Archive for the ‘Fiction’ category

ICLP電子報第49期:我捨不得離開ICLP ~ I Can’t Stand to Leave ICLP (featured in 49th ICLP Bulletin)

June 3, 2011

To begin with, this is fictional. I’m going to stay at ICLP another year. My prompt for this assignment was to write from the point of view of a depressed student, and because the end of the school year was coming, it was perfect timing for a piece like this.

我捨不得離開ICLP (original article including photos)

I Can’t Stand to Leave ICLP
English Translation of an Article by James Smyth

I’ve been down in the dumps lately, and it’s all because I have to leave ICLP. I called Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and used an emotional appeal to try to convince him to help me stay here. He said he felt my pain, but he couldn’t help me because he has to convince Taiwanese skilled workers to stay in the country rather than emigrate first. A fortune teller told me he couldn’t help because studying isn’t in my future. It looks more and more like no one can help me.

I don’t want to go to a restaurant that’s not Sababa.
I don’t want to drink juice if it’s not made by Grandma Amy at the Xinhai Gate.
I don’t want to dance if the music isn’t “Radio Plays” BGM.
I don’t want to eat lunch if I can’t listen to a lecture while doing it.
I don’t want to open my mailbox if it won’t have emails from Ariel inside.
I don’t want to write characters if Ms. Zhou isn’t giving me a dictation test.
I don’t want to go to class if Mr. Chen isn’t there to say hello to me.
All these things are irreplaceable.

I feel worse every day. I often go to the office to chat, but last Friday they told me that although they don’t want to say goodbye to me, either, if I ever enter their office more than ten times in a single day again, they’ll have to call campus security on me. I don’t want to miss a single minute of class, and I’m afraid of oversleeping, so I hide in the computer room at night until Mr. Chen has locked the doors. Then I take a shower in the fourth floor restroom, eat the leftovers in the third floor refrigerator, and sleep in front of the door of my first period class.

I’m really worried about forgetting Chinese when I go back to America. I tried to stuff all my textbooks into my suitcase, but they didn’t fit. I won’t be able to avoid speaking English in the States, but when I do, I’ll feel guilty about breaking ICLP rules. But I’m afraid I’ll be lonely, too, because women only willingly talk to me during class time. I asked Head Teacher Chen for John Smith and David Lee’s contact information so I’d have someone to talk to, but she said I don’t need it because they already live inside my heart. [John and David are fictional exchange students from our textbooks.]

If I can write for the ICLP Bulletin one more time from the States, I’ll get to feel happy one more time, but if I don’t have a life, I won’t be able to write about my life after ICLP. Every day is agony. Please help me before I have a nervous breakdown!

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魚與貓咬狗 ~ Fish and Cat Bite Dog

May 9, 2011

中文版: ICLP電子報:魚與貓咬狗

We finished off our Radio Plays class by writing a black comedy chock full of references to our textbook’s plays and the Frank Garrett Online Community. Rated PG-13.

Fish and Cat Bite Dog
English Translation of a Taiwanese Radio Play by Brian Hewson, Casey Hoerth, and James Smyth

The Cast
Frank Garrett: The owner of a pole-barn building firm in Yilan and a frequent target of prank phone calls.
Mr. Fish: A mailman who has recently immigrated from Hong Kong, where his wife and family still live.
Puss in Boots: A talking cat who helps his owner sell real estate. He thinks he is his owner’s biological son.
Retardo: Frank’s dog. Very friendly but not very bright.
Linda: Frank’s daughter.
(more…)

ICLP電子報第46期:魚與貓咬狗; “ICLP Vets on Taiwanese Graduate Schools” featured in 46th ICLP Bulletin

April 13, 2011

46th ICLP Bulletin – ICLP Vets on Taiwanese Graduate Schools

臺大國際華語研習所 電子報 第46期 : 魚與貓咬狗

I’ll translate my group’s play on another day. It’s a knockout! In the meantime, you can learn about higher higher education [highest education?] in Taiwan.

