Love in Dead Languages
Yeah right, Annie. Maybe it's the job.
If the start of the story is apartments, then the heart of it is Ben. Ben wasn't much of a drinker. He just waddled into my dorm room one day to make friends. That was exactly how he put it. "I just waddled in to make friends." And that was how he kept on putting it, waddling in day after day and saying the same thing, "I just waddled in to make friends," looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a walrus, balding already at eighteen. He had this big round teddy bear belly and this frumpy walrus mustache that both jiggled when he said, "I just waddled in to make friends," in this deep brown teddy-walrus voice, "I just waddled in to make—"
"Friends?" I screamed one day. Cut him off. Couldn't take even one more. "Friends? Hey, Ben! How many days does it take? How many times do I have to hear that again?"
"Until you make friends with me," he said.
I knocked on Ben's door the next morning at dawn and asked him to breakfast. We played basketball the next afternoon, a one-on-one game in which Ben didn't make a single basket, but did manage to explain Book Four of the Iliad by Homer, over which I had a major test the next day. It was the craziest thing. This big teddy-walrus looking guy waddling around the court, quoting stats about Achilles and Patroclus in dead languages—it turns out Ben's dad had taught him freaking Latin and Greek—and missing the backboard two shots out of three. Before I knew what hit me, I was spending a lot less time in my dorm room getting co-eds drunk and a lot more time making friends with Ben. He tutored me on the roots of Western culture. I coached him on the fundamentals of basketball. Over the course of our two-semester one-on-one series, Ben got to be the best plus-sized player I've ever seen—slow to the basket, but a real master of the no-look pass, and money from outside the three-point arc—while I learned enough about ancient Greece and Rome to get me through Classic Civ. I and II.
What was that about irony, Annie?
I'll explain the three types to you the same way Ben explained them to me. I remember him standing there at the top of the key, dribbling thoughtfully, his red teddy bear face dripping puddles of sweat onto the white-hot concrete. "Verbal irony is like sarcasm," he said. Then he made a break for the basket, pulled up short, and swished a jumper while I was still back-pedaling. "Nice defense, coach." His walrus mustache gleamed in the sun when he grinned at me. "See? Verbal irony is the easiest of the three. The second type is a little tougher. With dramatic irony, the audience knows something a character doesn't. Pretend I'm the audience." He faked a high no-look pass and belly-laughed when I yanked my hands up to protect my face. "The audience knew I wasn't going to throw that pass. Get me?"
"I'd say you got me."
"That's the trouble with dramatic irony. You're always laughing at people, instead of laughing with them. Cosmic irony is even tougher. With cosmic irony, everything you do to make one thing happen leads to the opposite outcome instead."
"You mean like Fate?" I asked.
"It's more like Karma," he said. "You do something wrong and get punished. You have to be wrongheaded about something big. Your comeuppance shows both the audience, and you, the error of your ways. Like when Achilles should've been helping the Argives defend their ships, but was trying to save his reputation and wound up losing Patroclus instead."
With a lot of help from Ben, I managed to pass enough courses so Uncle Sam didn't cut off my college fund money. Then when the year was up, we moved into this filthy apartment together with another unflunked-out guy from our floor named Pete. The apartment was such a sewer, we had to leave all the doors and windows wide open to keep from choking to death on the stink. While the rotten food fog drifted out on the cross-breeze, the rats and roaches and ants drifted in across the '70's shag. The carpet was jungle-punch-colored, a plush-piled hot pink, with black bongwater polka-dots around the couch. Dirty yellow dishes sat around in out-of-the-way places—my study desk, the kitchen sink—being swallowed by deep green fuzz, their contents feeding the vermin we could hear rustling among the pizza boxes in the rare moments when Pete wasn't jamming on his electric guitar or blasting a CD.
Pete had such a kicking stereo system half the other unflunked-out folks from the outdoor-rec floor tried to bribe him into moving in with them. Ben hadn't wanted any part of the Pete auction, but I was determined to win. When Pete cranked the amps to his sub-woofer, he vibrated dorm windows three floors down. He also shot a hot game of hoops—he had a deadly baseline jumpshot, and a lightning break to the basket that you had to open up the jumper to stop—and he could do "Pretty Woman" just like Roy Orbison on his electric guitar. I got him for a lakeview master bedroom with his own private bathroom, and a fake ID with his picture and my birthday.
Does that sound ironical to you, Annie? What type?
