The Adventures of Little Willy

June 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Winter 2008

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The man standing beside them in produce, squat, bald, and muscular, casually thoughtful and apparently self-assured, picks up a cantaloupe and holds it before him, examining the network of its veins. He raises and lowers it a few times, testing its weight, which makes his arm muscles flex. He is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. On his upper arm, a tattoo of a well-known planet, circled twice by barbed wire. As his muscles expand, the planet pumps against the wire.

Then he lifts the melon to his nose and smells the crater left where it was pulled from the vine.

Then he looks at the price and winces.

“No way, Jose!” he says.

“No way Jose!” Willy, behind him, repeats joyously.

“What’s that?” William asks.

“No way Jose!” he says again, giving the carrier a shake.

“Settle down back there, William.”

“Willy!” he shouts.

William was against Willy having his name, but at least he isn’t a junior, as he took his middle name from his wife’s father, about whom William has mixed opinion. He was especially opposed to Willy, but somehow it happened and stuck. And every now then Miriam and even he let Little Willy slip, which doesn’t upset Willy at all but rather transports him into a smile.

“Right. We’re going to hear that the next few days, aren’t we, Willy?”

“No way Jose!”

“That’s what I thought.”

At tomatoes William picks one up and studies it, realizing he doesn’t know what to look for.

He believes he should help out with all the tasks at home, in part from principle, in part because it is expected, though Miriam usually takes over shopping and cooking, and he has almost no experience in either. Before Willy came, they usually went out, and if he works late now, which is often, he eats at the office, the food provided all hours by a fine catering service, one of the perks at the firm.

The tomato doesn’t smell like anything and feels as hard as a baseball. He holds it like one, clutched between thumb and two fingers, and reaches back so Willy can see.

“What do you think?”

“No way Jose!”

Then he looks at the price.

“Jesus,” he says.

“Ease-us!” Willy says.

“I didn’t mean that. Don’t say that, Willy. Don’t let your mother hear you say that. Not that Mom’s religious. Not that she isn’t religious. I don’t know what your mother is. Say ‘No way, Jose.’”

“No way Jose!”

“There you go. I hope the farm workers are getting their share.”

“No way Jose!”

“You’re probably right.”

Because William does have principles and believes that fairness should be a universal given, the starting point for all discussions. At Stanford he majored in history, years spent unveiling the masks of power to show the abuses of class and race, the underside of economics. If he doesn’t yet have a clear picture of the way the world should be, he can project the lines of possibilities where it ought to go. And at first he saw his work as a way to realize these possibilities—they all did there—or at least it had this potential in a world that was transforming itself into something else. There was so much in the air, not that long ago.

He tries several more tomatoes, and they all look, feel, and smell the same. He wonders how long it will take them to ripen and develop taste, if they ever will. He read somewhere tomatoes were being genetically engineered to be hard for shipping and wonders if this is the case here, and if so, why a sign does not tell him so, and if they are and he hasn’t been told, whether or not there might be some kind of problem down the road.

He wants to ask the bald man for his advice, but the man has disappeared, so he selects four at random,

“No way Jose!”

“We need tomatoes, Willy.”

He estimates the total price, feeling inside somewhere a sideways lurch.

Economy, not being extravagant or wasteful, is also a matter in which he believes, at least in principle. But when he started work no one thought much about the actual facts of money or the basis of its existence. Their pay was good and had every chance of going higher. But not the money—that was never the goal—yet it just happened to be there, and elsewhere in the world there seemed to be plenty to go around and more was being created every day. They were the ones, after all, who helped retool the machinery that passed it around. More than their technology, and perhaps because of it, it seemed the exigencies of money itself had been transcended, part of world’s transformation. He has begun to consider, however, the necessity of putting economy into practice. The payments on their townhouse in Sunnyvale are, in fact, quite steep.

He works his way down Miriam’s list and through produce, negotiating the narrow aisles among the others—it is Saturday and the store is crowded—who, like him, sort and pick and squeeze and stare at prices. Nothing looks right to him, everything seems off in some way. But he cannot tell what is pliant because it has been squeezed several times before, nor knows what size is right or what might be abnormally small and scraggly or overly large and tumescent. He does not know what to make of smells that are faintly suggestive or too much so, nor how to read the bright colors that have been painted on skins, enticing and unconvincing. He has no idea what the skins have been treated with to fend off whatever there is that attacks them. He has no idea what relationship anything he sees bears to the natural world, about which he wishes he knew more. He is beginning to feel a little lost.