Noche de San Juan

October 25, 2007

‘TWAS THE NIGHT OF JUNE 21st, and noble hedge knight Peter van Tassel was on his way home after another productive day of acquiring honors and assets for his lords, Morgan and Stanley. After passing three long summers as a squire, with countless vigils in front of his computer and quixotic quests for parking spaces for his superiors, he was now jousting with the most able gentlemen in all the Emerald Isle.
Manhattan is verdant not for its bushes and trees, however, but for the color of the currency that abounds there. To most men, finance is a mystery: they haphazardly sow their investments with no strategy from one day to the next, and pray to the rain gods for success. They subsist but rarely produce anything more. Peter’s comrades, however, needed no superstitions or harvest festivals, for they understood the science of the matter. Everywhere they wisely sowed their dollars, businesses sprung from the ground.
Whenever he closed deals or received his paycheck, Peter felt like quite the magician. There were other times, though, when he felt something itching him. Like when he missed an entire rainstorm because he was sitting in his cubicle the whole time. Or when he returned to his matchbox apartment and his sleeping roommate was a veritable lord of the forest, so lively was he in comparison to the bare walls and mute appliances. Or when he saw the dirty hands of sun-baked workers on the subway, and he struggled to remember what mud felt like.
The itch had Peter tonight. He’d heard it was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and yet he hadn’t been outside for one minute of afternoon sunlight. From its peak, to the middle, to the setting, the daylight changed, but the whitish tint inside Peter’s office was exactly the same. Now, he was finally outside. He’d only had to work until 3 AM. He usually took a taxi from his Times Square office to his home on the Upper West Side, but today he felt a compulsion to frolic, so he elected to walk through Central Park. Sure, there was the threat of robbery, but police would be around. More importantly, if petty criminals had the discipline to work as late as investment bankers, they would have never run afoul of the law in the first place.
Our man enjoyed himself from his very first steps into the park. He was not too old to feel ashamed of adventures, and as he strolled down the path, he felt like one. The wind soothed his face, and so romantic was he that he imagined it was singing to him. The trees were leaning over him, shielding his path. “How are you guys doing?” he said in a voice that sounded loud to him but was really quite quiet. He reached out to touch the bushes and was surprised when they scratched him. Clearly, he’d forgotten much since the day Little Pete crashed through the forests, nicking himself in a hundred places, in order to escape a single bee.
Peter’s Cub Scout reverie was shortly broken, not by any sudden event but because he couldn’t concentrate amidst all the noise. The cicadas, crickets, and frogs were having a contest to find out who was more irritating. There was the low buzz of moths around the lampposts and the twitter of ever-more-numerous fireflies. Odd raccoons and squirrels and other animals were scrambling for food. (These curfew-breakers must be the teenagers of the breed, thought our very funny protagonist.) Most disconcerting were the things that would suddenly fall, causing Peter to whirl around and clutch his hand to his wallet in defense. Were they branches? Acorns? Men? In his apartment, objects only fell when something went wrong. Here, he didn’t know.
He tripped. What was…ah, it was just a vine caught on his ankle. Which was strange, really. He wasn’t walking through any shrubbery. He pulled it off his shoe, only to have it stick to his hand. Didn’t it get the message the first time? He sighed and turned into a faceful of bird. He cursed and knocked it away, after which it yelped and fluttered into the trees. Peter stomped forward, indignant, pushing aside both tree branches and his brain, which was telling him birds don’t sound like that-
Another tug, on his right wrist this time. He thrashed his arms, and light scattered. He paused too long; the lights flashed in front of him, and then twenty pairs of fingers pulling at his hair. Something grabbed at his eyelashes, and he blinked it away, but not before catching a glimpse of something he’d never forget: a tiny face, an inch away, laughing at him. He felt naked for the proximity. As he asked himself whether he’d ever looked at a lover as closely as he’d seen that mysterious visage, he felt his watch go loose. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it fall to the ground, but too slowly, as if someone had penalized the laws of physics. The pressure on his head loosened, and the things – fireflies? – flew toward the timepiece. He reached to grab it and then stopped. He recognized them now, and he was so awestruck he had to shout their name like an infant: “FAERIES!”
Having suspended his disbelief this much already, he asked no questions when a crowd of little bearded men rumbled out of the forest and clustered around the watch like ants. “Hey!” “That’s ours!” “Ya damn faeries!” they grunted. The watch clattered on the asphalt path like a tin bell, and the match began. Gnomes leapt into the air, tackled the faeries, and slugged them. The faeries, in turn, blasted away with their wands, sending many gnomes hopping around, holding their rumps and yelling “HOT! HOT! HOT!” Beards were tugged; wands dueled with pointy hats; faerie dust splattered against the pavement.
Peter could have easily taken his watch back, but he was laughing too hard. This was air v. land, brains v. brawn, beauty v. money, and most importantly, “metros” v. “real men,” and just another installation of a fight that had raged for thousands of years without our knowledge. All he needed was some popcorn and a buddy.
Something nuzzled against him. It was a white teddy bear which stood on its hind legs. It had bat wings, but how could something so fat fly? It had a filament on its head with a bright yellow ball hanging off it – why? The most ludicrous thing of all, though, was the leather pouch hung over the bear(?)’s shoulder. Inside it was…mail?
The being, as he would learn later from Wikipedia, was named a moogle. He had to rub its belly, it was too adorable. It was appreciative but focused instead on pulling something from its bag. Peter’s jaw dropped to the earth. The package wasn’t just bigger than its own mailbag; it was bigger than the being itself. The beast, which had carried himself with such ease moments before, tottered and fell to the ground from the object’s inertia.
Peter tore off the wrapping paper like a kid expecting a Nintendo 64. This was not a good idea, as he cut his hand open on the object inside and bled on his nice work clothing. (What was his job again? He couldn’t remember.) The bear noticed the blood and backed up. “No! Don’t go away!” Peter protested, but he didn’t have to, because it was instead clearing room to break-dance. It shuffled its stubby legs, pumped its wings so its body could move in directions no human being could go, spun around on its side, and then bounced up and down on the ball on its head. The being’s strange anatomy suddenly made sense to the man. He was astonished, and he felt much better. The best part came, though, when he looked at his wound: thanks to the dance, it was gone.
“Thank you!” he said. Then he turned his attention to the package which had bitten him so badly. What was inside was even better than video games…it was a sword! His very own! Peter jumped to his feet and swung it every which way, yelling “Hyaa!” and nonsense Japanese. The moogle ducked around his awkward swings, then tugged at his pant leg and gave him a handwritten note:
“Good luck! You’ll need it.”
And that’s when the evil cackling started.
“This man’s soul is ours!” shrieked voices from behind Peter. He turned to see three cloaked wenches flying on broomsticks. He wanted to make some kind of joke about his ex-wife, but he didn’t have one, so he ran instead.
And what a chase it was! The little stone animals from the clock at the Children’s Zoo followed him, playing urgent music. Imps prodded him with pitchforks and snickered, an activity they usually reserve for people who are desperate to hail taxis. Trolls cast bets on whether he’d live or die. When he ducked inside bushes to hide, he swore he could hear animals whispering about how slow he was. And everything, from trees to lakes to flowers to water fountains to the clods of dirt he kicked behind him, at some point transformed into a beautiful woman importuning him to sleep with her. Not only from running was he hot around the collar.
Hours, even days passed, it seemed, inside the forest. He almost didn’t want it to end, so much did the place match his childhood dreams. He’d never seen so many new colors. He felt like he was on the edge of something big: only an investment banker would walk through the park at 3 in the morning, and only he was brave enough to do it. His world, so sterile before, was now teeming with life. It was never quiet here. There was always something behind the next tree: something to fear, yes, but something to anticipate for the same reason. Had the homeless men known about these creatures the whole time? Were they then cursed or blessed?
