Just before the world came to an end once and for all, Larry lost his wallet. Lost it or misplaced it. In short, Larry could not find his wallet, but had yet to arrive to the moment in which it could be said that Larry did not find his wallet. He was still looking. Larry—who, were we to take a long-term perspective, was never doing great—was stuck somewhere in a particularly rough stretch. It's hard to say where he was in the stretch, since it's hard to say just how long the stretch was going to be. He was, in terms of external time, about five weeks into a real crappy period, this following a real lousy eighteen-month stretch. The thing that was killing him—this prior to misplacing/losing his wallet, which obviously did nothing to improve matters—was that he already felt like he was just at the edge of what he could handle. He had begun visualizing his condition as one of "red-lining": that some needle in some internal meter or gauge was getting dangerously close to entering the red part of said meter or gauge. And numerous aspects of this redlining were worrisome: 1) would the needle eventually enter the red? 2) what type of damage would be wrought by the needle spending so much time just on this side of red (which was often colored orange)? 3) was this now normal for him (being nearly in the red)? 4) can dangerous be normal or does that make it abnormal? And so then being already in a really rotten state, just on this side of over-heating and breaking-down, just barely being able to get up in the morning, constantly anxious or depressed or both, and then not being able to find one's wallet, how was Larry to get through this?
The world, ontologically speaking, did not actually come to an end once and for all. That would be more than just an overstatement, it would be inaccurate altogether. The world, as in the planet earth, didn't just disappear, didn't get blown into a million tiny pieces. It wasn't quite that bad. What did happen was a significant nuclear exchange between two nation-states. Actually, it hadn't happened yet, in relation to the time during which Larry had lost/misplaced/couldn't find his wallet. But it was going to happen. We know now, in fact, that it did. When it did happen, huge numbers of people were to die. Between 10 and 15 million, at least. And that was immediately, there were certainly many whose deaths would soon follow. And so such a horrific, massive, almost instantaneous conflagration, killing, eventually, more than half the people who died around the world during the long and horrible Second World War, this changed the world. And not the way 9/11 changed the world, or the way the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the world. We're not talking just geopolitics or even global economics. It was that, but it was a lot more. At the time, people didn't have the conceptual vocabulary to put their finger on it. At least the cable news people didn't.
Larry had been looking for his wallet for 14 minutes. This is the amount of time during a search for an object like a wallet (the other main object "like a wallet" being a set of keys) that one enters Phase Three of the search. Phase One consists of a mild survey of the typical resting places for the object. It is mildly annoying, but is a phase largely free of self-conscious worrying. One tends not to think sentences such as "I have lost my keys" or even "I may have lost my wallet." Anxiety levels rise only slightly, unless one is running late, but Larry was not. Yet Phase One cannot last, reasonably, more than 90 seconds. At the end of 90 seconds, Phase Two begins. The transition from Phase One to Phase Two consists of a brief cessation of searching efforts, a sigh or other breathing-related event, and a clear and conscious utterance (at times merely internalized) that the searching "I" has not found the object, and that this is bad, and that where is it? The searching subject, who during Phase One was still picturing, however passively, the story of his or her life as it was to unfold immediately after finding the object, is forced to stop this visualization, and instead must now accept that until the object is discovered that his or her life story, for better or for worse, is now on hold, and may, if the object is never found, take a slightly different course altogether. Phase Two, in contrast to Phase One, is unequivocally sucky. Anxiety levels noticeably escalate. The searching subject's ability to maintain rational thought is compromised, this in response to the upsetting of a rational, normal world order, itself manifested in the failure of the object to be located in any of its typical, normal resting places. Depending on the size of one's dwelling, the number of second-tier potential resting sites, and the contours of one's patience-anxiety-faith algorithm, Phase Two can last just over eleven minutes. At which point one enters Phase Three, a bad phase if there ever was one.
The nuclear exchange was in and around the Indian subcontinent. Between India and Pakistan, to be exact. In total, seven nuclear missiles were launched, six of which detonated successfully: four Indian, two Pakistani (the dud warhead was Indian). The Indian missiles contained warheads, it was later estimated, in the area of 1.2 megatons, while the Pakistani warheads were each just below one megaton. India, it is almost certain, launched the first, single missile, though their accounts suggest that they believed they had in fact only launched the second. Pakistan responded with two missiles, to which India responded with four (including the dud). Pakistan did not respond with any additional missiles, ending the exchange. In total, from the launching of the first missile to the landing of the last missile, sixty-four minutes passed. The missiles destroyed, quite extensively, the following cities: Bangalore, India; Hyderabad, India; Rawalpundi, Pakistan; Faisalabad, Pakistan (two missiles), and, coincidentally, Hyderabad, Pakistan. Except for the second missile to land in Faisalabad, each weapon detonated, as planned, some two to three thousand meters above the earth's surface, thereby maximizing the magnitude of the initial blast over the outlying area. Of the six missiles which detonated, five landed within a kilometer of their target. The Pakinstani missile which landed near Bangalore was actually aimed at Madurai, some 450 kilometers to the south. Due to India's well-known high population densities, however, this did little to lessen human casualties.
Larry entered Phase Three in the moment he decided to go down and check his car. He left apartment #1207, walked down the plain hallway, waited for the slow, plain elevator, and rode it down to the plain, melancholy basement parking garage, surrounded, absolutely, by the concentric circles of his immediate despair and, moving outwards, his now typical sorrow until, finally, he reached the rigid, alien outer shell of who he had most certainly now become. He rushed, reluctantly, toward his fading Volvo, hoping and pessimistic. This, this parking garage and this elevator and that hallway and most of all apartment #1207 were not Larry's. Because if this happened only three months ago, he wouldn't have to walk down a plain hallway to check his car for a goddamn lost wallet, or wait endlessly for some shitty elevator, or ride it with some sad-sack tenant from some higher floor, or pass in the miserable, cruel light of the parking garage near strangers who like him slept alone. Only recently did all this become his setting, when he and Karen, after nine years, gave up. He left and she stayed.
The moment he opens the car door, he knows it isn't there. He knows because the single best improvement, and perhaps the only improvement at all, is the current spotlessness of his car. The twin forces of chaos and entropy, that transformed his sedan into a combination dumpster/locker room, simply expired when he left, and now he huddles up to the faint warmth of the control he wields over his car. No refuse, no disorder, no anything. Even the umbrella stays in the trunk. He skins his forearm checking under the seat, kneeling on the cold, oddly smooth cement. Nothing. And now Phase Three, horrible enough when almost mitigated by continuous, around the clock rummaging, suffocates Larry in his return to #1207, as he waits for the lazy elevator, as he jogs over the cheap carpeting of the long, long hallway.
Three months ago, he could have asked Karen, who, okay, probably would have less helped or even expressed concern than simply tucked his absent-mindedness into the overflowing, unorganized mound of mental evidence she collected against her once beloved. But he could have asked her, and maybe she would have known, and if not, he could have asked Lucy. Lucy wouldn't have helped, she probably wouldn't have even understood, but he could have persuaded her, or simply told her to join him in his quest to find his wallet. Her distraction would have been instantaneous. She would have interpreted the trip to the car as an opportunity to recruit him for a spontaneous plan of her own, one she devised as she spoke it aloud to him: ice cream, the park, Zoe's, the mall. If he was lucky, she would turn on the hazard lights and not climb on him; she would foolishly try to buckle herself into her car seat and not lock and unlock and lock and unlock and lock and unlock the doors; she would giggle idiotically and not complain of pain in her ears.
The sudden obliteration of a couple dozen million people confronted the remainder of the earth's population with the following bind: you must respond to this somehow, there is no way to respond to this. There was nothing to do, there was nothing to say; in fact, many people, around the world, years later, would recall that there was nothing to think. There was, of course, a great deal to think, not to mention say and even do, but too much really, and so minds simply shut down, ground to a halt. People, masses of people, people in Chile and Nebraska and Zanzibar sat and stared dumbfounded, silent in their mother tongue.
The news shows, of course, took over, or tried to, but even they were stymied. There was nothing to show as such. Unlucky local correspondents, like anyone else in the area, were dead, dying, or at best incapacitated, while the fallout, firestorms, and widespread destruction of infrastructure precluded the arrival of any replacements. Satellite feeds, due to atmospheric debris and electro-magnetic pulses, were largely worthless, at least to the average viewer. Without images of the real thing to show, the cable and network news people were at first stuck with a host of second-string images: archival footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which they were quick to point out were nothing compared to what was believed to have occurred in this case), recent shots of the now destroyed cities, maps (municipal, regional, national, global), disarmingly sterile military/corporate videos of the missiles used or missiles like them or missile tests, still shots or stock footage of the leaders believed to be responsible, and sites at the outer rim of the disaster: Kirachi, Calcutta, European embassies, international airports, and community centers throughout the Pakistani and Indian diasporas.
In the time it took for the various networks and cable news stations to verify the nuclear exchange, they had all switched to what is called in the trade "Block Mode," in which all resources and programming are focused on one event, one unfolding story. The cable stations had taken to entering Block Mode with great regularity in recent years, since the urgency implied by Block Mode, research indicated, increases the duration of the typical viewing session from eighteen to twenty-four minutes. And, the various network heads and news producers had concluded, Block Mode could be invoked for periods as short as two hours in the case of remote earthquakes, odd kidnappings, police standoffs, and premature celebrity deaths. Yet it was the truly large stories—the Gulf Wars, 9/11, the 2000 presidential election—where Block Mode found its raison d'être. And as much as the folks over at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC regretted the deaths often needed to motivate a week-long Block Mode, no one involved, in the privacy of their own thoughts, denied themselves the satisfaction of Block Mode, which was, after all, their time.
