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Murph

There’s a supermarket—an Albertsons—right across the street from my school. When I have the time—and when I’m being healthy—I’ll drive over and get a roasted chicken breast from the deli counter for lunch. The surrounding neighborhood is nice—maybe not in the top twenty percent of Orange County but much nicer than most of America—and there is frequently something going on by the entrance: some old guy with a petition, Boy Scouts selling popcorn, Girl Scouts selling cookies, little leaguers selling chocolate, but never panhandlers like I might encounter outside supermarkets or convenience stores I frequent in Upland.

My method is always the same—pretend to be engrossed in a serious cell phone conversation:

“Well, I’m just getting here, so I don’t know what to tell you. If you can wait two minutes, I’ll let you know if they have enough three-bean salad for your sister’s bottomless pit of a fiancé and his two Neanderthal sons.”
 “Is that really what you think? No. Fine. If that’s what you think, then I guess it’s my fault. I’m not trying to argue; I’m trying to see if that’s what you really think because if it is then I guess I really don’t see the point of any of this.”
 “No, they won’t go on until at least ten-thirty. They don’t care if it’s a weeknight. Bro, what’s a weeknight to Simon fucking Le Bon?  Listen, man, I’m doing you a favor. Who’s even opening for them, fucking Kajagoogoo? Oh, no shit? Well, I guess that changes things.”

No vendor or vagabond worth their weight in pocket change will ever attempt a sale by interrupting someone who already looks as annoyed <quote-01>as I do<quote-01> with the fictional person on the other end of the nonexistent line. <quote-02>It’s foolproof, guys—never fails<quote-02>.

But one afternoon, iPhone already clutched irately to my face, I made the mistake of spying the faces of the day’s gatekeepers. Almost always I avoid eye contact with these assorted nuisances—you both know my public mantra by now: “please, just leave me alone”—but the rare sight of a panhandler stirred in me something like curiosity. My school really is quite isolated, surrounded on two sides by seven-figure homes and on the others by an expanse of wilderness and an inessential toll road; it’s neither fertile nor convenient ground for begging. So, out of something, I think, like curiosity, I looked.

And there he was.

I can’t recall anything too specific about his face because in my memory—even in the moment—he’s just Grammar. I suppose if I had to put my money on an ethnicity, I’d put it on Syrian; he could have stood in for any of the refugee children appearing on my Twitter feeds at the time. But there he was, dirty and angelic, in the arms of his ramshackle mother. Maybe she was twenty-two, long black hair tied in an unkempt ponytail, a black camisole, matted maroon teddy bear coat, knee-length gypsy skirt in blush, and foam gas-station flip flops. She looked tired, I remember, neither ashamed nor hopeful but tired. The little guy was in two-piece cotton pajamas, I believe; maybe he was wearing knockoff Ugg boots. But, again, his face—his sad little face—was Grammar’s face.

Neither of them looked my way as I passed—my practiced posture a clear “fuck off”—but my expression in the moment must have told the tale of my heart—maybe for the first time in my life—really breaking for a stranger. Now I’ve always had a knack for empathy; it has never been difficult for me to imagine the misfortunes of others, to imagine experiencing those misfortunes, and to make professional and civic decisions with others’ misfortunes in mind. But I have never been very sympathetic. Just because I could understand what a stranger was going through, just because I was taught to be spiritually and publicly courteous to that stranger because of what they were going through, doesn’t mean that I ever actually felt bad for them. “Jesus, that’s a real bummer,” I might think. “I am willing,” I might tell myself, “to adjust my actions and expectations based on that very real bummer.” But never did that bummer linger in my emotions for longer than that stranger remained in view. All of this, I think, explains why I lean very far left in civic practice even though, personally and philosophically, I’d just as soon avoid any panhandling roadblock between me and my Polar Pop. I have long believed and accepted that I should be taxed considerably so that the society in which my immediate family lives is able to take care of everyone’s family. I have always happily done my part to bankroll the “welfare state” and have voted always to increase it in responsible ways, but please, unsavory element, do not engage me.