He stumbled into a large clearing in the middle of the park. He’d seen a massive green structure inside it, and he hoped inside he could find allies, weapons, anything of use. When he came within ten feet, however, he slid to a halt. For the mass was no building at all.
The witches knifed into the clearing and into the mouth of the dragon.
Peter looked up. The reptile was about thirty feet tall, and more fat than strong: likely, this was one of Giuliani’s schemes to solve New York’s crime and stray animal problems. It had the same rich green tint as the Manhattan grass which is watered every day. It seemed to have gills, all the better for hiding in the ponds. Cracker Jack boxes, Poland Spring bottles, and other refuse were stuck between its scales. Most importantly, it didn’t seem hungry anymore.
Peter backed away from the dragon diagonally, thinking that taking the more difficult route would improve his chances of success. No good. It spotted him and lazily swatted its tail. Sending Peter flying twenty feet backwards.
He was sore, all right. He was bruised and cut everywhere from his run, and on top of that, he hadn’t exercised in three years because he worked such long hours. But that was no reason to cede his honor! Trumpets blared, and faeries threw flower petals on him, and our hero clambered to his feet for battle!
Peter charged. The dragon yawned, and the heat from its breath singed our hero. He danced forward, imagining he was floating like a butterfly, and jumped and stung the dragon with his sword. It reflexively kicked back, but Peter rode the kick, flipped, and received an 8 from the judges for his landing. Pant, moan, repeat.
An experienced knight would have found the disjointed efforts of Peter and the dragon humiliating, but inside the young man’s mind, he was going full speed. Eventually, he became familiar with the dragon’s movements. He learned to hop sideways to avoid its swipes, that his magical sword repelled fiery breath, and most importantly, to only attack when it wasn’t looking. The grass was soggy from the day’s rainstorm, but he thought he was sloshing through the dragon’s blood.
Then, from nowhere, came the climax of the fight. The reptile had digested the witches and was ready to feed again. That bothersome boy and his fishing rod would do. So it leapt to its feet and struck its head down, opening its jaws wide to eat Peter. The man’s eyes grew as wide as the full moon in the clearing sky. He slid to the side, feinted unnecessarily, and stabbed the dragon in the cheek.
Its roar was not as mighty as the cheering that came from the woodlands. All of a sudden, dozens of people were around them, tending to Peter’s wounds in one corner and muzzling and leashing the dragon in the other. Peter collapsed in the grass, basking in the adulation from all sides. He hadn’t felt like this since he’d won a game of Red Rover for his class at the age of ten. “What if I-bankers lifted the boss up on their shoulders after a big deal?” he thought. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place?”
The faeries laid him on a seat of laurels. A spry young man bowed and sat across from him. He wore a sepia suit with vines and branches strewn across it. On anyone else, the outfit would seem disheveled, but with his ruddy countenance, thick brows and open face, such decorations gave him vitality.
“Do call me Robin Goodfellow.” He tipped an imaginary hat and twinkled his eyes as if on cue. His wild hair did not distract Peter from his wilder eyes; the man seemed to be thinking faster than anyone he’d ever seen.
“Well, hello, sir,” he responded. “My name is Peter Van Tassel. I work for Morgan Stanley.”
“Ah! Mucho gusto,” he laughed. “We’re always hoping more of you boys will come down and play with us, but you always just taxi by.”
“Oh?”
“Indeed! The chaos of finance! I love it! Everybody running willy nilly, stocks falling, crashing, crazy hunts for parking spaces…oh, ho, ho! The faces I see here are priceless. You stockbrokers punk each other in ways I never could have imagined.”
“But it is ordered…it does all come together…”
“Come now, don’t spoil the fun! Do you know, really know, what’s going to happen to any stock over the course of a year? Oil shocks, new technology, personal scandals, there are hundreds of ways to confuse things. More than once have I witnessed secret deals, even – ho, ho, trysts! – happening here in this park. Sure, it all holds together and has its own distinct character, but be honest, Peter, if the game weren’t thrilling, you wouldn’t play.”
“Well, that is a fun way to think of it.” Peter smiled. “Perhaps I’ll have the courage to leave this magical place after all. By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, what the hell is going on?”
“What’s going on? My good man!” Robin grabbed some grass and blew it into the wind, just because he could. “¡Es La Noche de San Juan!
“Pardon? Noche de San Juan?”
“Ahh yes, I’d forgotten that you Anglos don’t celebrate it. This was the longest day of the year, which makes it the shortest night of the year as well. This is the night the Chinese wall between the world of magic and the world of men is broken! It is a night of adventure!” He was on his feet now, striking various poses usually reserved for football players. “And you wandered right into our spectacular!”
“The world of magic? For real? I mean, it seems more likely that I worked too late, and I’m making this all up…where have you guys been all this time?”
“Oh, we’ve been around. There are as many of us now as ever. Didn’t one of your playwrights say that a faerie dies when no one believes in her? Bollocks, that idea’s part of the problem. Humans – especially the ones who say they’re open-minded, like that writer – assume that nothing outside their perception can exist.” He couldn’t concentrate when he wasn’t moving, so he picked himself up by his hands and slowly turned in a circle. The rotating soliloquist was childlike but compelling. “Your grandfathers had a better sense of it because they slept and worked their days out here with us. There is no privacy in a forest. You always have the sense that something is out there, moving, even watching you. So the fellowship between your kind and ours was strong.
“Then came big houses, high walls, running water, and air conditioning. Life was safer for you, but our fellowship was broken. We didn’t leave, Peter; you left us. Well, don’t you feel lonely sometimes? Shut up in your walls, totally alone? Going to a tanning machine because you can’t make time for the sun? Turning up the stereo because silence is so unnatural?”
“Yes,” he responded softly. “That’s it. The romance is missing. We tell our children stories about it, and then we forget it all.”
“Perfect!” he clapped his hands. “Well, my friend, I’m glad we could bring you a night of adventure. Come back and commune with us! Bring a potted plant to the office! And have lots of children!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me! Do it!” He whisked Peter to his feet. “Now, it’s time for you to go to bed.”
“No luck. The sun’s rising already. It’s time to get breakfast and go back to work.”
“Ho, ho, ho! The shortest night of the year, indeed!” He clapped Peter on the back. “And here’s your watch. To get to your company, take the first star on the right and go straight on ‘til morning…hmm…” he pointed. “Which is that way. Goodbye now!”
Peter made his exeunt to applause. Everyone, from the largest troll to the smallest imp, wanted a piece of his sound financial advice.
“Say, Pete, I’m taking a trip to the end of the rainbow this weekend for a pot of gold bigger than anything we’ve seen before. When I find it, I’m going to turn it over and invest it in the market. Want to come with?”
“Gold’s hot right now, but I’d feel badly about making like the Spaniards and adding to our inflation rate. Thanks anyway, mate.”
“It’s taken me thirty years of trolling fountains, boy, but I’m finally sitting on the largest stash of spare change in all of New York. Aren’t you proud?”
“Actually, I’m disgusted. Why don’t you use it to use any of it? It doesn’t matter how many shekels you have if you smell like compost.”
“So I’ve always wanted to know, what’s bond liquidation? Is an investment bank really a bank? How can you split a stock into the present and the future? Doesn’t that require time travel? And how is it possible to have money that doesn’t even exist on paper? Is it just a concept in everyone’s head?”
“…I don’t even know what to say to you. Just stay here with the pixies and don’t think about it.”
The walk down Broadway had never been more captivating. He saw each detail clearly. The people crowded on the sidewalk became individuals to him, each walking with his own distinct gait, hundreds of moving parts within a single frame. Nor were the humans alone. Was that a faerie in that orange tree? A gnome treasure-hunting in that squeaky garbage can?
One, two, three, forty floors on the elevator, and he entered his office. Donuts and orange juice were set on the table. The herd stood around it and chewed. Peter cut through them and tore into the spread with abandon.
“Hey Peter,” muttered a body next to him.
“Hey! How are you?”
“Um. Fine. Um. Is that a tree coming out of your collar?”
“Oh, just a branch! Haha, that tickles. That’s great! I think I’ll keep it there, it’ll add some life to the place.”
“Um. Okay. Good luck with the pura vida, Tarzan.”
“Thanks for the support! But you can just call me Puck.”