Because the thing about Phase Three is this: it causes your life to stall, and that's bad enough, but depending on its duration, and the state of the individual passing through it, the slightest dread and weariness turns it straight into Phase Four. Phase Four is an existential inversion or abbreviation of Three: your life is stalled. Independent of the absent wallet, prior to the keys seeking refuge under your couch or in the coat room of last night's restaurant, your life was already stuck, broken, out of joint, and this is but one sign, the official announcement of something you knew all along. Larry feels it. Of course his wallet is missing. How could it not be missing?
Larry's wallet contained: two heavily leaned upon credit cards, an Illinois driver's license, a Cook Country library card, a Supercuts frequent haircut card (marked with seven of the ten stamps required for a complimentary trim), two pictures of Lucy (one from last year's Halloween—fairy—and the other from her third birthday, candid and perfect), eighty dollars (he had wavered the previous evening between sixty and eighty for forty painful seconds during his interface with the cash machine, unable to decide how much to withdraw, until, wisely but only sort of, he now concludes, choosing the lesser amount), a Blockbuster card, two Jiffy lube cards (each marked with only one of the eight stamps needed for a free oil change), seven business cards of his own ("Larry Specter, President, Mediocre Foods"), six business cards of other people, three scraps of paper with random ideas ("Retro graphics?", "Call Steve Powers at Jewel", "Ketchup or Mayo, which is king?"), and receipts from three grocery stores, four restaurants, one movie theater, two video rental shops, and four gas stations. The wallet was brown leather. Karen bought it for him as a present, or they bought it together, or both. He didn't care for it all that much. He felt, in terms of design, that it was someone else's wallet that perhaps he was supposed to but was unable to grow into, and so he experienced a pinch of self-alienation every time he reached for it. Along with this figurative pinch was a very literal prick supplied by some mystifying bit of hard sharpened plastic reinforcement that had broken through the leather at two of the wallet's corners. Larry had spent some twenty frustrating minutes divided over three pointless sessions—equipped with pliers, scissors, and nail file—trying to remove or blunt the invincible, jagged plastic spikes. Indeed, Larry had intended for some time now to buy another wallet altogether—a more Larryish wallet free of dangerous corners that seemed to poke him with alarming regularity—but he was not exactly the kind of guy who goes wallet shopping. Larry, to sum up, hated his wallet. But he wanted it now, obviously.
Initially, an impressive team of executives from New York and DC steadied themselves and inhaled deeply, as they realized that all eyes would be on them, that it was their responsibility to lead America and the world through this story: to report, clarify, interpret, illuminate. Cameramen, script writers, and make-up artists hunkered down with fresh coffee, grounded in the solemn air of destiny and duty, while authority figures at every level at every studio said things like "Now's our time," "Be sharp" and "Let's go, people."
The intensity of the first hour precluded self-reflection. Curiosity, dread, and habit found the media busy sketching out the basic shape of the event. Forty minutes were devoted to the telecast of a confused Pentagon briefing. After testing a few possible directions (description of targets hit, exact times of each strike, fine details of the weapons likely used), the press conference inevitably settled on the topic that would sit stubbornly, awesome and impenetrable, at the center of everyone's attention for the foreseeable future:
Q: Can you give us any idea about the number of civilian casualties?
A: At this time it is impossible to specify, but we fear they are significant.
Q: Can you be more specific? Thousands? Tens of thousands?
A: Preliminary intelligence, and I repeat this is only the most preliminary estimate, suggests a possible range from five to twenty to perhaps even forty million.
And it was then, in the wake of the jolt of this information, that the television media began to falter. Thirty-odd Pentagon correspondents stared into space, while the chief military spokesman began chewing his lip and rubbing his left eye frantically, a nervous habit he picked up in Vietnam and was able to overcome only after months of private therapy and treatments.
Inside his apartment, Larry got intimate with Phase Four. He attacked his new couch, demanding, aloud, where it put Larry's wallet. He hurled its pillows across the living room—toward the new television, at an empty bookshelf, up to the bare white ceiling. The couch was accused of being a piece of shit, a motherfucker, and a motherfucking piece of shit. The catastrophic flavor of Phase Four—the unrelenting sense of helplessness, of cruel injustice, of debilitating confusion—does create opportunities for catharsis. Larry's relationship with his couch was in its infancy, as the couch had only entered his life the weekend after moving out, when he purchased it at an IKEA. Yet Larry had already harbored suspicions toward this couch even before he bought it, even before the moment he tried out an exact replica of this couch in an IKEA showroom. During his one previous visit to the superstore, with Karen, Larry already mistrusted IKEA. Its irresistible appeal, its low prices, massive selection, Swedish mystique, and the largely unironic approval of their social caste, it all rubbed Larry the wrong way. He couldn't formulate his opposition, but sensed it nonetheless. And then only a few months later, banished and wildly concerned with insolvency and paternal impotency, with no time and less energy to consider what type of aesthetic he might try to capture in his new dwelling, all this bad news manifested itself in his immediate fate: you must go to IKEA and buy a couch. So he bore the red couch like a curse, and thus never truly welcomed it into his home (a similar domestic cold shoulder having been given to the IKEA bookshelf, TV stand, coffee table, kitchen table and kitchen chairs). And so now he let the couch have it. After the opening volley of curses, he pushed it out from the wall, kicked it, hard, turned it over, and asked again, threateningly, where it had hidden his wallet. No question about it, the couch was to blame.
And so what was there to do? What additional information did anyone need? While there arose an instant urge to know exactly, or even more or less, how many died, this was an urge fated to be unfulfilled. First off, no one could ever know, since entire extended families, whole civic centers and their bureaucracies, thick buildings of public records, of remarkable digital memory, were vaporized. A circle, some ten kilometers miles in diameter, had spread around each target. Inside nothing would be known. Which meant estimates, very general estimates. Between a million and a million and a half here, two to three million here, somewhere in the range of twelve to sixteen million overall, approximately. Numerous efforts were made to narrow this down. In Karachi and Calcutta, a host of government databases were scoured: birth records, census results, high school matriculation exams, military recruitment logs, voting rosters, income tax spread sheets. Leading demographers, tenured sociologists, internationally renown statisticians, high ranking public health officials, cutting edge urban anthropologists, and economists with global reputations attempted to update the data, extrapolate, speculate, basing their figures on the latest birth and infant mortality rates, recent trends in urbanization, emigration, and immigration. Eccentric mathematicians were enlisted in the effort to produce and calibrate the proper formulas which might fill-in the doubt concerning population shifts in the last 6-12 months. Within a week, a handful of very specific estimates were produced: the Pakistani health ministry announced 6.4 million casualties, the Indian social security offices 9.1 million, the respective tax departments, 7 and 8.5 million, respectively. The average of the so-called authoritative estimates came out to 7.2 million Pakistani deaths, 9 million Indian deaths, all this with a 500,000 to one million person margin of error in either direction. So, confidently it could be said that overall between 14 and 18 million that were alive on Tuesday morning were now gone. A range of 4 million people.
The phone rang a few moments later —catching Larry off guard as he lay spent across the hard edge of the couch's bottom wooden frame, which at this moment pointed to the ceiling. For two rings he debated answering the call, instinctively weighing the evenly matched pros and cons of putting Phase Four on hold.
"Hello," he announced, short of breath.
"Hey, Larry, this is Steve Powers over at Jewel."
"Hey, Steve, good to hear from you. I've been meaning to call." Larry's enthusiasm was sincere, and the accompanying upsurge in energy almost helped him put things into perspective. He tried to find a position near the phone which would feel natural and normal, but would not permit him any view of the ravaged living room. This was difficult.
"Larry, I've got the Spring Meeting with Purchasing on Monday, and I'm thinking real seriously about putting in a big push in Mediocre Foods, but, well, I think I need a bit more convincing."
One of the many problems with these numbers, and there were many to be sure, was that they necessarily disregarded the thousands and possibly millions who were dying as they were being tabulated, along with the millions who would die in the weeks, months, and years to come from untreated injuries, fallout and the long term contamination of water and soil. Indeed, two days after the last numbers were announced, a well-known nuclear physicist and longtime public spokesperson for the movement for global disarmament claimed, with equal degrees of outrage and grief, that the numbers, whatever they were that Tuesday morning, were now at least a half-million to a million higher. Removing his thick glasses and appearing to just about pull out a chunk of his unruly hair, the physicist delivered a gruesome list of causes for this second, ongoing wave of fatalities: massive third-degree burns left untreated, collapsed buildings trapping survivors, intense short-term fallout radiation ten to fifteen kilometers from ground zero, the firestorm in Bangladore, the conflagration in Rawalpundi, mechanical injuries caused by victims being blown into wood, glass, and cement obstructions (and vice versa). After catching his breath and returning his glasses to his face, the physicist next elaborated on so-called synergistic effects, of combined injuries, of the effect of radiation on burn victims, of the way blood damage—caused by exposure to 300 reins or more—significantly limits a body's ability to stave off infection around open wounds, of any and all injuries exacerbated by the severe environmental damage and poor sanitation in the targeted areas. Finally, the physicist concluded, looking away from the camera, that the initial number of injured was approximately equal to the initial number of dead, and that a third to a half of the injured were likely to die during the coming three months. Looking back at the camera, he added, "And then there's the long term effects, which will reach well beyond the sub-Indian continent."