And he thinks he heard on the news the other day that some produce item was linked to an outbreak of E. coli.

What was it?

Also a little sick.

“Onward!” he says.

“On-word!” Willy replies.

“Vision!”

“Vizzen!”

“There isn’t anything that can’t be solved with spirit and a little imagination.”

It’s the way they talk at the firm.

But at lettuce a burst of thunder gives both of them a start—a recorded sound from small speakers announcing a misting spray to keep the leaves fresh, which soon follows.

He took the job in the years that followed the dot-com bust, but after the clearing out and consolidating and restructuring, the enthusiasm of before returned and the picture started to look bright again, especially for those who laid low and waited to go public. He works for AskUS, an internet search site, who revamped their pages and launched a publicity campaign, hoping to displace the other whose homepage sported only one word.

His degree from Stanford got him an interview. His major in history, however, was good only for a job in sales, though they don’t call it that. Everything at AskUS is called something else, this renaming stemming from the desire that what they do not rest grounded in the mundane. When he makes his pitch to prospective clients, he ascends into an abstruse world of technical details about the special algorithm of their search engine and the powers of their banks of servers, then moves up into an abstract realm of strategies and initiatives and global action, his talk sprinkled with sentimental buzzwords—synergism and creativity and proactive solutions—that do get a rise from his clients, and sometimes from him as well, sometimes so much so that there are times he forgets what it is he actually does.

But it is one thing to be sentimental, yet entirely another to aspire, and the place the words posit seems moved by the desire they all share that they look beyond themselves to create a better world. The firm has genuine commitment to common causes. Nor does he have to hide his views but can speak openly there. He wouldn’t have enjoyed such freedom on a corporate ladder, or maybe even in academia, where he gave some casual thought.

What he does is sell sponsored links advertising related products that appear on the page when a user makes a search, for which clients pay pennies a click, AskUS’s bread and butter. Still, there is nothing base in making and selling products, or telling people about them. And earning profits from the process is the way the whole world has gone. Any drive needs sustenance; profits will feed the future of the country, as well as theirs. The Web, all the information out there, all the hands in the U.S., in the world, that might provide it and into which it might be put—there has to potential, and possibilities that can’t even be imagined until they start to unfold. His hope is to move into product development, where he does have some input.

Tension at the firm now, however, undercurrents of uneasiness running through the grid of cubicles. However much AskUS promotes its community—and they have another word for that—programmers and higher ups in management lately have been looking at him askance, or it seems that way, as if he does not belong or is not holding up his end. He knows, however, he is not alone, and that there are other conflicts, unvoiced and unresolved. Most, the news has not been good. While they did receive favorable notice and had a successful IPO, they have been losing ground ever since. But no one gets anywhere looking back or second guessing, especially in Silicon Valley. Better not to express doubts but look ahead and maintain the spirit that got them started, which will sustain them now and on into the future. They will figure something out, as will he, whatever happens next.

Laundry detergent.

He is staring at half an aisle of detergents scented and scentless, plastic bottles in colors bright and subdued with pictures of arms and hammers and concentric circle targets and sunny beaches and mountain streams and bursts of light, with many different names and signs both subtle and direct, signs, names, and pictures of cleanliness and power and purity, plotting the way to domestic bliss.

“History, Willy, is a series of moveable stories told about the facts.”

To which Willy does not respond and William adds no further comment. He isn’t sure himself where the passion of reading meanings that moved them all at Stanford has left him now. Also he has forgotten what brand Miriam uses.

He studies the labels, hoping one will jog his memory. Most, though not all, say they contain no phosphates, the nourishment that once fed the algae explosion that choked our lakes and streams. Few say what they do have, however, and he wonders about their claims of environmental safety, especially when he notes the warnings on the back, the need to keep them out of the hands of small children, for which he makes a mental note. While he can get the unit price from the tag on the shelf, he can’t figure out which might be too harsh or so soft and safe that it may not do its job, whether any can actually deliver on its claims. Nothing rings a bell and he’s on his own.

“Which one, Willy?”

“Boo.” He lunges for the soft blue bottle with a picture of mountain streams.

“Good choice. You’re a boon companion, Willy.”

“Boom!”

“You screw up words on purpose, don’t you?”

“No way Jose!”