What will Harry Potter VI be like?

January 6, 2005

In about VI months, the VIth Harry Potter book will hit bookstores. It will sell M copies per second, I’m certain. My friend Amberdulen has thought of a great way to get ready for this event:

How would Book 6 go if it was written by one of your favorite authors? Post your synopsis as a comment, then link to it in your LJ to see how your friends’ favorite writers would lay out the plot. Let’s see how many we can get!


Book 6 by Ernest Hemingway
In Book 5, Dumbledore lied to Harry about Trelawney’s prophecy. Dumbledore said that either Harry or Voldemort would die at the end of Book 7. Actually, they are both going to die.

Dumbledore still needs to use Harry’s powers to protect the school, however. That means getting him out of Hogsmeade, where he has been living in exile. Each night, he, Ron, and Hermione drink pints upon pints of butterbeer, shed tears for their fallen comrades, and yearn for the happy days before the war against Voldemort ruined their lives.

Ron and Hermione have been having an affair for months now, and Harry is very frustrated. He knows he is a better wand-handler than Ron but never gets to show his stuff. Dumbledore realizes this and sees an opportunity to bring Harry back into the fold. He instructs sweet, innocent Ginny to show Harry what love is and to bring him back to Hogwarts. She succeeds.

One day, Harry, Ron, and Hagrid go on a hunting trip. They bring down a Fellbeast, an extremely large, rare, and evil flying dragon (but not an original one – the Fellbeasts carry the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings). Before they can bring the Fellbeast home and show it to their comrades, however, Grawp seizes the corpse, eats all its innards, and rips the rest of it to shreds. Now, the accomplishment will live only in their memories.