This incident, along with others like it, prompted daily efforts to extrapolate and re-extrapolate, to update, almost hourly, the latest estimated number dead. But the real problem emerged while all this research and number-crunching was underway, while small groups of once scattered world experts came together to quantify the unquantifiable, as very simple, quite uneducated people arrived quickly at a most simple conclusion: it (the exact number) didn't much matter. Even if the best case scenario was, six days after the exchange, in fact a wild overestimate, even if the true figure was, say, only eleven million, well then only eleven million people died, a phrase which means nothing at all to anyone. Maybe only eleven million people died.
Larry's second wind had already ebbed, and Phase Four, like a fucking bear, was not about to go away so easily. Larry wiped his brow and tried hard to imagine what a confident, charismatic person might sound like. "Sure Steve, no problem at all. What exactly are you looking for? Numbers, references, projections, investor information?" The tone was reasonable, but the phrasing concerned him. He fought off Phase Four, the doubt, the anxiety, the fury, because he knew this was his to sell. A big check, a giant account like this would make canceling all his credit cards and asking Karen for new pictures of Lucy tolerable.
"No, it's none of that, Larry. I know that if we get it in the stores it'll sell. That you've convinced me of. I had my doubts, but you've put them to rest,"
"—it's just that the fellas over in Purchasing, they don't like to go out on a limb. You know, they feel comfortable ordering a quarter million liters of Coke and 100,000 bags of potato chips a few times a year. Getting them to agree to hummus a few years back was a major undertaking. Men who wind up in Purchasing are not the adventurous type. They like organized spread sheets, strong coffee, and prime rib, you know what I'm getting at here?"
"Because what I'm having trouble wrapping my head around is delivering the following pitch to these men: 'Gentlemen, I want to introduce a new line I think we should try out: Mediocre Foods. The concept behind the line is this: buy generic foods—ketchup, salad dressing, tomato paste, mayonnaise, and the like—directly from the generic foods distributor, repackage them in these eye-catching bottles, cans, jars, and labels with highly ironic names that the 18-34 year-old educated, urban middle class will be unable to resist. Names like: "Sub-par Mustard," "Slightly Disappointing BBQ Sauce," "Nothing to Write Home About Mac N' Cheese." A bit marked-up from the generic line itself, Mediocre Foods still comes in at ten to twenty percent below brand-name lines. And, as we all know, they taste fine. Trials in Bucktown and the Ukranian Village were a huge success. I've got the numbers if anyone is interested in taking a look. Jewel could make a killing with Mediocre Foods.' Saying it to you right now, Larry, it's great stuff, but truthfully, I just don't know if I can survive that pitch in front of the guys from Purchasing. I know, I know that it can be done, but these guys are serious old school. They're not open minded like me, Larry. I spent a semester in Paris, Larry, you know, I listen to Jazz sometimes, I've inhaled, if you know what I mean. But these guys—"
"Would you like me there, Steve? Because I'd be happy to make a presentation, believe me." Larry knew all he could do right now was somehow transfuse to Steve a large dose of unwavering optimism that he himself lacked. Please, Steve, please. That's what he thought.
"No, Larry, that wouldn't be possible, I just—a"
At first the executives of all the major media outlets, however regrettably and secretly, savored the opportunity presented to them. The newspapers published massive special sections devoted to the disaster. Trying to cover every angle, they produced lengthy articles about the two countries, their history, their politics, culture, and religion. In concert with the local and foreign intelligence communities in the military and various state departments, the press meticulously reconstructed, as best they could, the weeklong hostilities that had so suddenly escalated into the exchange. Readers were given every bit of declassified information, every nugget of scientific knowledge concerning nuclear weapons programs, from the Manhattan Project up the present, with special attention, naturally, given to the Pakistani and Indian programs, concerning which, unfortunately, numerous mysteries remained. Rather quickly terms like "over-pressure" and "roentgens" became as commonplace as "wind-chill" and "NASDAQ" in American kitchens and middle-school classrooms. For the first few days, the papers, sharing content at unprecedented levels, published issues of record size. The first Sunday New York Times after the events threatened a thousand pages and weighed over four pounds. Editors at every level, there in those first few days, found everything relevant. Such was their sense of duty.
But after a week, there were problems. There was no formula for this. First, what about the other sections of the paper? Was it ethical to print the box scores for the Clippers-Warriors basketball game? Was anyone truly interested in the ongoing scandal involving the local comptroller? The investigatory piece on antifreeze, did anyone really care? What kind of warped view of reality was required for someone to assert, "the investigatory piece on antifreeze matters"? And comics? Show times? Celebrity gossip? They were all out for the first week, out of necessity, as all resources were mobilized for this singular event. Personal technology columnists were put to editing narratives on the dispute over Kashmir. Photographers, with little to photograph, were instructed to call upon their expertise in the finer points of visual composition in order to contemplate the layout of page after page of dense text. But at some point, somewhere, in the business staff, there were murmurings. What? The markets are going to stay closed forever? They're slated to re-open on the 11th, aren't we going to cover it? People need to laugh, the comics editor suggested, discretely, to the managing editor. We need to keep the pressure on the comptroller, or he's going to get off. I know it doesn't matter much, but, look, it matters.
Can't take it. Must take it. Want to take it. Should take it? "Steve, can you hold just a moment."
"Hi. Hey. Um, I'm on the other line, I—a"
"I spoke to Lucy's doctor, he said that—"
"Hold on a sec, let me get off the other line."
Flash. "Steve. It's my, my wife, we've got a little family . . . thing happening. I, I got to, uh. . ."
"No problem, Lar, I'll call again tomorrow."
"Could I come by? I'd really like to do that."
"Call me. We'll see. Take care."
Flash. "Sorry." And he turned around. It was the proper thing to do. To get his mind into the new call and out of the last one. To change the backdrop. It would help him pay attention to Karen, something that was oddly difficult at times. "I just got off the phone with Dr. Rojas." A difficultly compounded by his tendency to disengage when Lucy's medical complications were being discussed. "X-ray of the mastoid." But here was the couch, and one of his shoes, and here she was on the other line, already talking ("a procedure to control dizziness"), the cause of this couch, and possibly, thanks to the logic of Phase Four, somehow responsible for the wallet as well.
"—and Dr. Rojas thinks that we need to do a CAT scan first, he's not so sure that reconstruction will be possible. But I don't know, Larry, could you call Michael Feldman and ask him to talk to his friend first?"
"Why? What do you mean 'why'?"
"I, uh, I think I'm following you," perhaps she wasn't on to him, "but if—"
"If I'm going to call Mike, I want to be sure I can explain this."
Not that there wasn't plenty to report on the story itself. There were the immediate border skirmishes and the intense debates held at the UN and the impromptu G-8 summit, where diplomats weighed sending buffer forces and humanitarian aid. Daily readings, taken, somehow, from satellites, measured fall-out and threatening weather patterns. Never in the history of the world had wind patterns garnered so much interest, wind patterns which proved virtually impossible to predict more than a day or two in advance. Then there were the stories of the hundreds of thousands of mostly doomed, often contaminated refugees—hair falling out, skin falling off—who abandoned their mostly destroyed, often smoldering homes and villages and walked straight toward the wind, not knowing, in one case, that they were headed directly into a different radioactive plume. These stories, and others like it, were captured by daredevil, freelance reporters, some with moon suits, some crazy ones without, who headed, insanely, to the devastation. And then there were the memorials. The endless memorials. Everywhere, all the time. The flowers and the vigils and the services. Around the world. But how was this all to be brought together? How were they to strike a balance, an impossible balance between this ever-swelling story and everything else? People had a right to know about the latest unemployment figures, but could it be put in the same section as the story, or did the story need its own section, which would obviously need to be the first section, indefinitely? And to what extent was the story about the initial nuclear attacks and to what extent did it revolve around the fallout, both literal and figurative? And what to call the story in the first place? "The Exchange"? "Nuclear Holocaust"? Some thought the date would do, but unlike 9/11, 12/9 just didn't sound right, and anyway, it was still 12/8 in the US when it happened, so it wasn't really 12/9, at least that's not how people thought of it.
And so Karen began her explanation again, while Larry, largely conscious of the self-loathing to follow, couldn't stop reflecting on his inability to grasp, ever, the details of Lucy's complications. At first she was just one of those kids who got a lot of ear infections. An ear-rubber from about six months on. They used to joke about it, giving her all sorts of moronic nicknames based on the words and sounds: Rubby, Rubby the Ear Rubber, Rubby Von Rub-Rub, Dr. Rubbenstein, etc. Until at some point Karen decided something was wrong. And so started the trips to the doctor, and the antibiotics, and the drops, and the need to remember to give the antibiotics and the drops. And then the remission, and then back to the doctor, and then more antibiotics and more drops. Somewhere, not long before her second birthday, when he began smelling the beginning of the end both at work and in his marriage, the full force of Larry's discomfort with his life was suddenly translated into a reliable incapacity to function at all in the face of Lucy's conditions. He would take her to the doctor when it was his turn. He would try to listen to the doctor and try to ask the questions that Karen told him to ask, which, if he was the least bit smart and honest with himself in the hours before the appointment, he would write down so as not to forget. And there, in front of the doctor, forcing his eyes to appear interested, naturally, and concerned, properly, Larry would likewise jot down notes, notes that were largely useless since the rest barely even went in one ear to begin with. The moment they left the office he would forget about it entirely, more than once driving straight home and forgetting to get the prescription filled.