But he is good company, and William enjoys taking him along. His buoyant spirit, his ability to see the world with fresh surprise—Willy always lifts him and helps him see afresh himself. And there is another tendency that strikes him, the way Willy looks and ingests and pauses in rapt absorption, which may only childish yet still is mysterious and possibly insightful, though which might develop into other tendencies later that might lead him astray when he is older, where William has some concerns. He has begun to worry about what will happen to Willy when he goes out into the world, what the world, in turn, will hold in store for him.

In many ways the world has come to them. So many different faces at the store, in the crowd—Pacific Rim and India and Eastern Europe, and even Middle East, which he does not remember from previous trips, and others whose origins he cannot place, their look and manner unfamiliar. A great many don’t appear to be entrepreneurs or engineers, in fact they do not look well off at all and their faces are rather grim. He wonders how they make it here, given how expensive this place has become. Some look like recent arrivals—the Chinese couple in front of him, elderly, the wife pushing the cart, the husband strolling with his hands clasped behind his back, his chest set gracefully forward in an open, accepting pose not occidental, who stares at an aisle with awe and maybe a little fear.

William understands his reaction because he feels the same when he sees what the man is looking at, nearly an entire aisle filled top to bottom with shampoos and conditioners and hair colors running the whole spectrum, options more varied and complex than those for detergents. He attempts some observation as to what might be concluded about all the attention to our hair, but gets a little dizzy. He is relieved shampoo is not on the list.

Fear turns to dread the next aisles. Condoms and tampons and douches and lubricants—how on earth will he explain these later?—treatments for infections of the feet and groin, wart removers and lice killers, digestive and sleep aids, a host of medicines for ailments of the head and stomach—who needs all this stuff, and why, and when, and how often?—razor blades and other body cutting tools, heavy duty cleaners with concentrations of bleach and ammonia he can smell, and poisons to kill ants and roaches and mice and rats. Again many brands, many choices, all with different claims and different signs and different colors, as well as many different warnings on the front, and as they pass by Willy reaches out right and left.

“Settle down back there.”

A supermarket, he thinks, is a minefield.

He continues down the list and across the store, working his way through the traffic of carts and around the shoppers who stand back to look, fending off the noise of all that calls to him and his wallet, the calling pushed up one notch more—sticking out in the aisles, coupon dispensers with flashing LEDs, where Willy snags a few.

“Settle down back there.”

Yet dread flies to sudden rapture when he drops his guard and lets the calling in and follows it where it takes him, to an elaborate, specialized physical world of special preservatives and boosters and enhancers, compounds that only a chemist could understand, all capable of God knows what; a sheer verbal universe with a language unto itself, its own way of spelling the names of its brandz and produx—Huggies, Jell-O, Drano, Nexxus, Gas-X, Durex, Zantac, Ex-Lax, Renuzit, and, at the head of one aisle, a special on Cheez-Its—and its own way of giving special meanings to ordinary words—Pampers, Depend, Resolve, Glad, Glade, Gentle Glide, and Joy—or which frees itself from conventional meanings and creates its own; a whole new culture, or cultures, or a multitude of cultures, with styles ranging from the delicate and floral and herbal to the unabashedly ramped up, with signs and pictures that point in all directions.

Such utter diversity of voices and choices competing freely with each other for his attention, and not just for his but for that of all the faces in the store from around the world and of anyone and everyone everywhere, taking him and them all to some special place, or places, or to seemingly infinite places unto themselves—it is empowering, and exhilarating, and still something else.

But after passing through three aisles of morgue-like freezers filled with packaged foods, he feels a chill and rapture falls to somber reflection.

There lie underneath, he knows, issues of limited resources and delicate balances in nature disrupted, and of labor, of working conditions and status, of distribution of wealth here and across the globe, which, if investigated, would raise many questions. Still, the exuberance is compelling and it is hard not to believe that something would remain after the leveling of such analysis, that there is some whole much greater than the sum of all the parts, or vastly, ecstatically less, or which has nothing to do with parts, a passion that cannot be dissected or suppressed.

What would Adam Smith have to say?

Or Karl Marx?

Yet the noise is overwhelming and rapture quickly falls to fatigue. It is the way he feels when makes a search at AskUS and scans the hundreds of pages it returns.

