “What’s the worst thing that could happen…you get accepted?”

***

By the time Chase took the bus back over the Interstate, through Capitol Hill and into downtown Seattle, by the time he had surfaced out of the metro tunnel the city used to funnel buses in and out of the center, since they had run out of money and never purchased subway cars to run on the rail tracks, by the time he’d stopped in the International District for a steaming hot bowl of soba noodles and two bottles of sake, by the time he’d started walking down Pine Street toward his apartment in Belltown, it had stopped raining. The granite clouds broke apart and drifted past, and the sun appeared low on the horizon, a ball of burning gases foreshadowing the stale grandeur of annihilation thousands of millennia in the future. For the moment, the surface of Eliot Bay sparkled like it had been dusted with sugar crystals, the edges of the eggplant-purple clouds tinged pink in the setting sun. The ferry horn sounded like an ode to joy.

A miracle! After weeks and weeks of rain, cold, wet, misery inducing rain, a glimpse of the sun, of a bright, shining future appearing magically out of the gloom of the recent past. A sign! Perhaps Louis was right, it was time to leave behind the workers of the world and enter the pantheon of the top one percent. Then again, perhaps Louis was wrong, and recklessly changing his life would bring nothing but a raging torrent of misfortune into it. He thought of Agnes and reminded himself to trash the copy of Faust as soon as he got home.

He looked down at the drifting shadows on the sidewalk. The clouds were dissipating, the sun was shining, the course was becoming clear. That living thing felt like it had come full term, ready to burst free. He looked up just as a pierced, tattooed, i-Poded brunette, leading a little dog on a leash and carrying a steaming tall latte, walked right into him.

Writing. Literature. Philosophy. Culture. Ph.D. U of Arizona.

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