But soon, the people decided. The delivery truck drivers that emptied and re-filled the newsstands noticed it first. After a weeklong unprecedented spike in non-subscriber readership, with newsstands emptied by 9:30AM, with afternoon editions gobbled up instantly, things suddenly dropped off. After a week, no one was interested in the afternoon paper. Pretty soon they were picking up as many unread papers as they were dropping off new ones each morning. At ten days circulation noticed it, too. Virtually no one was renewing their subscription. Not many cancellations, just a bunch of long-time subscribers passively letting theirs run out. And according to the early morning drivers who rode through the bedroom communities, tossing papers expertly out their passenger windows, few people were bothering to bring in the already paid for morning paper. Small mounds of uncollected, unwanted editions formed up and down the suburban streets. Everyone, it appeared, was on vacation, though the travel industry, alarmed but unsurprised by their own suddenly empty airplanes and hotels, knew this to be untrue.
He did care about Lucy, though. He would ask her how she was feeling, and he would hold her, and rock her, and help her fall asleep sitting up, so it would hurt less. But even this would end in his visual, nearly abstract contemplation of her right ear. Larry would admire its folds, her miniature lobe, and the way all that delicate flesh funneled into an orifice leading to all the trouble. Eventually Karen caught on. It only took her so long because she was rightly focused on Lucy, not Larry. Right there, either the week before or the week after he moved out, it was impossible to reconstruct it now, she called him out on it. You don't care, really, you just want it to go away. That's bullshit and you know it. Sure, I want it to go away, but that doesn't mean I don't care. And then she weighed in with her evidence, which was irrefutable. He tried, sort of, to explain this syndrome of his, but he barely understood it, and, in truth, there was no way to buy any sympathy with it no matter how well presented. And, moreover, this coming either right before or right after the separation, either the last straw or vindication or a bit of post-conjugal pus, all was already lost. She had already caught him spacing out as he considered the colored ear chart, wondering who was first responsible for creating the Gray's Anatomy aesthetic, wondering how, if at all, it could be harnessed for a magazine ad. Not because he was unconcerned, not because he didn't recognize the urgency that accompanied a word like "cholesteatoma."
People were, however, still watching television. On that first Tuesday, everyone had it on, because that's what you did when Block Mode, a real, one hundred percent legitimate, genuine, necessary Block Mode, surfaced. But the lack of available images combined with the immeasurable and unimaginable horror of the events compelled even the most text-averse American to consult the newspaper. The meditative silence and prayer-like solitude of reading, the sobering experience of all at once grasping the unbridgeable gap between word and thing, the newspaper provided these necessities in abundance. That and there was only so much information the visual media could cram into an hour. The newspaper publishers assumed no one was reading everything, but they suspected everything was being read by someone. Some readers were interested in Indian history, some wanted comparisons with Hiroshima, while others hoped to understand the finer points of nuclear fusion. TV had to decide what everyone was going to see at the same time. Truthfully, they just didn't know. And their mock-solemn tone, the kind of crap they used to effortlessly and habitually summon to describe a tragically botched bank robbery, it just didn't fly fifteen million dead later. The patently and instinctively superficial core of television news was mostly crushed, at least at first, by this story. The average news anchor's persona was involuntarily shed, and what was left underneath was not fit for television. Most female newscasters—and more than a few male ones—cried horribly in the middle of a report. The men, on the whole, disassociated and/or stammered, while the guy from Fox simply cursed. Few were callous enough to call it an embarrassment, to draw attention to it in any way as thing that could possible matter, but that's what it was: a trivial embarrassment.
Lucy stayed over at his place for the first time four weeks ago. They had pizza and rented "Toy Story" and ate a remarkable amount of crap. She passed out not three minutes after a sugar-induced hula-hoop mini-marathon, her chin shiny with drool. Larry moved her into the sterile second bedroom, the few stuffed animals assembled to create atmosphere only accentuating his failure. The rest of the evening, wasted in front of cable television, hurt. With his only child asleep not far away, Larry was stunned to realize how great his loneliness had become. He didn't stand a chance without Karen. Not with Lucy, and not, really, with himself. Having her here, having a little feeling of family and togetherness made clear that it would only ever be a small fraction of what once was. Karen brought energy and created order, she knew, effortlessly, how to pilot Lucy. Larry was merely responsible for punctuated moments of idiocy in order to keep things interesting. He decided, as he watched an insubordinate homicide detective rightfully cut short another man's life, that he was determined to make this work. He was unable to convince himself he could sustain his determination.
Only a few hours later, roused from an already evaporated dream, Larry heard Lucy moaning and crying. My ear, my ear. He'd heard it hundreds of time. So he lifted her up and hugged her heft, asking, as was their routine, if he should take a look. There was never anything to see, since the problems were all inside, but she didn't know this, and she still believed in her father. But the stench had already filled the room. When he looked, for the first time he did in fact see something. Mostly clear, but not entirely, just some fluid. And the smell, the horrible smell. He brought his nose close and inhaled with paralyzed loving calm, ingesting the smell of something that wanted so badly to get out, something that should have never been inside in the first place.
But about five days into it, things began to turn around. The recently absent viewing public had just about gotten their fill of the written word, while the big-time TV producers and directors were finding their footing. A new minimalist, understated anchoring strategy had emerged, one aptly suited to accompany the shocking images now pouring in. A hastily produced 90-minute documentary on India and Pakistan ("A World Lost") was shown daily on all channels. Nuclear scientists, historians, political analysts, retired generals, diplomats, spiritual leaders, filmmakers, novelists, poets, and philosophers made regular appearances, offering generously their insufficient wisdom. Multiple appendages of the American government—Pentagon, NSA, the Senate Ways and Means Committee—held numerous press conferences daily, answering the latest questions with the latest answers. Television was back and fully in charge.
Yet hastily arranged phone surveys by the major news outlets—set up less for the benefit of their sponsors (who had stopped running commercials—every last one of which, from the sentimental to the comical, now came off as utterly asinine—and were instead merely "presenting this hour of . . .") than to satisfy their own curiosity concerning the viewing public's interests—revealed an insatiable demand for what came to be called the "mourning/commemoration" angle. To be sure, people wanted to know what had happened and what was still happening "over there," but they just as strongly expressed a need to work through their own trauma. This was, it turned out after all, an American story, too. Just being alive and knowing about this, whether in Cleveland or Bozeman, swallowing portions of sadness, guilt, gratitude, and impotence, this was an event, too, and was in many ways the only event most Americans could comprehend. So news crews, both local and national, regularly hunted down and covered memorials, however spontaneous and limited. On the second Sunday following the exchange, a dozen or more massive memorials were held across the globe, from New York to Tokyo, where presidents, premiers, Nobel Laureates of all stripes, and aging survivors of Nagasaki called for remembrance and demanded global disarmament. Tens of millions attended, marching somberly, emptying the world's flower shops, constructing ad-hoc mountains of roses and tulips. But despite the speeches and the placards, despite the well-framed shots of fully grown white men holding hands and crying inconsolably, Sunday was not enough.
What everyone wanted was a survivor's story, but there weren't any, any survivors or stories, at least not the kind Americans could digest. A few suicidal foreign correspondents entered the radioactive zones to interview Pakistani and Indian survivors, right there on the side of a dirt road packed with refugees or in a poorly lit, crowded hospital ward, but the obliterated world of these survivors simply didn't translate. A little, but not really. The vast barren landscapes they attempted to describe, their effort to give an account of what they had seen, it was all much too much. Americans tried to meet their testimony halfway, but the empathy required to connect with these foreign, indeed alien, stories left the typical viewer emotionally exposed and exhausted. It soon became clear that Americans wanted to hear from single-family members living abroad: students, computer programmers, radiologists, mathematicians, and importer/exporters. These were tracked down in steady numbers, but they, quite honestly, tended to disappoint. Either they refused to appear, something which occurred in surprisingly large numbers, or they had little to say. Everyone's English was fine, that wasn't the problem, it was just the interviews never went anywhere. In nine out of ten cases the interview got stuck in the realm of empty clichés, and when the exchange got specific it quickly deteriorated into demonstrations of uncontrollable sorrow. It wasn't, simply put, good television. What was needed was one of these sudden orphans, but one who could formulate properly his new identity, measured against, indeed drawn out from the inexpressible magnitude of his loss. Such a person was Naren Joshi.