But ultimately it is his world—he is a salesman who sells ads, one link in the business chain—something he has always known but hasn’t fully let sink in. What he hasn’t realized until now is how much he is a stranger to this world, as much as he is to the one that feeds the stuff that churns through the banks of servers at AskUS night and day, the exuberance of information, the passion of the flow of bits and bytes, of all the pennies from all the clicks. What he still cannot fathom is the revelation at a meeting last week that has spread through the firm and set faces aglow, made without irony or qualification and accepted without reservation: advertising is AskUS’s mission.

“Settle down back there.”

While Wiliam is running down, Willy grows more restless. And heavier—it’s really time to move him to the grocery cart seat. He sees far enough ahead to avoid the racks with cheap plastic toys, but at the next aisle runs into candy, towards which Willy strains and grunts.

“Settle down back there.”

And has the same problem when he pushes past the sugared cereals.

“Settle down back there.”

Fortunately, bread is next, loaves with one to fifteen grains, a superfluity of wholesomeness and roughage. Also fortunately, the name of the kind he is supposed to buy is on the list. But it’s one he’s never liked—it goes down dry and hard—and, he suspects, costs a dollar more than it did the last time he made this trip.

There are other things about the list that do not sit well with him today.

Still, Miriam manages this world, or seems to, just as she seems to manage the world at AskUS, without strain or disbelief. She got on board a year after him and is a human resources partner there, another of the firm’s innovations, a position where she has freedom to cross the borders between departments. She opens up channels of communication and passes on complaints, as well as coaches employees up and down on conflict resolution techniques, all so AskUS can stay focused and together and everyone feels he belongs and she has input and a place. His path and hers, however, seldom cross, probably just as well.

And every day Miriam comes home satisfied, charged with purpose, more so lately, in spite of the tensions at the firm—or maybe because of them? He has always wondered how she does it, and why, what moves her, just as he wonders now how she has handled most of the shopping without wearing down and losing faith. He also wonders why she doesn’t realize what he himself was late in seeing, that the people they work with at AskUS are flakes.

The mistakes he makes shopping today will not be brought to his attention, yet he suspects somehow he will become aware of them, that they will be added to an unseen ledger, where he might be in the red.

But he is projecting. She never complains about anything or brings him up short. They have a good marriage

Yet what also sinks in today is that their marriage is settling down, new territory where he does not know his way around. There may be hidden problems and false perceptions that they could put aside the first years, now waiting to surface.

But he is speculating idly, perhaps stirring up trouble. All marriages have conflicts; moving past is what makes them stronger. Besides, he is almost done and is eager to leave and go home.

Meat, rows of it, however, freezes him, where he stares at all the packaged cuts, raw and frankly red. He is not used to seeing meat this way, and the meat seems to be staring back. But he doesn’t think about cows crammed into pens and stuffed with antibiotics, but rather about the war.

What has brought this to mind?

“In Guantanamo Bay—“

“Whackamollay!”

“What?”

“Whackamollay!”

“Oh, right. Guacamole. Guantanamo, guacamole. In Guantanamo Bay we strapped interrogees down and poured water over their faces, making them gag and think they were drowning. Glub! Glub! Glub!”

“Gub gub gub!”

“It’s called waterboarding. Test subjects with the CIA could only take it fifteen seconds. I don’t know if we do it anymore. I’d tell them anything they wanted, wouldn’t you?”

“No way Jose!”

“You’re a trouper, Willy. Good thing you don’t understand any of this.”

But he wonders if we are still doing it, and what else we might still be doing there now. And other images come to mind from Abu Ghraib, Saddam’s place of torture then ours, of the mass of naked bodies piled up beneath our smiling faces, of the man standing on a box wearing a grotesque parody of a Halloween costume, a quizzically pointed hood and ragged poncho-like cloak, with his arms splayed out in a suggestive pose, and on his fingers electrodes. Hovering over the images, the gross irony that no one there or higher up seemed to grasp.

He does not like the administration, of course, but at first he thought it harmless and believed the country could manage on its own. There was so much else going on, and we had our own energies to direct us. Still, when the Iraq invasion, mercifully quick, was over and the statue fell, he felt the relief we all did, that a toxin had been removed and the world could continue on its forward course.

But there has been an uneasy settling down the last years, and all kinds of things have surfaced since, here and there, in the Arab world itself with its sectarian passions, the violence that seems to feed itself.

What else might be hiding, waiting to be released?