Voldemort and his followers capture Hogsmeade. Dumbledore, knowing that Voldemort has Peter Pettigrew on his side, orders Harry, Ron, and Hermione to blow up the tunnel between Hogwarts and the Shrieking Shack so the Death Eaters will not be able to use it. They accomplish their mission, but Ron, paralyzed by all the spiders crawling in the tunnel, does not escape fast enough. He dies in the blast.

Ron’s death crushes Harry’s world and what’s left of his psyche. Hermione takes up with Draco, whom she does not love, because Draco is very, very wealthy. Ginny is so morose that she can no longer make love to Harry. Our hero tries to find solace in Quidditch, but he no longer wants the Snitch. Instead, he sits on his broom. Staring into space. In the rain.

One day, Harry decides he no longer wants to live. All he wants is vengeance for his friend. That means killing Voldemort, no matter the cost. So, he begins in earnest his training to become a killing machine. His friends never see him smile again.

And Then There Was Owen, Chapter 7: The Diamond Wheel

June 2, 2004

And Then There Was Owen
A Parody of A Prayer for Owen Meany
By James Smyth, Adam Passarelli, Julianne Ellis, Miriam Miller, and Lili Xu

Chapter 7: The Diamond Wheel
By James Smyth

The door opened like the crack of a whip. I jumped out of my seat and started dusting it off as if I were apologizing for using it. It didn’t matter. I could have brushed the grime off that coach until Owen had earned his parking spot in the front of the lot, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Owen peered at me. He looked like a child crusader. His apron, pants, gloves, and boots were all once forest green, but years in the monument shop had stained them the same color as the rocks. His forehead and collar were damp. He wiped his face off with his sleeve, leaving a layer of granite powder on it. He mopped his brow again to get the dust off, but that just made it worse. He thought about doing it a third time – I could see his arm jerking – thankfully, he didn’t.

“AHEM. THANKS FOR WAITING, JOHNNY. EVERYTHING’S READY NOW. COME ON IN.”

We stepped into the shop. It was dark, dank, and quiet, like a mausoleum. There was a solitary light in the back corner of the building near the diamond wheel. Between us and the light were dozens of tables that I didn’t see and that Owen didn’t care to rush through. We zigged and zagged languidly.

I asked Owen how business was though I already knew the answer all too well. “BETTER THAN EVER,” said he. “THAT’S TO BE EXPECTED, GIVEN THE WAY THINGS HAVE BEEN IN THE TOWN LATELY. SOME OF THESE GUYS WANTED ORNATE GRAVES, AND THE DIAMOND WHEEL HAS BEEN THE BIG HERO THERE. IT’S AMAZING. IT CUTS MORE CLEANLY THAN ANYTHING ELSE WE HAVE. THINGS ON THE MINING SIDE AREN’T GOING TOO BADLY, EITHER. THERE’S NOT MUCH LEFT IN THIS OLD TOWN, BUT WHAT’S THERE IS CHOICE.”

He asked me how I was doing and then answered the question himself. He lamented my poor grades in college but said I shouldn’t worry too much about it. He was surprised and apparently pleased that I hadn’t worn a turtleneck sweater although it was so cold outside. He talked about the war in Vietnam and what a quagmire it was. I told him I didn’t want to be there. He said, “I UNDERSTAND HOW YOU FEEL. I HAVE A FEELING YOU WON’T HAVE TO GO, THOUGH.” He hoped that I’d been sleeping well and complained that he’d had some awful nightmares lately.

Finally, we reached the wheel. It looked clean, sterile, and ready for action. “THIS IS PERFECT,” he cooed. “IT LOOKS JUST LIKE I THOUGHT IT WOULD.” We stood admiring it for a while.

Then Owen slowly turned towards me. “WELL….WELL.”

He paused.

“…OKAY. SOON, WE’LL BE GETTING STARTED, BUT FIRST, I’LL FULFILL MY PROMISE AND SHOW YOU WHAT’S BEHIND THE CURTAIN.”

He walked to the far corner and grabbed the rope. It trembled in his hands. My heart was about to pound out of my chest. “OKAY. HERE WE GO.” He pulled the rope end over end, and the mystery unfolded before me.

I was expecting a spectacular structure like a statue of Zeus or a life-sized model of a tank. When half the curtain was gone, and I still couldn’t see anything, I realized something was wrong. When he couldn’t pull the rope any farther, I was certain of it. Owen’s deepest, darkest secret was…

…tombstone.

With my name on it. And my birthday. And today’s date.

I started to turn. “Hey, Owen, is this a joke? I don’t…”

I heard footsteps, rushing wind, and the good old American crack of a bat, and then I fell unconscious.

“LET THERE BE LIGHT.”

I caught a glint of metal, and green and black sunspots burned into my eyes. I tried to shield myself with my arms, but I didn’t seem to have them anymore. I squinted and hope that my eyebrows could at the very least shield me from the flare. I turned my head. I was fastened to the table with very tight ropes. Standing next to me was a very short man with the look of a priest on the verge of consecration.