It took a few tries to remember how to pronounce "Cholesteatoma," and he still hasn't entirely come to understand what it is. All its ingredients are known to him—skin growth, middle ear, Eustachian tube, sac, cyst—but he simply cannot learn how they come together, he can't really construct a single viable narrative from etiology to the present, not even a hypothetical version. In conversation with his futile parents he tried to inform them, to update them, to alarm them. He told his two friends, who, thankfully, sort of, didn't really want to hear about it, though they did care. Karen, he could tell, was by now a true expert, utterly fluent in terminology and treatments. She had assembled a network of informal advisors and consultants, unearthing any Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist connected in any way to anyone she ever knew. Two otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeons, one with pediatric expertise had even been located. The problem was that Lucy's case had been detected late, and now Karen began peppering her reports with the vocabulary of complications: he's almost certain he's heard her say things like "hearing loss," "facial nerve damage," "bone erosion", and "muscle paralysis." Only he couldn't ever seem to establish what had happened and what only might happened, and he was terrified to ask any question specific enough to find out, for fear of exposing to Karen the full extent of his ignorance. And try as he might, when the subject came up, as it did almost daily, with ever-crescendoing urgency, something inside him, probably not all that far from his own perfectly functioning ears, shut-down, making him worthless.
I remember the movie Independence Day. I saw it. I didn't want to see it. The premise struck me as ridiculous, from the previews. But then the movie became a huge hit, the runaway hit of the summer, whatever summer that was. So I broke down and saw it. With a not so slight sense of irony, my wife and I decided to see it. That's how we bought the ticket, the way you buy junk food or sit down to watch bad television. You're giving into something you'll later regret, and this is bad, but maybe only a little, and really, what's the big deal? It feels good at the time, and there are health benefits to be had from such easy, immediate pleasure. And so I'm watching the beginning of the movie with a semi-embarrassed grin, but really I'm waiting, because I know what's coming, everyone does. About a third into the movie there are going to be some events represented that have never as such been represented in film: the sudden and complete obliteration of national icons. A bright beam and then instantly, boom, the White House, the Empire State Building, a Southern Californian skyscraper, all gone. Some of these images we had seen in the previews. At the time, out of context, it was funny. My limited fascination during the previews stemmed from wish fulfillment, from agreement, yes, please let's pretend that powerful, hostile aliens come to earth and for no reason destroy the White House, because if they don't have it coming, then I don't know who does. During the previews, in no way did I identify with the victims of these special effects. I identified solely with myself, the spectator.
Naren Joshi was discovered by an ambitious assistant producer in the Orange Country Indian Community Center about ten days after the exchange. The assistant producer, a fourth-generation American of Polish decent, came to the community center to, more or less, scout for talent. She found Naren at the perimeter of a large gathering in the main hall of the community center, a gathering that had formed nine days earlier and had to disassemble. Naren, dressed in a beautiful, if extremely wrinkled, silk shirt, sat mostly silent drinking his strong coffee. Occasionally he joined in the singing that broke out among the group. The assistant producer was immediately drawn to him, such was his involuntary charisma. She sat down next to him, asking if this was okay. Naren, polite and gracious, welcomed her. And they spoke for three hours. Precocious, confident, and almost unbearably handsome, Naren Joshi came to the United States from his hometown of Bangladore, India three days before his nineteenth birthday to study Computer Science at Stanford University. Secretly hating the sciences and longing to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming an actor, Naren transferred to UCLA with the sole intention of breaking into film. Armed only with his shocking good looks and a preternatural sense of what was involved in pretending to be someone else, Naren found bit parts quickly, benefiting from the latest Hollywood trend of casting the more obscure minorities (Korean-Americans, South American Immigrants, Indians, etc.), as supporting players in mainstream movies about regular, white Americans.
"So when do you think you can call Michael about his friend, since I'd like to get back Dr. Rojas by tomorrow morning at the latest. Last time you said you'd call him right away, but it took you nearly a week, because I need to know—"
"It's just we're at a really crucial moment here, and we might have to make some very difficult decisions, and I—"
"I can't find my wallet."
"I can't find my wallet. I don't know where I put it."
"Larry." Silence. "Larry, I don't . . . how long have you been looking for it?"
"I don't know. Twenty minutes, maybe a half hour."
"Lar, I'm sorry, I just don't have time for this right now."
"There's just not that many places it could be. It's a new place. I don't have that much clutter, and not much furniture either. Back at home there was the chest and the hutch and the hook thing and that old tray and all of Lucy's stuff and all the mail we used to leave lying around, I barely get any mail here."
"You'll find it."
"You think so?"
"If it's there, you'll find it."
"Do you think it's here?"
"Larry? Are you going to call Michael or not?"
"Because if it's not here, man, I'd just like to know. In fact, if I had to choose between it not being here and gone forever, on the one hand, and it being here but impossible to locate, I'd chose gone."
"Larry, I'll wait until tomorrow at noon, and then I'm going to give Dr. Rojas my decision."
"I really don't like Michael."
"You really don't like Michael. Larry, I don't give a shit if you don't like Michael. Please call him."
"This is Lucy we're talking about."
"This is Lucy we're talking about. It was coming. I know. You're right. I'll call him. Sorry. Even if he's an asshole."
"Are you worried?"
"Yeah. Yeah, about Lucy."
"Yes. I'm pretty terrified."
"Alright, so we'll talk—"
"Karen, if I don't find my wallet, I don't know what I'm going to do."
"What do you mean, Lar, you do what everyone else does when they lose their wallet. Cancel your credit cards, go get a new driver's license, and buy a new wallet. What's the big deal?"
"It's not that. I just don't know what I'm going to do."
"Larry, I've really got to go."
"I mean, where is the fucking thing?"
"Will you come here and help me look if I call?"
Yet one of the great accomplishments of Independence Day was that during the total annihilation sequence, and it was most certainly a sequence—five straight minutes of nothing but massive explosions and related chaos—during that time it was just too intense to laugh at. Visually it was pretty awesome (in the "Shock and Awe" sense of the word), but the sound, the unabating, visceral sound, was the key. The year was 1996 (I looked it up), only a few summers after Jurassic Park (1993), after a new generation of surround sound, subwoofers, and digital audio postproduction had enabled some very loud and complicated things to be heard. The volume, the abrasive, thundering blasts, masterfully orchestrated, overwhelmed me, until I couldn't laugh, until I had to, physiologically and neurologically, take the literally inhuman scope of the alien's brutal attack seriously. Those bastards, they just blew up the White House.
It was a sobering moment on two levels. First, as just mentioned, on the level of plot. Spectacle, for sure, yet a bit of horror, too. But second, and more important, as a self-aware cultural critic movie goer, I had just been beaten down to the point that I was unable to resist watching the movie as those who created the movie wanted me to watch it. And I really didn't want to watch it their way. This was something I read about later, this reluctant admission that "Independence Day," against all odds, succeeded in commanding, unironically, our ever more difficult to command, indeed even locate, unironic attention. From a now safe, if humbled distance, the critics conceded (and I had to agree), that at first glance the movie begged a campy reading (and unless you have an impressive home theater system, that's how it's watched on video and DVD), but once you were strapped into your theater seat it worked. And how did it work? By raising the volume—and the stakes, and violence, and the body count—in every which way. By forcing us to imagine at length, and with a great deal of assistance on their part, the death of millions of people, all at once.
The assistant producer, some time later that evening, driving home in her daze, would realize that she fell in love with Naren within the first twenty minutes. But at the time she was too spellbound to notice. Their encounter, she would tell the head producer the next morning, was a mix between the perfect date and the world's best therapy session. Natural, calming, engaging, healing. Naren's speech was effortless, his accent simply magnificent, and he opened up with gradual elegance, telling the assistant produce lively anecdotes about his childhood and early adolescence. He wistfully reproduced the smells and sounds of Bangladore, the voice of his grandmother, and the way his schoolmaster would reprimand him for disobeying his teacher. Patiently and with great care he reconstructed his entire family tree, sketching it out carefully on the back of a computer printout containing the assistant producer's directions to the community center. His hand did not shake, and when he cried, as he wrote out the name of his youngest sister, Mahima, he maintained his self-control, laughing at himself and wiping away the tear with the back of his beautiful caramel-colored hand.
The concept that became "Mediocre Foods" was born at Joel and Kate's, after a bottle and a half of wine, after the girls had been plugged into a video. Kate, ever frenetic, her frizzy hair uncharacteristically pulled up in response to the heat of their small kitchen, her neck splotched in red, decided as she put together yet another dinner for the six of them revolving around tomatoes, butter and garlic, that using all the sausages in the dish would ruin it, but that all the sausages had to be cooked, lest they go bad. Which meant a sausage appetizer, a single cooked sausage cut into discs on a white plate and placed on the table. It needed something more. Larry went to their fridge, such was their intimacy, and looked inside. Then:
"My Lord, Kate, you have like sixteen different kinds of mustards!"
"What are you talking about, sixteen?" Larry had strongly mixed opinions about Kate, and her inability to detect hyperbole was on the negative side of the ledger.
"Karen, come take a look at this." Karen came over, a slight smile rising on her face, taking pleasure in what she recognized immediately as the duty to play along.
"This is troubling," she announced gravely after surveying the inside door of the fridge. "Extremely troubling."
"What are you doing in our fridge over there?" Joel finally chimed in, not quite finding the proper tone for his comment, but communicating nevertheless that something was afoot that required cooperation cloaked in feigned resistance.
"An intervention," Larry declared, "as your friends, we must."