And on top of the passions, theirs and ours, all the signs, both subtle and direct, of cleanliness and power and purity and global bliss, all the talk, years of it, all the arguments, all the pitches, our ascent into an abstruse world plotted by the technical details of our devices, and beyond, up into an abstract realm of strategies and initiatives and global action, the talk laced with its own brand of sentimental buzzwords that cut the spirit when they are heard.

What has he been thinking about all this time?

What has anyone thought?

He is glad to make the checkout stand at last but then stares at all the harried faces of our actors and singers and other personalities perched above the conveyor belt, appearing on the covers of the tabloids that headline their weight problems, under and over, their operations and divorces, their time in rehab. It wasn’t that long ago that they looked happy and healthy and seemed to be having a good time.

“Jesus, this country is screwed up.”

“Ease-us!”

“Sorry, Willy. I slipped again. No way, Jose.”

“No way Jose!”

He realizes he doesn’t know what anything is really worth.

Nor does he know what kind of shape the economy is in or what its signs actually mean, nor who is getting a fair shake or not, nor who is getting along with whom or isn’t, nor where any of us are headed.

He also wonders what else he needs to wonder about and realizes he doesn’t know that as well.

And he has no idea what he will do when AskUs goes under.

At the bank card machine, while he fumbles at the buttons, demoralized and tired, Willy reaches up and touches his hair, playing with it in lingering caress.

“Settle down back there.”

But William tries to remember the last time he was touched so softly, if ever.

.

.

Off center and by itself in the small box in the grid of weathered and colorless redwood fencing that encloses and separates the other backyards from each other, before the back of the nearly identical unit behind, in the midst of all the nearly identical units, modernish and nondescript, a jacaranda, the mesh of its many slender branches, gently crooked and slightly tortured, splaying outward away from themselves yet rising together to the late afternoon sun, a complex straining yet with single intent, and appearing everywhere at the ends of the branches, in spite of the unseasonable chill a cold front pushed in last night, or perhaps, in a sense, because of it, the tips of purple buds, barely visible and beyond counting, delicate and bracing.

There is wisdom in small things, she thinks.

The world is what it is.

There is no point in racking ourselves over the things we cannot change.

But there is a natural course in the world we can follow, if we learn to listen and do not force ourselves upon it.

And even if there isn’t, we might as well act as if there were.

What are the other options?

It is only by paying attention to small things that we have any hope of changing the large.

There is wisdom in small things.

Soon the suspense of buds will be released into a flurry of silent blossoms, seemingly weightless, floating like a mist, yet substantial, whose sight will make everything else around them fade and drift, immaterial. . . .

One should not lose sight of the present, and what Miriam turns to now is what to do about a husband who may be showing the signs of several years of stress. He is not alone, and she wonders why no one saw it coming. Taking care of present concerns is also the best way to deal with her own recent bouts with depression.

“What on earth am I supposed to do with these?”

She is staring at four tomatoes.

“No way Jose!”

Willy is sitting on the counter under a watchful eye, helping out.

“What’s that?”

“No way Jose!”

“Must be something you got up from your father. The salad doesn’t have to have tomatoes. Don’t tell him, OK?”

“No way Jose!”

“You’re a saint, Little Willy.”

Willy beams.

She puts the tomatoes on the window sill, just in case.

“Let’s see what we can do to pick your father up.”

At the small table in the kitchen, Willy sits between them in his highchair, his tray just above their plates. On the plates, the everyday plates, veal marsala, veal which had to be pounded into submission, and fettuccini, and to the side salad highlighting variations on green, everything lightly seasoned and carefully, casually placed. By the plates, crystal and a bottle of Merlot she had been saving—for what?

“You’re a wonder, Miriam.”

“It is nothing.”

He is trying, she thinks.

Willy pauses a moment to look and ponder, about, at the food before him, theirs and his from jars and boxes, a small pile of fettuccini and the veal she scraped of sauce and shallots and mushrooms and cut neatly into small pieces, small portions of the other she arranged around the plate. Then he gets down to business, sounding out the timbre of the plate with his fork, mixing and stirring and pushing food around, and picking up and testing it and debating and spitting it out and putting it back and picking up and testing once more and chewing, wholly absorbed and for the most part content.

William, however, only stares at his.

“No politics, no work,” she says.

“That is the problem.”

“What problem?”

“No politics, no work.”

“There is a time and place for everything.”

“When?”

He looks up, as if accusing her—of what?

“When one is fed and settled.”

“That is the problem.”

“What problem?”