Well, I think Ben would've agreed with me that irony usually fits pretty neatly into one of the three. Anyway, back to the sewer. There were moments of real brotherhood in that cesspool, between Ben and Pete and me. We competed together, trying to beat out each other's brains at tackle basketball while building a sense of esprit de corps and honing our combat skills. We went to bars together and hit on party girls with body piercings and funky tattoos. That is, Pete and I did. In this New Age hippy hotbed of ecstasy and Viagra—where everybody who's anybody is out there doing something weird with somebody—Ben went to bars chemical-free and told half-naked women with raunchy studs in their tongues and rainbow snakes on their bellies that he'd just waddled in to make friends. And we once played a game of tackle basketball against the UT football team. Well, against three of them anyway—a two-eyed Cyclops and twin Ajaxes, setting blind-side picks that would've laid the ass of Achilles out flat on the hot concrete.
Yes, I know I mixed the Odyssey and the Iliad, Annie.
Well, the point here isn't consistency of Homeric allusion, it's showing the bond of brotherhood between Ben and Pete and me. Like I was saying, the Cyclops set a blind-side pick on me the first time down the court. Laid me out. Slap! Face-down on that concrete pancake griddle. The second time down, I took out the bastard's hairy knees. When they pried us apart, my nose was bloody. But we'd both gotten in enough good licks so they didn't try that again on me. And Pete was so slippery and wiry they had a hard time setting a solid pick on him. Ben, though. Ben got knocked down more times that day, harder, on that hot concrete, than anybody I've ever seen keep getting up again. He didn't just get back up, either. That was the thing. He'd hop up laughing about getting laid out, shake the hand of the blind-siding bastard who'd done it, and tell the guy, "Nice pick."
No, that wasn't irony, Annie.
That was just Ben. Before long we were all laughing with him, not at him. At the end of that brutal best-of-three series—which Ben and Pete and I took from Cyclops and company two games to one—all six of us headed back to our foul-smelling cave, and while five of us swilled cheap keg beer, Ben guzzled Gatorade.
We were so close back in that filthy apartment, it was like we shared a single skin. We even managed to get along with the roaches, and to mostly ignore the ants. The ants were mostly invisible in that plush-piled pink shag, and the roaches mostly kept out of our way. The rats, though. Well, let's just say the rats didn't keep out of our way. With their talent for sneak-thieving and hiding, you'd think that rats would move through the kitchens and bedrooms of our lives like a whiff of outhouse breeze, obnoxious but unseen. But rats are vicious, and they tend to get cocky—that vicious brand of cockiness you sometimes see in mugshot smiles, bone-white teeth like a compound fracture, red beady eyes. The rats in that filthy apartment had it made. All that food laying around, all those easy pickings, a five hundred CD library, and the latest in stereo sound.
Until they attacked Ben. Ben and I shared the smaller upstairs bedroom as a result of my winning bid for Pete. And one night while I was up late getting some overdue use out of my study desk, I looked up from my Complete Works of Aristotle and saw a medium-sized gray rat crawling across the sleeping Ben. The rat crouched on Ben's shoulder and glared at me with red beady eyes. Then he flashed a bone-white smile, and bit a hunk out of Ben's right ear. There was nothing ironical about the screams.
"Blood! Aaahh! Hairyfangsmonsterblood!"
The screams came from Ben. At least to begin with, along with a bunch of hopping around and a surprising amount of blood—it being a more than medium-sized hunk that had been bitten out of Ben's ear. In the confusion, the rat managed to sneak away and hide. Ben's screams woke up Pete, who came running in from the master bedroom and got splattered with the same bright red drops that Ben was slinging all over me.
"Blood!" Pete screamed, as red spots bloomed on his white boxers. "Stop hopping around! You're getting that shit all over me!"
"Throat!" Ben screamed, hopping and spinning and slinging blood in streaks. "Throat! Aaahh! What if he'd gone for my throat?"
Then the hopping and screaming ceased. We all stared at one another, listening hard. We all rubbed our throats. The familiar rustle of vermin among the pizza boxes was suddenly transformed into the scrape of fangs and claws.
We spent the rest of the night at the emergency room, trying to come up with a rat removal plan. Anyway, Pete and I did. Ben spent most of his night applying direct pressure to what was left of his right ear. Now, rat removal might not seem like much of a problem if you've never been victimized. Hire an exterminator, you're about to say. Get a cat. But that rat had done more than just bite off the tip of Ben's right earlobe. He'd swallowed our spirits, digested our self-confidence, crapped on the sanctity of our beds. We wanted vengeance on a personal level. We wanted to flash that bone-white smile back at him.