Karen began removing containers of varying size, most glass, all colored or filled with something along the spectrum between yellow and brown. As she placed them on the counter Larry counted aloud, each number more accusatory than the next, all the way to the number nine. "Nine. Nine types of mustard. Do you even like mustard?"
Kate and Joel looked at each other, raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders.
"On a hot dog."
"You need a sweet brown mustard for grilled cheese."
"Samantha only eats French's."
"And then there's Guilden's."
"And Grey Poupon."
"It's not like those two were up to our discretion."
"And that little one," Joel pointed to an inch high jar, "I mean that doesn't count. We bought it in Wisconsin at a fair years back. Throw it out."
Karen tossed it in the garbage.
"Eight. You have eight types of mustard." Larry continued. "That is simply not normal. I won't get into the societal ramifications here, but I could, you all know I could."
"Yeah, that we know," Kate said without turning back from the stove.
Grins were on everyone's face, and it looked like they were going to let it go at that. Karen began returning the containers to fridge, asking Joel if they in fact wanted to hold onto all of them. "Does mustard go bad?" he asked. No one could confidently answer, so back inside they all went.
Larry returned to the kitchen table, satisfied that the evening had been injected with some life, since evenings at Joel and Kate's, however pleasant they might be and however great their girls got along, were often boring.
Five minutes passed before it struck Larry: "What if it isn't abnormal?" he asked urgently.
"What if it isn't abnormal to have a lot of types of mustard?" No one responded. "Karen, c'mon, think, how many types of mustard do we have?"
"I don't know." She started counting on her fingers as the two of them listed them from memory. Joel and Kate seized the opportunity for some role reversal, but by the time they reached six, Larry cut them off, stunned by his conclusions.
"How did they get us to buy so much fucking mustard? It's not like we consider ourselves mustard connoisseurs. People don't have mustard cellars, but between the two couples here, we're averaging at least seven and half types of mustards per household. Can that be a fluke?"
"I doubt it," Joel said.
"Karen, call the Sterns."
"Call the Sterns, see what their mustard count is."
"'Mustard count?' Larry, no, I'm not calling the Sterns to ask them how much mustard they have."
"What's their number? I'll call them myself." He rose and headed to a phone.
"Lar, spazoid, stop it." Karen invoked her authority. "What does it matter?"
"I'm not sure, but it's big. Think about it. How did they get us to buy so much?" And before anyone could respond, he found his next move. "Open the fridge. Karen, open the goddam fridge!"
She didn't budge so he did it himself. He inspected it. "As I thought. Only one type of ketchup. Nine to one—"
"Eight to one—"
"Fine. Eight to one. What kind of insane ratio is that? And you probably prefer ketchup, as a category, as a generic condiment, over mustard."
"True." Joel concurred.
"Not me, just for French fries, but not even all the time," Kate said, shaking her head.
Larry hollered into the next room, "Girls, mustard or ketchup, which do like most?"
No answer. He went into the next room. Asked again. No answer. He paused the video. The girls starred at him confused and impatient. He asked a third time.
Lucy: "Dada, I want a hot dog."
Samantha: "Me too, and Jell-o."
His: "Green Jell-o, green Jell-o, green Jell-o."
Theirs: "And ice cream. When Lucy has ice cream she gets lots."
"Girls, girls, whoa. What do want on your hot dog? Mustard or ketchup?"
"Ketchup," Lucy finally answered.
"Mustard," Samantha replied. "And ketchup."
"Thank you. I now return you to your regularly scheduled nonsense."
Back in the kitchen. "Two ketchups, one Mustard. At best it's even."
Kate, whose patience for Larry's frequent epiphanies and rants typically ran out first, interrupted. "Larry, please stop talking about mustard and ketchup. I'm losing my appetite."
Sensitive to socially disagreeable behavior on her husband's part, Karen agreed. "Yeah, Lar, enough already, I promise, we can talk about it on the way home."
"Impatience and a patronizing tone, that's what I get. I'm on the cusp of an entrepreneurial gem, of discovering a potentially massive untapped market, and I'm getting pressured to clam up. No way. Please, just follow me here for a moment." Wisely, he didn't stop to check his audience's mood. "We like ketchup more than mustard. But we buy only about 10% as much ketchup as we do mustard."
"I've got to disagree with you there, Specter. Think about it. We buy Heinz pretty regularly. About a half-dozen times a year. Some of those mustards are from the early Clinton years."
"Fair enough. Still. Still. You're not buying ketchup at some country inn over in Door County. You're not buying a particular ketchup solely for the construction of single sandwich." He paused, as it struck him. He savored it briefly before sharing it with his wife and friends. "I see our future, gang, one of wealth and comfort. And it's name is Yuppie Ketchup. Yuppie Ketchup." He smiled and fought off the urge to bow. "If we can get people, normal people like us to buy on average, even half as many types of ketchup as they do mustard, we'll be rich beyond our wildest fantasies. But we've got to dress it up. Yuppie Ketchup."
"Isn't salsa yuppie ketchup?" Joel asked, sincerely.
"Shut up, Joel, just shut up."
Later in the movie, when those in charge of maintaining dramatic tension in the last few minutes before the Jew and the Black guy save the planet, they actually allow themselves—both the writers and the fictional president—to fire a nuclear weapon at Houston, Texas (I'm pretty sure it was Houston). The idea, of course, was, wow, this is one hell of an adversary, and we've really run out of options here, sir, and what more do we have to lose other than the million people that will die in a moment, but look, people, this is what we're dealing with, dammit, we've got no choice. And by this point, or right after this point, when the dust clears, and the dumbfounded helmeted soldier from inside the heavily armored mobile unit that fired the nuclear weapon from some safe number of miles away reports to a really stressed out, sleep-deprived general in his underground bunker that sir I don't believe this but it's still there (the massive garbage can lid shaped spaceship), at that point even I had trouble swallowing my saliva, because, damn, that is some serious shit, and how can you resist an imagination that's willing to pretend to destroy that much of our country and kill that many people just to get people to pay $7.50 to see it all happen? In general, culturally speaking, it's not a good sign. In general, it's the kind of thing the future will look back on with something less than approval. And as a result of three things—1) my failure to laugh off the unprecedented, previously unimaginable devastation of the plot, 2) my inability to ignore the fact that said plot required a remarkable amount of premeditated and coordinated effort on the part of actors, the director, producers, special effects wizards, studio heads, and a support crew of thousands, and 3) feeling rotten and implicated by the fact that we the people gave the whole catastrophe an enormous thumbs up by paying top dollar to place our asses, by the millions, in these movie house seats—that I watched the rest of the movie, eating my crappy, overpriced popcorn, with great consternation.
The assistant producer called her boss early the following morning, eleven minutes before she felt it was appropriate to call. In her excitement she did a poor job expressing the urgency of the Naren Joshi angle, until after a quarter hour she said over and over "trust me, Bill, just trust me." Naren met with the seasoned, cynical head producer the next afternoon. After their meeting the producer excused himself and sat weeping in his private bathroom, feeling that he had for the first time understood, however incompletely, the loss. He made a call to an executive producer, leading to another meeting, leading to another epiphany. And so the calls and meetings went, for another six days, each caller driven by an inexpressible obligation to convey the magnitude of his or her encounter with Naren Joshi. Like the best movie you've ever seen, or the best book you've ever read, or, hell, the best sex you've ever had. It was qualitatively different, the studio president told the agent of the now retired news anchor, the one who had changed television news forever. It hurt, to be certain, but there was a certain pleasure involved, because it all was so perfect. The studio president, hunched over his $7000 desk, begged the agent to do whatever it took to lure the retired news anchor out of retirement, just this once. The retired news anchor had only done a half dozen interviews during his thirty plus years, he found them petty, so he wrote in his memoirs. All the same, everyone in the business regarded them as classics: focused, natural, powerful, informative. The agent said he'd see what he could do. The studio president put it like this: spare yourself no hyperbole. Anything you can imagine, this is bigger.
Over the course of the next few days, Larry can't leave it alone. Ketchup, types of ketchup. He has a legal pad in the living room waiting for entries, but 72 hours later, all he's got is:
THE FUTURE OF KETCHUP
Which isn't a bad start, but it isn't taking off as he's hoped. Karen, for her part, is less than enthusiastic about the whole enterprise, seeing it as another instance of Larry's short attention span, a short attention span often manifested in various get-rich-quick schemes. Within the various future narratives describing the end of their marriage, Larry's fondness for such schemes in general and yuppie ketchup in particular, will alternate, regularly, depending on who you ask, between cause and symptom. But whatever the case, it was in there somewhere. The following fight, then, being either cause or symptom:
"Karen, c'mon, help me think up kinds of ketchup."
"Larry. Please. No."
"What's the big deal? You said you would."
"Bullshit. You said, and I quote, 'Larry, another time. Ple-ease.'"
"I was not volunteering to help you another time, I was asking you to stop talking about it around me."
"Why do you hate yuppie ketchup?"
"I don't. Lar, it's not the point, I—"
"But you do," allowing himself a small smile, thinking himself cute, "you hate yuppie ketchup!"
"Larry," smiling, too, a bit, but mostly exasperated, and the little part of her that does find him cute is in fact only accessible after burrowing through a few layers of longing and exasperation. "Larry, I don't hate yuppie ketchup. There is no such thing as yuppie ketchup—"
"That's the point. We're going to invent it. Me and you."