“JOHNNY,” he cooed. He caressed my face with his bare hand. For a little while, I let him. He reminded me of my mother. I thought of the last time I’d seen here. There had been sunshine and a pretty girl and baseball and…

“I MIGHT HAVE SOME EXPLAINING TO DO,” Owen said. “IT ALL STARTED WITH A DREAM I HAD SOME YEARS BACK. I WAS STANDING IN A GRAVEYARD ON A DARK AND SNOWY NIGHT. I KNOW IT WAS COLD BECAUSE MY EARS WERE STINGING, AND I KEPT SHOVING MY HANDS IN MY COAT. UNDER EVERY TOMBSTONE WAS A FROZEN ROSE. I COULD READ THE WRITING ON EACH ONE. THE SCRIPT WAS MINE, OF COURSE, BUT AT THAT POINT, I DIDN’T KNOW IT. I DIDN’T KNOW ALL THE PEOPLE ON THE GRAVES AT THE TIME, BUT I DID MEET THEM ALL LATER ON. THEIR NAMES WEREN’T THE ONLY THING I REMEMBERED, THOUGH; I ALSO RECALLED THE DATES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE DASH.

“THE DREAM MADE ME WET THE BED THE FIRST TIME I HAD IT. I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST A ONE-NIGHT THING, SO I DIDN’T WORRY. THEN IT CAME BACK AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN. I TALKED TO REVEREND MERRILL, BUT HE DIDN’T BELIEVE ME. REVEREND WIGGIN WAS AN OAF. NEITHER OF THEM HELPED ME. THE ONLY PERSON WHO LISTENED WAS GOD.

“I’M GLAD HE DID. I DECIDED THAT THE DREAM MUST HAVE BEEN HIS WILL, AND THAT I HAD BEEN BLESSED WITH A GIFT OF PROPHECY. AT FIRST, I THOUGHT THE PEOPLE WOULD DIE FROM DISEASES OR ACCIDENTS, BUT WHEN YOUR MOTHER’S DATE ARRIVED, NOTHING HAPPENED AT FIRST. THAT’S WHEN I REALIZED THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD PRESERVE DESTINY WAS ME. THAT’S WHY I MADE SURE TO BRING MY OWN BAT.

“EVER SINCE THEN, I’VE BEEN HARD AT WORK. SOME OF THE TASKS HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, PARTICULARLY SETTING OFF THE CHAIN REACTION IN THE CONVENT KITCHEN, STEALING LYDIA AND LEAVING HER ON THE STREET, GETTING AN ARMADILLO ON SHORT NOTICE, AND SETTING UP THAT MEETING BETWEEN MORRISON AND PIKE. GETTING TO WALDEN IN TIME TO KILL MR. EARLY WAS A REAL PAIN, TOO. SOME OF THEM WERE REALLY EASY, THOUGH. LIKE SETTING UP BARB WIGGIN AND HAROLD. I’D SEEN RANDAL WITH MARY MAGDALENE BEFORE. ONE OF THE TEACHERS WHO WAS A HISTORICAL REENACTMENT BUFF LET ME HAVE THE SWORD AS LONG AS I DIDN’T TELL ANYONE, AND AFTER WHAT HAPPENED TO MR. FISH, HE DIDN’T WANT IT BACK ANYWAY. GERMAINE FELL INTO MY LAP. THE HARDEST PART OF THE ARMADILLO AND SPIDER MISSIONS WAS SAVING UP THE MONEY TO BUY THEM.

“IT WAS ALL WORTH IT IN THE END, THOUGH. I’D MADE ALL THE GRAVESTONES IN ADVANCE, SO AFTER I ACCOMPLISHED A MISSION, I COULD PRETEND I WAS WORKING ON A STONE WHILE EVALUATING MY WORK AND PLOTTING THE NEXT ONE.

“IT’S BEEN EMOTIONALLY GRUELLING, TOO. I DIDN’T WANT TO SEE ANY OF THOSE PEOPLE DIE. SOME OF THEM WERE REALLY NICE PEOPLE. WHO UNDERSTANDS THE AWESOME WAYS OF GOD, THOUGH? I’M JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS.

“I’M NOT DOING THIS BECAUSE I LIKE IT, THOUGH SOMETIMES I CAN’T HELP FEELING SATISFIED ABOUT A JOB WELL DONE. I DO THIS BECAUSE IT’S MY VOCATION. WE’RE ALL MEANT FOR SOMETHING, AND I AM ‘THE APPRENTICE TO THE ANGEL OF DEATH.’

“IF YOU’RE WONDERING WHY I STOPPED ASKING ABOUT SAWYER DEPOT, IT’S BECAUSE NONE OF YOUR COUSINS’ STONES WERE IN THE GRAVEYARD. I DO ENJOY HESTER’S COMPANY, THOUGH. SHE’S QUITE A WOMAN.

“NOW IT’S YOUR TURN, JOHNNY. AFTER THIS, MY WORK IS DONE, AND I CAN GO ON WITH MY LIFE. I DON’T THINK I’LL GO TO JAIL. I’VE GOTTEN OUT OF ALL THE OTHER CASES WITHOUT A SCRATCH; CLEANING UP AFTER THIS ONE WILL JUST TAKE SOME MORE DIVINE INSPIRATION.

“OH, JOHNNY, DON’T CRY. THIS IS HURTING ME AS MUCH AS IT’S HURTING YOU. I’M REALLY GOING TO HATE TO SEE YOU GO.

“TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE-DOWN. YOU’RE REALLY VERY LUCKY. YOU DIDN’T WEAR A TURTLENECK TODAY, SO THIS JOB WILL BE DONE VERY CLEANLY. DECAPITATION WILL PROBABLY BE ENOUGH TO KEEP YOU OUT OF THE WAR IN VIETNAM, TOO. ISN’T THAT GREAT?”

By now the machine was humming, and the wheel was spinning at full blast. Above me stood Owen, Inquisitor and Executioner. If I’d spoken, he wouldn’t have heard me, but there was nothing I could say. I’d heard so many thousands of times from him that he was GOD’S INSTRUMENT that all this somehow made sense.