Anyway, Pete and I did. But vengeance on a personal level turned out to be a problem for Ben. Despite insult, injury, and a painful rabies shot, Ben refused to let Pete and me harm a single hair on that rat bastard's head. "Turn the other cheek," Ben kept saying. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Maybe that came from having missionary parents—Mormons, in Sudan, I swear to God—or from studying the Bible in Latin and Greek. Ben was all the time talking about philios, which he said meant brotherly love. Not the kind Pete and I went looking for in bars.
I don't think it's ironical, Annie, to say that the first thing we did was clean. We unstuck the moldy dishes from the sink bottom, piled them into cardboard boxes, and threw them away. We scraped off fungus, shoveled up pizza boxes, and shampooed the hot pink shag. Next came industrial grade poison for the roaches and ants—the bug massacre was inflicted by Pete and me, while Ben waddled out to buy rubber gloves—and so many whiteners and brighteners for the kitchen counter and sink that by the time Ben got back with the gloves, Pete and I had no skin on our hands left to save. Finally we closed all the windows and propped open the front door, hoping the same toxic fumes that were driving us out onto the back balcony would drive the rats down the front steps.
We hunkered down in our sleeping bags, there among all those other balconies with their barbecue pits and their mountain bikes and their beer kegs floating in trashcans full of melting ice, and waited for our rat infestation to drift back out the same way it had drifted in. We slept and waited, and waited and slept, looking up at all those other balconies—ours was on the second of six floors—and feeling like we were living in Hades. We took turns on watch, listening all night long, three long nights running, to the rustle of rat feet sneak-thieving and hiding, looking for any scrap of human flesh that might be left.
Then the cold front came in. It was one of those blue northers that howl down out of the Arctic into the bone marrow of the Lone Star state, dropping temperatures into the teens and driving sleet like ice-bullets against bare skin. I knew there could be no more hunkering down in our sleeping bags. We were going to have to face the rat problem head-on. But Ben still wouldn't give in. He wouldn't let Pete and me kill the rats openly and honestly. And even worse, he wouldn't waddle out to buy more rubber gloves so we could kill them on the sly.
"Ben!" I screamed over the howling wind. "Damn it, these are rats we're talking about!"
"Rats!" Pete screamed.
"Turn the other cheek," Ben said. His voice, deep brown as always, carried clearly over the violence of the wind. A gentle force seemed to fill it. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
"Not stones! Poison!" I screamed. "Poison, Ben! It's practically painless! Hell, it's pink! They just eat this pink shit and go to sleep!"
"Pink painless poison, Ben!" Pete screamed. "It sounds pretty good to me!"
"Eating that poison makes rats swell up like balloons," Ben said in that same gently powerful voice. "They vomit blood and drag themselves through it. Sometimes their bellies burst while they're still alive, and they start to chew on their own insides."
"So what?" I asked.
"So they scream. Once back in Sudan, Muslim forces shelled the Christian village my parents and I were living in. Some of the buildings caught fire. As the flames spread, burning rats started to run out of the huts. They screamed just like babies. Have you ever heard a burning baby scream?"
"So what do we do instead?" Pete asked.
"We trap them," Ben said.
"Now you're talking!" I said. "I'll go out and buy a dozen of the biggest rat traps I can—"
"No," Ben said. "Not like that. If we blow smoke into the space between the apartment walls, the rats will think the place is on fire and come running out. Once we've got them out in the open, we should be able to chase them down."
"What are we going to do with the rats, once we've caught them?" Pete asked.
"Flick them," Ben said.
"Flick them?" I asked. "What the hell does that mean?"
But Ben had already opened up the sliding glass door and started dragging our barbecue pit inside.
Smoke, smoke, and more smoke. That was Ben's recipe for rat removal. While he built a charcoal inferno in the barbecue pit, Pete and I tracked down every hole the rats had gnawed in the walls, and plugged all of them but two. Next Ben hauled out a black plastic tube he had gotten God knows where, and stuffed one end onto the smokestack of the barbecue. Then he threw a couple of plastic bags on the coals and funneled the free end of the tube into one of the two remaining ratholes. Finally, we took all the yellow soup bowls that were left in the kitchen and gathered around the single rathole that was still unplugged.
It wasn't long before the smoke from the plastic bags, having filled the space between the walls, started pouring out of the hole. We stood around for a while with our bowls in our hands, choking on toxic fumes. Then we heard a frantic scrabbling of claws, and about two seconds later, we saw rats start to scramble out of the wall. They clawed their way out one by one—scorched, sooty, even more smoke-addled than us—and one by one, we slapped soup bowls over their heads. We caught five of them that way, four that came out in quick succession and one that held out for what seemed like an eternity in that smoky hell. Until finally there were five bright yellow soup bowls bottom-up on our deep-piled pink shag with textbooks on top to keep the rats from slithering out from underneath.