"No we're not. No we're not and you know it. We're not because I don't give a shit about ketchup and because you're not going to spend time 'inventing' yuppie ketchup when you should be revising your résumé and making calls."
"What? The two are mutually exclusive? You expect me to spend eight hours a day, five days a week playing around with fonts and calling friends of associates of my father's acquaintances? Is yuppie ketchup that threatening?"
"No, it's not. Fine. Here are my suggestions: 'Ketchup that ruins your marriage,' 'Ketchup not worth spending so much time talking about,' 'Ketchup that is just that and absolutely nothing more,' 'This is ketchup, so don't get your hopes up, it won't change your life for the better,' 'Ketchup, fucking, shitty ketchup.'" Karen was on a roll, but she got a hold of herself and left the room, feeling that such displays of self-control needed to be introduced into their home as often as possible.
Seven long seconds later, Larry screamed after her. "Karen! Karen! You're a genius! You're going to make us rich!"
And so what am I getting at? Just this: am I doing the same thing here in "The End of Larry's Wallet"? Because though I was thoroughly entertained by Independence Day, in the sense of captivated and very much not bored, it was hard, not minutes after the movie was over, and probably during a few lulls during the second half, not to sense, in a gross, regretful, taken advantage of way, that I'd been manipulated. That they got me not only to voluntarily exchange my money for access to a creative project of dubious value—something far too common at this moment in our history to get worked up about it all on its own—but worse, that they got me to give a shit, to be emotionally and psychically affected by imagining devastation on a scale never before brought to life so vividly. It was cheap, not budget-wise, but as a strategy, as an aesthetic strategy and even cultural philosophy. And so here I am, wanting to write a short story that will engage and even move some ideal reader, by jarring him or her (my ideal reader needing no particular gender), and suddenly I find myself starting out with the phrase "Just before the world ended once and for all," this, in fact, being the phrase and idea through which the story first emerged. Is that just my transcription of an Independence Day narrative strategy? I really want to believe it's not, but I am scared it will be read that way, as cheap, callous, arrogant, and worst of all, lazy. So much so, that here it is, a self-conscious aside, motivated truly and really by my urge to communicate to you the reader that I realize this whole story is pretty questionable.
And what I'm worried about is this (and, okay, even my (or especially my) worst case scenario affords me a certain amount of success): I'm picturing the story getting finished and published and read and talked about to the extent that some possibly self-promoting, but overall truly concerned member of the either Pakistani- or Indian-American community, some president or executive director of some acronymed body, starts making a stink. To the point that a Nightline type program does a show on it. Now granted, this is absolute nonsense, since we're talking about a short story here, and when was the last time a short story did anything but get read, but still, I need to exaggerate the scenario in order to make my general point. So the aforementioned immigrant community leader, who is pretty sharp and not bad looking and well-educated and a tad bit arrogant (this mostly stemming from his, no her, deep belief in the validity of her opposition and outrage—which is actively and expertly cultivated by Ted Koppel's head writer, this Gayatri somebody, she is coached, and even rehearses her opening diatribe a little bit, since, after all, that's a key element in the show's tried and true formula). She's going to build a really strong case—right after the opening ninety second segment setting the stage (which shows (multiple copies of) the cover of my book (my book!) in impressive book store window displays, maybe some positive reviews, too, hell, it's been nominated for one of the big awards, thus showing that this isn't the only aspect of the collection people are talking about and indeed raising the stakes of the controversy altogether)—about this writer (me) casually deciding to liquidate tens of millions of Indians and Pakistanis in a story that's really about a guy losing his wallet. And she'll even suggest, or maybe Ted himself will subtly toss it out there, that do you think the author, who is a white American—all sides will agree, for now, to keep my Jewishness out of it, though it will come up later—would have written the same story switching, say, France and England for India and Pakistan? And with feigned awkwardness she will slowly respond "I don't know," her mouth closing into a nasty smile, because of course she knows that I wouldn't, whatever that means. And so, Dr. Hasak-Lowy (that's right, Todd Hasak-Lowy, Doctor of Philosophy), how do you justify this?
The retired news anchor, W, met Naren at the former's modest country home outside Santa Barbara. They were left alone. Naren, though either not yet alive or in India for the duration of W's career, knew his reputation well, and was, to the extent he could, which was comparatively not much at all, a bit intimidated at first. W was arguably the most respected American of the post-WWII era. A largely secularized populace, disillusioned with Watergate, Vietnam, and all the sundry embarrassments to follow, looked to W with nothing short of reverence. He could have won the presidency, running for either party on nearly any platform, such was the conventional wisdom of the last quarter century. In an age where one's ability to communicate on television was beyond paramount, W had no peers, since W was, more or less, responsible for this becoming the case. His voice and well-known stylized idiom, his preference for the adverb over the adjective, the way he stressed the final word of any sentence, and, of course, his calm baritone, all this had become the measure of authority here in the American age of television.
So he and Naren sat together, sizing each other up, two titans of charisma and composure, each forced to steady himself in the bright light of the other's radiant dynamism. Naren understood where he and his story had taken him, to the feet of the last American wise man, and Naren surrendered himself to the role of the prodigy. He found himself, effortlessly, transforming into exactly who he needed to become, this his ultimate role, as he and W improvised the most pointed and enlightening conversation which was ever to be held on the matter of the nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. W conducted Naren through a series of poignant, devastating monologues, interrupting him only enough to distill, briefly, an elusive notion or to rephrase a particularly potent idea. W instantly understood the power of Naren's English accent, and with little more than a slight turn of his head or the raising of an eye-brow, directed the young immigrant toward words containing the long "a" or ending in a hard "t". But mostly W nodded, the way a laser or a mountain would nod if they could. It all was lost to the air, their first conversation, and they knew it. They knew this should be documented, but somehow its evanescence prodded them further yet, until after ninety minutes both men fell into a deep, profound silence, too moved even to maintain eye contact. This mutual retreat into solitary contemplation marking the end of their first conversation.
When the phone rang again, Larry stared at the device with resentment, wishing it would stop for once. He couldn't, to the extent that he was trying, think up a single good reason to answer or not answer the call. His wallet, after all, couldn't dial his number, and even if it could, it certainly wouldn't speak. He turned his back to the noise, attempting to review his searching strategy up to this moment, in order to formulate an updated approach, one pointed optimistically toward the future. Of course, a person with his wallet could call, of course. But the answering machine, clicking and beeping, had already intervened, saying things like:
Hello, you've reached Larry Specter and the offices of Mediocre Foods, please leave a message. You have only a minute. Thanks.
Lar, it's Karen. Maybe you're out. Look, you've got to call Michael. This is serious. We need to decide very, very soon.
Larry continued to watch the machine, stuck halfway between biting his nails and eating the tip of his thumb.
Look, Larry, I know you're going through a tough time, we all are. I'm sorry you're wallet's gone—
"Gone?!" He spit out, "Misplaced, not gone."
—but this can't be about you right now. You've been flaking too much lately, even for you, but . . .
Larry waited, wearing an expression of curiosity, impatience and good-natured despair.
. . . but, here it is. If it comes down to it, and this doesn't work out and we get into custody and you keep dropping the ball, and well—
And that was it, the machine decided. Her minute had ended. Larry watched the newly blinking light on the answering machine for a few beats. He exhaled, and searching for temporary shelter in a clever understatement said aloud, "Well, that was an unfortunate development." And then he stood there.
My problem, right from the beginning of my appearance on Nightline is that I'm much too willing to consider that there is indeed something wrong, misguided, or even immoral with the very premise of this piece. My agent and publisher (publicly concerned and privately tickled by the controversy) have drenched me in advice and coaching, but all I manage to say during my initial response is that I wanted to explore it, because I had this vague sense that it was worth exploring. And the woman (who is, simply put, winning, and who is good at winning and who, despite her best intentions, knows, if only because she's smart, that a good showing here will certainly opening doors for her, doors leading up and away from the immigrant community she represents) can't help but mock my repeated use of "exploring," and asks, rhetorically and sarcastically, "Dr. Hasak-Lowy (she pronounces my name flawlessly, which really fucks me up), might there be other things worth exploring that don't require cheapening the lives of millions of other people you really know nothing about?"
Naren and W met twice more during the next thirty-six hours as an unprecedented alliance of studio executives, producers, and media moguls emerged to arrange the details of Naren and W's televised interview. Naren and W, each for different reasons, demanded it be broadcast live with an absolutely minimal human presence in the interview room throughout the proceedings. In the end, only the top cameraman from ABC was present, cloaked entirely in black. Other than the three men, the room was subtly cluttered with a host of remote controlled cameras, microphones and lights, directed from the next room by three of the most skilled technicians in television.
Larry hadn't cried in eleven years. And even then, three days after his father's sudden death, it was an abortive affair: quick, unexpected, clumsy. Karen, for her part, was a champion crier, always ready and able, if not necessarily willing. During their six, to his mind, now canonized separation fights, Karen had gone through two and a half boxes of Kleenex, as the floor or the nightstand or the couch or the dashboard or the kitchen counter was buried under the crumpled up, mostly dry white balls. Larry raised his voice and shouted during the second talk, and he thought about crying during the fifth, this at the moment when he realized two separate camps had fully formed, that "we" only had use now as a tinny, formal term relevant for material and legal purposes. An end had been reached. Karen's outburst caught it appropriately. But he didn't know how to do it, so he just kept on smoldering meekly, stewing in his regret and disappointment.