“No politics, no work.”

 “Excuse me?”

“I’m not going to talk about politics or work at the table.”

“This isn’t like you,” she says.

“What?”

“Being cryptic and not eating.”

His face softens with apology, and he sets himself to eating as well, though without method or desire.

This one isn’t over.

She stops to consider a plan of action. She is not going to get into a fight. No beauty in victory and everyone loses in defeat. The best plan is no plan. It is only by not taking this head on, whatever it is, that it can be resolved. Step away and wait. Let him work on it himself. He will come back when he is ready.

It is the plan that has always worked, and when they do talk she brackets goals and leaves slots open for alternatives, and concedes and compromises where she can, then looks at what emerges. If they aren’t brought to closeness, they at least come to an agreement. Always take what you can get.

While Willy ups the tempo in his eating, William slows down, testing and debating, picking up and putting back, pushing around something else that must be stirring his stomach juice. Also the Merlot has taken a heavy hit.

This one, however, may be different.

She is not going to be the counselor: she is his wife. Besides, it isn’t easy for her to step into the role herself. Not that she doesn’t put her heart into her work, but there are things she says and does at work, the platitudes, the playacting, that she can only provisionally accept and in which does not invest great belief. It is what is behind them that counts, and where they might lead. They are only props, and what matters more is the effort. What matters most is what will be left when the props are removed, what will stand on its own.

Sometimes, however, all she can see are the props, and it seems all she does is put them up. But at least they are there, holding up. Always take what you can get.

As for AskUS, you have to start somewhere, and it doesn’t matter where you start. You might as well work at a place where there is support and some spirit, and the wherewithal to get something done. Their enthusiasm can be forgiven. Even if they mouth virtuous words, there might yet be a way to make them take hold and stick. As for AskUS’s future, thinking about it will not get her anywhere now.

But she has always admired the distance William keeps and wonders how he does it, how he sets the look of confidence and fends off uncertainty, how he manages not to get swept in and carried off.

There are times she feels that if all the props were removed, everything would collapse.

She realizes she is not eating, either.

“For heaven’s sake, let it out.”

“We are a nation of idiots,” he says, still staring at his plate.

“Willy, William.”

Willy, however, is still busy eating.

“I didn’t vote for them and you didn’t either.”

“They’re not the only ones I have in mind.”

“Who else, then?”

He looks at her but doesn’t answer, his face caught between outrage and bemusement without finding either.

“I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to learn this, and I still have trouble believing it. Whenever people do mean and stupid and petty things, it’s not because they’re trying to be mean or stupid or petty but because they’re trying to do what they think is right.”

He says instead.

“Why is that so alarming?”

“It means they will never stop to realize they are mean and stupid and petty, so they will keep on doing mean and stupid and petty things, and do so with conviction and clean conscience.”

“What is new here?”

“We keep finding new ways to fool ourselves.”

“I don’t like the way things are going in this country any more than you do, but we won’t get anywhere by calling the people who run it idiots. We don’t have all the answers ourselves. And even if they are being stupid, we demean ourselves when we stoop to their level.”

“If we don’t, who will?”

“Besides, dismissing them as idiots takes us out of any discussion with them and gives them free rein.”

“They have it anyway.”

“We can look for common ground.”

“What common ground?”

“We can set the example of being reasonable ourselves and give them a chance to follow.”

“They will think us the fools.”

“Then we can let the force of our arguments persuade them, not the bitterness of our invective.”

“They won’t know what we’re talking about.”

He looks back down at his plate, still stirring.

This one isn’t going anywhere and it’s getting there fast.

She respects his opinion and has always felt he is more perceptive than she, and smarter. But there are times when she doesn’t know where he is, when she isn’t sure he knows himself, yet for some reason she pictures now a hooded man with bent head and helpless arms, standing on a little box.

He is being evasive.

He has always supported her.

Evasion is a form of attack.

He loves her.

He is attacking her.

He never judges her.

What has she done wrong?

Let it go, she thinks.

She continues. Something might yet be salvaged.

“We can at least take care of ourselves and see what we can create for those around us.”

“We don’t have all the answers.”

“It is not always easy to know what is right, but we make the best choices we can and hope for the best.”

“We might do more harm than good.”

“Then at least let us not be stupid ourselves and not do stupid things.”

“What if we are the idiots?”

“Then we can look to those around us and follow their example.”

“It is blindness.”