But this sad little face touched me in a new way. I felt bad for him, and that bad feeling persisted beyond the fresh produce, past the rolling shelves of freshly baked bread, and through the refrigerated end caps scattered with artisanal cheeses. I had to give this woman some money for that little boy. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being hungry, being cold, of him not getting the chewable Tylenol or banana-flavored amoxicillin he needed to feel better. In the past, had such a gloomy feeling lingered in me for longer than a moment, I could have rationalized it away in the righteous name of my steadfast voting record: “There are places she can take that boy—places my taxes have funded!” But now, having fathered such a little boy, having felt his burning forehead and watched him writhe in discomfort, having seen the joy something soft and warm brings to his face, having heard the easy sigh of his contentment when a spring breeze reaches him snoozing during an early evening nap, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for this other little boy, to love him almost.

He was asleep in his mother’s arms when I approached her not ten minutes later. She reacted with nothing more than a “thanks” when I held the folded bills before her, quickly pocketing them without inspection or looking me in the eye. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting, and I never turned around to see if she’d reached into her pocket to count how much her pathetic benefactor had passed along. If I’d had actual money in my wallet, I would have just given her whatever was in there: always a few one-dollar bills in the time before a Polar Pop skyrocketed from ninety-six cents to a dollar-seven; I never carry cash anymore. How I miss those days of slapping a singular dollar on the counter and exiting a Circle K without having engaged in a single human interaction! So when I entered the self-checkout line, I fully intended to get just five dollars back. But when the available options presented themselves on that little screen, all I could see was Grammar’s face on the brink of tears: the subtle flush at the tops of his cheeks, the pucker of his lower lip, the desperate little sideways glance he always makes right before giving himself over to the full-body sobs.

<quote-03>I got all the cashback I could<quote-03>.

Sitting here now, removed from the sympathy of the moment, <quote-04>I think that was foolish<quote-04>. That young mother was likely of the variety you, Hoke, detailed at length in your most recent letter—an abuser, perhaps, in every sense of the word. I’m kidding myself if I believe that the money went toward formula, nutritious food, or another warm and washed week at the motel. Probably it went directly to some other human piece of garbage traipsing carelessly through sacred cement. But if I were face to face with the kid again—essentially gypsy Grammar—I’d give him all that I could without a second thought

The point in this, of course, is not what I did—how ineffectual it likely was, after all—but that I, for the first time, felt compelled to help, and not because I was cornered or simply trying to avoid further awkwardness. I did it because I—also the parent of a little boy—had to.

“There, but for the grace of God, go Grammar.”

Hoke, you speak beautifully above about how Abram’s birth, this new and innocent and fragile presence in your life, has revealed to you a further depth of tenderness. Of course, you were already a tenderer cut of meat than I; Abram has rendered you tenderloin. But fatherhood has produced a similar effect in me; gypsy Grammar is just the most vivid example of it. Perhaps I’m still a flavorful yet toothsome strip, but at least I’ve gone from select to choice.

I’m reminded of the end of O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” when the grandmother exclaims to The Misfit, the moment before three bullets find her heart, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” The shocking truth of our shared humanity strikes her all at once, like a true epiphany. For me this truth is dawning more slowly. I find myself eagerly cradling infants, loving their weight in my arms, their dumbly gazing eyes; I’ll drop off Grammar at preschool and have a willing chat with a toddler, asking her name, whether or not she knows my son, if she’s danced to “Baby Shark” recently, and actually caring about the answers she’s giving me. These are not things I used to do, guys. And yet, I remain wholly uninterested in engaging, say, kindergartners or fourth graders. My guess is that as Grammar ages, I may discover a more genuine compassion for older and older people, seeing him in them as I did with the little boy outside an Orange County Albertsons.

Unless you truly are a sociopath, Wuck, I think you have this to look forward to. Maybe it doesn’t sound all that great. I don’t think it would have sounded great to me, say, three years ago. But, honest to God, there’s something kind of wonderful about a chat with a toddler. 