But we weren't finished yet. We poked around in the mattresses and boxsprings. We shook out the couch and chairs. We ran down the two rats that came scrambling out, caught them both with belly-flopping leaps, and pinned them under textbooks as well. When this second phase was over, there were seven bright yellow soup bowls bottom-up on the pink carpet, with seven textbooks perched on top—five downstairs by the barbecue pit and two upstairs next to Ben's single bed.
The time had come to flick the rats. Under Ben's direction, we slid the bowls carefully across the carpet, the rats butting their heads against the bowls and scrabbling their claws under the edges in a last-ditch attempt to escape. Then we edged the bowls one at a time across the metal track that held the sliding glass door, a delicate maneuver that required four hands to keep the rats from squeezing through that quarter-inch of free space. Outside on the balcony, the north wind whipped sleet into our faces. Our eyelashes were so caked with ice that we had to squint to see. Smoke from the barbecue pit billowed out of the apartment and into our eyes as we lined the rats from downstairs up at the edge of the balcony—five bright yellow bowls in a row underneath the black wrought-iron railing.
Like snapping off a jumpshot, the trick to rat-flicking is in the wrist. We had to snap the bottoms of the bowls just as they cleared the edge of the balcony in order to zing the rats—with a slight backspin and an arcing trajectory—across onto the grassy slope of the drainage ditch, so that they rolled to the bottom unhurt, shook themselves off, and scurried away. Five snaps of five bowls. Five rats flipping backward in beautiful arcs, eyes wide open and claws clutching air—tail over face over tail over face—and we were only two bowls away from indoor sleeping, rat-free and easy, safe again in our own beds.
Ben said once that irony works best when the audience sees it coming. What do you see, Annie?
I mean, cheap-assed apartment walls, soft plastic tubing, superheated smoke from a barbecue pit? It doesn't take a Fire Marshall to do the disaster math on that one. Less than a minute after the last of the downstairs rats had back-flipped its way through the sleet-lashed air and rolled down the grassy slope of the drainage ditch, the three of us romped in off the balcony, hooting and hollering despite the choking pall of smoke, and racing upstairs to see who would get to flick the other two. Then all at once—like some crazy reverse-miracle—the apartment walls dissolved in bright yellow flames. One minute we were triumphant, surrounded by soot-stained walls that were free of rats for the first time in months, and the next minute we were trapped like the rats themselves, the apartment a fiery yellow soup bowl slamming down on our scorched and smoke-addled heads. The triumph on our faces faded into terror. Anyway, on Pete's and mine it did. The look on Ben's face as he bolted the rest of the way up the stairs was one I'd never seen in my life.
"Ben!" I screamed.
"No!" Pete screamed.
The apartment walls roared hellfire. Then the stairs started to crumble, and Pete and I threw ourselves out onto the balcony, scaled the wrought iron rail, and leapt for our lives—spinning slowly around to strike the slope of the drainage ditch, roll over and over in the wet grass, and look back for some sign of Ben. But our apartment had turned into flame.
We sat in the driving sleet and watched the whole apartment building burn. The north wind sometimes whipped the flames a hundred feet up into the air, sometimes lashed them down into the building again. Bright red pumpertrucks arrived, sirens singing. A bunch of burly guys in yellow raincoats herded bleary-eyed residents into the drainage ditch, while other yellow-raincoated guys stood around with firehoses and wet the rest of the complex down.
Hard on the heels of the fire department came the police. They said it was a miracle that more than one person hadn't died. If the neighbors hadn't been away, or if Pete and I hadn't been quicker, the body count would have climbed. Pete and I had been lucky, they said. When I asked if they were being ironical, they said it never crossed their minds.
The apartment managers, who came hard on the heels of the police, never once used the word lucky. "Criminal negligence," they said. "Willful destruction of property," they said. Those same words were taken up by the police just before they took out their handcuffs. And then rights were read. Charges and countercharges flung back and forth. Lawsuits filed.
We blamed it all on Ben. We told the police and the apartment managers that the whole thing was Ben's idea, and that we'd tried to stop him. "Ben lost his mind," we said. "He spent all his time waddling around on the basketball court, talking about love in dead languages and the sound of babies burning alive."
What else could we do? His missionary parents didn't have any property for the apartment complex lawyers to take. They'd already lost everything that they had to lose. A long time before the last of it was over, on a lead-gray day in Austin, Texas, they loaded up what was left of Ben and flew it to Salt Lake City—home of Ben's favorite basketball team.
Go ahead. Call that ironical. But you have to name the type. Get it right and you drink on the house all night. Get it wrong and, crazy as I am about you, Annie, I'll have to boot your ass out.
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