“It is vision.”

“It is a way to be led by the nose.”

“It is sanity.”

“It is a way to let the monsters in.”

“They already seem to be here. Jesus Christ, William, you’re being perverse.”

“No way Jose!”

Why is Willy looking at her? Was she the one who raised her voice? And now William looks at her and shows the same face.

“The problem with this country is that it lacks perspective,” he says.

 “The problem with this country is that it doesn’t believe in itself,” she says, softly, she thinks, but she doesn’t know where she is headed.

“It believes in itself too much,” he says, his face moving to a clearness, beyond irony and rage.

“This country doesn’t believe in anything,” she says, still softly, and realizes she believes it.

“This country believes in everything.”

“It doesn’t love itself.”

“It loves itself too much.”

“This country hates itself,” she says, and realizes all three might be true.

She also realizes she is lost.

“No way Jose!”

And she may have raised her voice again.

“Willy, I’m sorry. Willy, William.”

“This country doesn’t hate itself enough,” he says, ignoring her plea.

“No way Jose!”

Now Willy looks at him, but William doesn’t notice.

“The country has lost its self-respect,” she says, softly, she is sure.

“No way Jose!”

But Willy looks at her.

“The country has never respected anything,” he shouts.

“No way Jose!”

“The country is too aggressive,” she barely whispers.

“No way Jose!”

“The country is too passive,” he shouts again.

“No way Jose!”

 “The problem with this country is that it is a self-absorbed prick.”

Did she say that?

“The problem with this country is that it is a passive-aggressive bitch.”

Did he?

But then there is a wordless bawl, and she collapses over Willy, and William joins her, both with a flurry of gentle hands.

.

.

It took him a long time to convince Mom and Dad that he was asleep, and even longer to be certain that whatever attacked them had finally left the room. He stares at the ceiling, at the many fluorescent stars, now fading, which they stuck up there to serve as a night-light and stimulate his imagination, but which, quite frankly, have always frightened him.

When he closes his eyes, he sees afterimages of other stars, and of targets and mountain streams and sunny beaches and flowers and bursting lights, and of bright and subtle colors, and along with these a multitude of strange signs and strange words, strangely subtle and subtly direct, all presided over by a vision of that open-mouthed cherub of astonishment who has appeared on jars and boxes of his food all this time and whose name, apparently, is Gerber.

There is much to think about.

He doesn’t know why Mom and Dad thought they had hurt him or what moved them to shower him with affection.

But always take what you can get.

He also wonders why they don’t say what they mean when they talk to each other instead of beating around the bush.

Or maybe they don’t know what they mean to say but are doing the best they can?

Then again, maybe they did say exactly what they meant. In which case, he wonders it means, what kind of country it is he lives in that it could contain so many marvelous contradictions.

There are other questions he cannot answer.

If the good people who make all the products we consume want us to have them so much, why don’t they just give them to us? Why go to so much trouble?

Maybe if they didn’t put on such a show we wouldn’t want them?

Or are they hiding something, and the products are not worth having, but we have to be fooled into believing that they are?

Or is the lavish attention they pay us really what matters, and the products themselves, somehow, are beside the point?

And why, in Guacamole Bay, would we strap a man down and fake drowning him instead of doing the real thing? Wouldn’t that be easier?

Then again, if there is something we want to know, why don’t we just ask someone else, or better yet, find out ourselves?

Or maybe if we jazzed up our asking with glitzy slogans and flashy smiles and offered two-for-one, then he’d want to talk?

But maybe we really don’t want to know anything and the strapping down is what matters.

In spite of the obvious differences, the more he thinks about both situations, the more he sees similarities. But trying to find a connection makes him really dizzy and hurts his head, and he has to give this one up as well.

He wonders, too, what other kids his age stare at on their ceilings and what they see when they close their eyes.

He wonders what their parents talk about.

He wonders what all parents talk about, when their kids aren’t there to listen.

And he wonders what else exists in our country that might attack them.

Most, he wonders if anyone gets along.

One thing seems fairly certain, though, that life will only get more difficult, and not less.

For some reason he feels he is standing on an enormous box and he doesn’t know how to get down. And the stars continue to dim, and the darkness grows darker, and everything is dissolving into uncertainty, and sleep is pulling him and he is weary and afraid, and as he keeps staring at the ceiling, all his questions fade as well into this wish, that there might be someone out there who could ease us.

.

.

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