<quote-05>Anyway<quote-05>.

So.

In a comment-response to Hoke’s last post I mentioned how fatherhood—in a number of ways—has utterly changed me. This newfound swell of compassion—implacable at times—is certainly the most pronounced. But there is another effect of fatherhood, or rather of becoming a father, that I want to address: time.

Frankly, I have very little of it or, at least, a too finite supply for all the things I want to do. Up to this point in my letter—I have no real idea how much longer I’ll go—I’ve spent probably six hours, basically every hour I’ve had to myself for the past two days. Don’t get me wrong, the writing has been rewarding—it always is—but it is not “pleasurable.” It’s hard work, but I simply cannot write any other way. I cannot say to myself, “In this hour, I will write a letter!” I just can’t do it.   

And so, over the past eight weeks, I’ve written thirteen single-spaced pages of painstakingly wrought prose in these letters. That’s not a bad output for me considering the circumstances. And yet I can’t help but ask myself, “Are these the thirteen single-spaced pages of painstakingly wrought prose I wish I’d written?” Over the course of, I don’t know, three years, I’ve written only twenty-two single-spaced pages of painstakingly wrought prose in the service of my second novel. I cannot in good faith tell you both that I wouldn’t have rather added thirteen more pages to that total since February.

What this means, however, is that this epistolary process is succeeding in making me write. Why? Well, because I care about the two of you so much, because I want to spend time with you, to be in engaged in a meaningful activity with you, to put my money where my mouth is when I wish out loud to Kristen that the two of you lived closer and that I saw each of you more. But, if we’re being totally honest here—and I’m trying to be—I was foggier than either of you as to the goal of this letter-writing, unsure of where we were headed. As intellectually productive as the back-and-forth often is, I remain unsure.

Guys, what is this<quote-06>?<quote-06>

I find myself not unlike a woman still dating in her late thirties. If I’m going to spend a third month with a guy—and we are nearing our two-month anniversary—I need to know where the relationship is headed. I simply cannot allow myself to date “for fun,” to commit to someone who doesn’t see me as marriage material, especially while other alluring fish still unattachedly swim in the sea. It’s not only irresponsible; it threatens to take the exhilaration out of something that should be gratifying, hopeful. 

So again I ask, what are we doing here, guys? If this is serious, how is it serious?

I have only so many hours to myself during the week—you can thank spring break for this lengthy installment—and I’d love to keep sharing them with you both, to keep productively writing and thinking, but I need some convincing that these letters will amount to something worthwhile. Will the writing we share with each other, hold each other accountable for, always take the form of these meandering letters? Again and again you mentioned, Hoke, in your second-to-last letter that you are “getting closer to writing again.” Do you have time for this writing and that? And you, Wuck, you yourself joked that once you have the baby this all will have to stop. Well, what would be promising enough to make you keep going?

Let me be clear that these last few paragraphs by no means constitute my jumping ship. If anything, I am more committed than ever to our little writers’ workshop. I just need a little reaffirmation about what it is we’re working toward exactly. <quote-07>Where does this journey lead?<quote-07> Where are we along the way?

Will we share this with family and friends? Our sons? The public? Will anybody want to read it?

When I say this sentence back to myself, I hear, “Will anybody want to eat it?”

Are you two familiar with the game, “Soggy Biscuit,” wherein a group of young men—maybe three of them—competition-masturbate onto a central cookie, and then the last to ejaculate eats it? I invoke the image because I fear that is what’s happening here, that we will be the only readers of a masturbatory effort. If I’m going to spend hours and hours crafting prose I stand by, I want to be able to imagine some stranger enjoying it. I checked out of academia for the exact same reason: no outsider enjoys the product of that self-congratulatory culture.

Why, Hoke, did you once plan on addressing your next polished work to Abram? Was it so that you’d have a concrete outcome to work toward, a finished product for a beloved eventual reader?