And this is my in, or at least the thing I latch onto, her assertion that I "really know nothing about" these "other" people. I uncharacteristically pretend that I have a firm opinion on something and respond:
Whether or not I am an expert about India, Pakistan, or its peoples is secondary to the premise of the piece, which required that I write on the destruction of a place whose inhabitants would be considered foreign and even "other" by an average American, both an average American as represented in the story and an average American reader of the story. It was important to me that the site of the exchange be distant from the American imagination, because I wanted the story to investigate the complex and essential inaccessibility of such an event here in America, and this distance, both real and imagined, between the United States and India/Pakistan helped to intensify this inaccessibility.
Talking on TV, I discover, is exhilarating and frightening.
Naren killed himself during the interview. He had wanted to kill himself from the first moment he heard of the nuclear exchange and had decided he would do so during his interview with W some five minutes into his second conversation with the legendary news anchor. Despite his intelligence and eloquence, he never fully understood why this was necessary, he just knew that it was. He came to terms with this decision less than thirty seconds after he finally settled on it, his voice uncharacteristically faltering during the interim. It was a necessary gesture, an unavoidable sacrifice he had to make, and making it public would amplify his words, would seal his message. The only remaining matter to resolve was the method. He was reluctant to use a gun, wanting his death to be free of the vivid, shocking violence he was sent to describe. The most attractive method was pills or poison, but he had no idea how to ingest pills prior to the interview without likewise killing himself prior to the interview, and similarly he had no idea how to procure an effective poison on such short notice. His always paranoid father, however, on his one brief visit to his son, had decided Naren, living among violent Americans in the violent city of Los Angeles, needed a weapon. Naren protested and had never touched the gun his father presented to him, with some ceremony, on the final morning of their final meeting. It remained hidden deep in the back of a desk drawer until the morning of the interview, but Naren knew it would work, his father's paranoia matched only by his compulsive attention to detail.
Larry had now held the same expression for the last ten seconds, his eyes fixed on a bare, off-white patch of kitchen/dining-space wall a foot and a half down and to the right from the answering machine. He was concentrating, trying to make sense of his new reality, both in conjunction with and independent of his still missing wallet. It was tough, really tough, accepting the not so subtle implications of Karen's message, assessing what her threat meant in real terms, wondering and dreading just what may be happening to Lucy, keeping his mind off his wallet while mentally cataloging still unsearched places, shouldering the approaching doom of his immediate financial future, and simply breathing. It was a lot to stay on top of all at once, and Larry was failing, with his breath going first. Its rhythm broke apart, so he gasped a bit. And into this crisis, with most of his resources mobilized for holding onto the ever-lengthening name of his loss, his crying crept. He fought it, instinctively, trying to regain control of his breath, while simultaneously sensing the odd, painful way it illuminated this thing that so required illumination.
I look into her monitor to see if any of this is moving her, and her eyes do relax briefly, but she can't allow herself to ask aloud if this premise might have any value. Instead, she takes me to task for my assumptions about Indian otherness.
Dr. Hasak-Lowy (again with the flawless pronunciation), are you aware that there are as many as one and three-quarter million Indian-Americans living in the United States? And that there are over 200,000 Pakistani-Americans here as well? This does not include the sizeable number of Indian and Pakistani nationals working in high-tech and medical professions across the United States. The Indian-American population grew by over 100% in the nineties, and is now the third largest Asian American community in the United States, behind only Chinese and Filipino Americans. We pay taxes, serve in the armed forces, and attend the nation's top colleges and universities in significant numbers. Despite this, in the eyes of many Americans we remain 'other' (fingers up for quotation marks) and un-American, or at best invisible. So tell me, Dr. Hasak-Lowy, why did you choose to reinforce this in your story?
In addition to the small black gun, Naren brought to the interview a beautiful wool blanket his mother had knit for him especially for his trip to the United States. The director had encouraged Naren to bring objects and pictures to the interview, and while both Naren and W privately dismissed this suggestion as too obvious, for Naren the blanket was a prop every bit as important as the gun itself.
As his face grew wet, and Larry let himself become unfamiliar, he felt a sudden need to hide. Even in his own solitary apartment, exposed only to the utterly empty carport outside, Larry felt much too visible. He stumbled toward the bedroom, disqualifying the intimacy of his bathroom due to its mirror.
My sense of vertigo intensifies as I realize she's said a lot of this before. Whereas I'm totally improvising, despite all the advice I got beforehand. She's not a mean person, just very focused on the adversarial nature of our relationship.
Naren and W were given no guidelines or limits of any sort. The director, the director himself realized, had no choice but to relinquish all authority to W, who would run the interview and choose the moment of its conclusion. There would be no commercials, no graphics superimposed on the screen, just a brief introduction by W himself. The interview had been heavily promoted during the twenty-four stretch prior to the broadcast, and some estimated 130 million Americans tuned in. In the adjacent control room an unprecedented who's who of TV news production stood dumbstruck, frozen by the humbling profundity of the dialogue next door. More than a few of them later described it as having the otherworldly beauty of time-lapse photography, of an event at once natural and impossible, unquestionably at odds with the typical order of things, in other words sublime. W, flirting with the edge of antagonism, at first prodded Naren, challenged him, demanding he hold nothing back. Naren directed his responses not to the cameras or to some imaginary viewing audience, but straight at W himself, to his figure and his legacy, until W, nearly overwhelmed, felt absolutely and personally implicated in the history he had returned to report. The tone of the interview oscillated dangerously been vitriolics and reconciliation. W was, for the first time ever, forced to wipe sweat from his brow, not once but twice, while Naren, during the first and second crescendos —seemingly choreographed to occur at the 24th and 43rd minute, respectively—panted like a wild animal. And then finally, after quietly reproducing the melodic couplet he, his brother, and their boyhood friends would be forced to sing after winning their neighborhood version of kick the can—the couplet a self-pitying apology expressing, in a minor key, the loneliness of the victor—and explicitly explaining to W how this couplet, in all its strange simplicity was the only thing that now made sense to him, Naren thanked W for his empathy, raised the blanket to cover himself, removed the gun and shot himself, expertly, in the head.
The eighty-three year-old W flew from his chair and crouched over the already dead immigrant. Next door the room filled with gasps and a couple "oh my God"s, but they were surprisingly subdued. W merely touched Naren, lovingly, having wanted to touch him, especially his face, since the first minutes of their first meeting. The retired news anchor was grateful Naren had provided a conclusion, as he himself felt unable to provide one himself. Similarly, he thanked Naren for electing not to shoot himself through the roof of his mouth, and in this way preserving his beautiful face, which W now caressed like a father or a grateful lover.
His crying, he knew, lacked elegance. It was crude and clumsy and truly pathetic. But it was his and he was fully inside it, and the catastrophic character of its form and content, its disastrous architecture, were to be cultivated. Larry, lips convulsing and vision blurred, yanked open the door of his unnecessarily spacious closet and threw himself down upon his mound of dirty clothes. He had recently, in a foolish act informed by his dovetailing autonomy and depression, abandoned key elements in his self-care routine: not showering for days, eschewing deodorant, recycling already worn clothes. As he hugged his neglected laundry, he smelled the worst of himself, his sweat, his crotch, his ass. He moaned hideously, without a hint of self-consciousness, while his red-hot face stretched and seemed to break apart. Pulling the soft pile closer, Larry buried his face in its darkness, almost comforted until jolted right below his closed-tight left eye by the familiar painful plastic prick of his defective, once despised wallet.
My only hope, I hastily conclude, is to muddle the conversation with fancy terms from critical theory. This wasn't my plan fifteen minutes ago, since a) it's something I try to avoid even in my academic writing, b) I fear that it will alienate potential readers, and c) I don't want it to sound like I really gave this all that much thought beforehand. But she's kicking my ass:
I was reluctant to reify Indian otherness (I can feel Ted Koppel, 1500 miles away, cringe as I say "reify"), but I could find no way to do otherwise. The truth is, the ultimate focus of this piece, at least that strand of the intertwined narrative concerned with the nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, is the mediation, indeed emplotment, of this event by the American media, in particular the television media—
She cuts me off:
So in other words, the instantaneous murder of fifteen million Indian and Pakistani people [I think to interrupt in order to correct her with the actual higher figure, but I am, of all things, quite curious to see where she's going with this] at the hand of your imagination is little more than a pretext for some other idea?
I'm hugely impressed with this response, so much so that I forget that it's my turn to challenge her somehow. Thankfully, Mr. Koppel intervenes, though not exactly on my behalf:
Indeed, Dr. Hasak-Lowy, I find it rather fascinating that, as you put it just moments ago, the story's focus on the so-called "nuclear exchange" is little more than a pretext for a meditation on the limits of television news. And yet here you are, on television, defending this very move.
I don't blush easily, but I can feel my face growing heavy with blood. I smile the dumbest smile of my adult life. Both are kind enough to give me the last word before the commercial. Here it is: "Yes, Mr. Koppel, the irony is not lost on me."