As he brought the weapon down, I thought about how much of a mess my guts would make. I hoped it would be a really big one, so at least one part of my life could be spectacular. Even the tombstone Owen made for me was ordinary.

The wheel continued to descend. I could feel the rush of wind from it now, and I was terrified. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Owen’s face was completely tranquil. “QUIESCENT,” he would have said. “DON’T YOU LOVE THE SOUND OF THAT WORD?”

Of course I did. I loved the sounds of them all.

Owen gazed at me from across the River Styx and smiled.

“JUST THINK OF THIS AS MY LITTLE GIFT TO YOU.”

And Then There Was Owen, Chapter 6: The Catholics

June 1, 2004

And Then There Was Owen
A Parody of A Prayer for Owen Meany
By James Smyth, Adam Passarelli, Julianne Ellis, Miriam Miller, and Lili Xu

Chapter 6: The Catholics
By James Smyth

Owen often perplexed me. There was, for example, his vexing refusal to eat pork rinds. “PIGS ARE FILTHY ANIMALS,” he chided me when I offered him a bag once. “THEY ROLL IN THE MUD AND EAT THEIR OWN FILTH. THEY ARE MOBILE DISEASE CARRIERS LIKE LARRY LISH’S MOTHER. IF YOU WANT TO EAT PIG’S FLESH, GO AHEAD. I WILL NOT PARTAKE OF IT.”

“What’s the matter with you, Owen?” I asked him. “You’ve always eaten pork chops before. Have you been talking to Mordecai McGill on the newspaper staff?”

The McGills were “the Jews” of Gravesend. Though it was impolite to mention politics, religion, or anti-Semitism in polite company, the people of our town were familiar with each, and some of the elders of the town held Mr. McGill personally responsible for the Great Depression. Old Dan Brown, for example, recalled that on Black Tuesday’s Eve, which happened to be Black Monday, he saw a man with one of those funny little hats looking down into the village well. Danny Boy opined that it was a young Mr. McGill lowering thousands of dollars into the infamous “Underground Jewage Tunnel” that connected the United States to Israel, and that Mr. McGill was donating good Christian money to the Zionist movement.

Even after this scandal contributed to the mysterious creation of an independent Israel in 1948, Mr. McGill remained the president of a successful bank and a citizen of good standing. He was very passionate about his place of business: money-lending was the trade of his father and grandfather and great grandfather and so on all the way back to Hezekiah of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Lord rewarded his good and faithful servant, as He always does, with ark-loads of money and children, of which he had twelve: Mordecai, Dan, asher, Miriam, Leah, Rebecca, Elijah, David, Dinah, Amos, Malachi, and Felix (“we wanted a bit of variety,” said his mother). Mr. McGill called them his “Tribe.” Mrs. McGill called them her “twenty-year pregnancy.”

Mordecai was the oldest, but as so often happens with Semitic first-born, he fruits of the proud family tree passed to his younger brothers. As Isaac defeated Ishmael, Jacob overcame Esau, and Joseph overshadowed ten older brothers and a younger one, so Daniel became the natural leader of his brothers and sisters. Dan McGill, the “Jewish Jet,” was twice an all-state receiver and three times an all-state point guard for Gravesend Academy; dubbed the “Greatest Jewish Athlete since Hank Greenberg,” he backed up Bob Cousy on the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s. The rings proved quite useful during business deals; after succeeding his father as president of the family bank, Dan took Gravesend Bank national and made it one of the largest in the nation. “Gravesend: Protecting Your Dough to the Grave’s End” is still the Hank Greenberg of banking slogans.

Mordecai, tragically, could not compete with his brother. He was a compact little fellow with big, clumsy hands, slipshod brown hair, and expressive dark eyes which were obscured by his mammoth-thick glasses. His mouth always seemed to hang slightly open as if his chin were too heavy to stay connected to the rest of his face. It was hard s a child, distance running was his favorite sport because his lack of talent drew pity there instead of derision. As he passed through puberty (which was, typically, late for its appointment with Mordecai) he realized that the only remarkable thing about him was his religion. As Daniel’s frame and popularity grew, Mordecai grasped Judaism with both hands and held it to his bosom tightly. He wore his kippot to school every day and followed the 613 Mosaic laws with pharisaical devotion; when his parents wouldn’t let him slaughter a sacrificial lamb to atone for their sins, he was ornery for a week. Most people were afraid to touch him. But Owen liked his company. When the local draft board rejected Mordecai’s request for religious deferment by reminding him the Jews spent half of the Old Testament burning the Promised Land to the ground, Owen bought him a box of chocolate matzo and a Hank Greenberg baseball card in commiseration. Mordecai successfully convinced Owen to give up pork rinds, but he had more trouble with others, and eventually he decided he couldn’t tolerate Gentiles any longer. After graduating from New Hampshire, he moved to a Hasidic colony in New York City from which he emerged a couple times a year to celebrate holidays with the rest of the twenty-year pregnancy and its sequels.

Even stranger than Owen’s rejection of pork, however, was his hatred of Catholics. He traced it to an UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE in his past but never explained what happened. IT was as if a Catholic priest had murdered Owen’s little brother, but the chances of Father O’Flaherty committing homicide or Owen’s parents reproducing a second time were slim to none. I loved throwing things at the statue of Mary Magdalene and telling jokes about the penguins with Owen, but I liked everything I did with him. I just didn’t understand it.

After Randal’s desecration of the Mary Magdalene statue, though, Owen couldn’t ignore THE CATHOLICS any longer. He magnanimously decided to make it up to them by participating in community service at the local convent. For eight weeks of that sweltering summer, he swept floors, cleaned drawers, and treated toilets. Eventually, he earned a promotion to the kitchen, and he did some very serviceable work there from the time he picked up the skillet until the end of the kitchen’s existence.

The nuns loved him; they felt like he was the son that they could never have. Though he complained about them when I spoke to him, I think deep down he genuinely liked them, and he missed them terribly later on. I didn’t visit the convent as often as Owen did, but I still find them hard to forget. Sister Mary Fortuna was a rotund old battle axe who handled most of the cleaning when Owen wasn’t around; she considered slovenliness a great sin and often critiqued Owen’s work. One of her main nemeses was Sister Mary Katherine, a flighty woman who always left food on the table or cups of water in the television set. Mary Katherine was a nice lady, but it was really hard to forgive her when she used the last of the toilet paper and then didn’t add a new roll as she was wont to do. God loved her anyway; she prayed for hours every day and never seemed to be in poor spirits. Mary Fortuna also sometimes complained about Sister Mary Claire, who had a tendency to take food from the sisters’ pantry and give it to the bums on the street.

“What need have I for candied yams?” she’d say.

“These were donated by the people of the church, and they’re for us!” Mary Fortuna would reply.

“Well,” Mary Claire returned, “It’s really all the same thing anyway, us or them. It’s still charity.” She was probably a communist.

Sister Mary Scholastica had no red sentiments. She read a lot, particularly about the “glorious history of the Church,” and predicted that Owen would some day return to the Church and become a great leader, as Saint Augustine did. (He laughed and complained about it to me later.) She often advised him to steer clear of cigarettes and loose women. When John Kennedy said that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope if he were lected, Mary Scholastica was livid. “A Catholic who will not join forces with the People!” she opined. “How will we ever bring about the Kingdom of God on earth?” She considered the Church’s corrupt use of temporal power to be a mere anomaly caused because the Church still not Catholic enough.

Teaching was Mary Scholastica’s profession. She was frightfully good at it. Students who graduated from her class remembered absolutely everything, from letters to state capitals to long division. They also looked like deer which had been bashed in the skull with headlights. Near the end of her career, one of her students had the bad taste to tell her a joke.

“What’s black and white and red all over?” he asked.

“Paul Robeson?” she responded.

“Uh………nope! It’s a nun with a chainsaw!”

He could not speak for a week. He could not sit for a week, either.

They were an interesting bunch, those nuns. Whenever I visited, I wanted to talk to them, but Owen often didn’t let me. Instead, he wanted to work on THE SANDWICH. There was a lock on the wall of the kitchen, and he wanted to see if we could make a ham and cheese sandwich in less than seven seconds. It was an obsession. I’d be listening to Sister Mary Agnes, who was a nurse during the second World War, and he’d tap me on the shoulder and say, “HEY JOHNNY, I’M GLAD YOU LIKE IT HERE, BUT CAN’T WE WORK ON THE SANDWICH FOR A LITTLE WHILE?” I had to oblige. He wouldn’t leave me alone if I didn’t, and whenever I kept Owen from working, Sister Mary Fortuna threatened me with a plunger. I didn’t want that, so I helped him with the sandwich.

Working on the sandwich was quite a challenge. Since we couldn’t make the sandwich and watch the clock at the same time, we got some help from Sister Mary Mary who was always smiling and was probably retarded. When we broke seven seconds, she gave us a big hug and laughed profusely. When we broke six, she sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we broke five, she danced in the middle of the kitchen. Then she slipped on a banana peel that Mary Katherine probably left on the floor, and on her way down she knocked over a pan on the stove which was frying eggs. The hot grease splashed every which way, and somewhere in that FATED KITCHEN it found a substance that it didn’t like.

The combustion was instantaneous. Owen tried to put out the fire with Windex, but that only made it worse. He panicked and grabbed the plate of sandwiches we’d just made; he carried it out first of all, as if it were worth saving. Equally stunned and stupid, I followed him out. When we were outside, we looked back and realized that the sisters were still inside. We wanted to go back in and save them, but we couldn’t. The building had waited a long time for this moment, and it was not reveling in its cataclysm.

It was a brilliant fire. The flames licked up the building like a hungry dog swallowing his regurgitation. The image of Joan of Arc was quite comfortable with burning alive, having experienced it before, but the other sisters were not; they dove out of doors and windows, their habits askew, and rolled around wildly on the ground to extinguish their incinerating clothing. They were like penguins throwing themselves belly-first on the ice and sliding across it.

The conflagration was the greatest tragedy in the history of the Gravesend Catholic Church. Father O’Flaherty lost half of his two dozen dedicated nuns. The tragedy sparked heavy donations by the church’s members for the purpose of building a newer, better, more fire-retardant home, and Owen produced his most superhuman work. After two days in the monument shop, he emerged with twelve tombstones in tow.

Afterward, he was sullen but resigned. I told him that I’d seen grease fires before and that the accident could have happened to anyone. He was upset with himself over the Windex. He said that he’d had unsuccessful fire-extinguishing experiences with it in the past and should not have repeated his mistake. He quoted from Proverbs: “AS A DOG RETURNS TO HIS VOMIT, SO A FOOL RETURNS TO HIS FOLLY.”

There was no way to gainsay that.