That’s what I want too. So, if you’d please, what is our ideal outcome here? And who is our eventual reader?

Perhaps I’m coming across as too pragmatic. But, like, I’m really fucking pragmatic, guys. If I create something, I want it consumed—better yet—paid for, then consumed.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s perhaps nothing I’d enjoy more than the three of us hanging out all day making a meal for just us. Put a Dodger game on in the background, let me sleep in the next day—that honestly sounds like the height of vacation. And believe me, fellas, I could use one.

<quote-08>But I’ll take an explanation instead<quote-08>.

2020.04.09

<pull-quote>as I do<pull-quote>
<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>These are pretty great. You make these up now, new examples, or have you spoken such improv oddness as these, actually?<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>Just riffs. With a gun to my head, I'm sure I could improvise endless snippets of annoyed phone conversations a la Scheherazade.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>It’s foolproof, guys—never fails<pull-quote>
<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>the do you have a minute for gay rights/the environment/the elephants folks saturate union square, my favorite area of manhattan. my ear buds are eternally in, and i’ll usually make warm, apologetic eye contact and let go something as simple as a, right, or an, uh-huh, while pointing to my earbud, and so long as i don’t break stride, i’m good.<p-comment>
<p-comment>one morning my voiceover agent passed me by in front of the barnes and noble and i greeted him with a friendly, hows it going, and he blew by me saying, don’t have time, got to get to work. i was furious. later sarah explained that he for sure thought i was one of the do-you-have-a-minute-for folks, reminding me that i was virtually unrecognizable with my new beard.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>I got all the cashback I could<pull-quote>
<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>and you gave her eighty thousand dollars<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>Could you imagine feigning nonchalance after being handed that many twenty dollar bills? Hilarious.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>I think that was foolish<pull-quote>
<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>I don't think it's a stretch to assume the money went toward that week in a motel, where there's more warmth and sleep.<p-comment>
<p-comment>However, if she looked Syrian, you say, it's possible she'd been placed there by a local human trafficking scene, and this was her post for the day. I've learned more about this recently through my work. Such a woman would have to hand over all money she receives to the slummy individuals who trafficked her and board her and the baby in different overcrowded houses with other trafficked mothers in the suburbs.<p-comment>
<p-comment>Or even if it were a situation like Junior's mother, both she and whatever "human piece of shit" she'd bring around the boys had probably both been abused in every sense in their own lives. Those monstrous boyfriends are just grown up Juniors. This is the endless geology of suffering. It's hard to say who's the piece of shit in mud that deep.<p-comment>
<p-comment>Either way, the direction of those dollars is a mystery. But the identification that happened inside you, between that baby and Grammar, is priceless. You can't buy that internal shift. I want it for the world.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>:-\<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>Anyway<pull-quote>
<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>whether as a way of downplaying his investment in his posits, or from a shyness at having pulled attention to himself when expressing a thought, my father habitually ends sentence may with this word. anyway. or sometimes, whatever.<p-comment>
<p-comment>i don’t think when he’s ever subbed out, amen, for it after fervently leading prayer at a church event or prior to a holiday meal, but i love the thought they might be interchangeable. amen and anyway.<p-comment>
<p-comment>in tone they are of course not. no apologies for his requests to god.<p-comment>
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<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>I love this, Wuck. Good ear.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>I can hear him say it, lingering a bit on the first syllable. And how often do I see your father? He must say it a lot.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>?<pull-quote>
<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>This question feels rooted in something much more meaningful when it comes after your last three pages here. It's a different kind of impatience, something I trust much more than surface irritation from our quarantine and your online classes requiring more time. I notice I'm listening (reading, of course, but it feels like listening inside me) very carefully at this point.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>That's good. I wrestled a bit with whether to include my fears here or to wait a week.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>Where does this journey lead?<pull-quote>
<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>book tour where you and i get into a fight in front of an attentive audience at the union square barnes n noble over some ideological framing of an issue—you winning points for your quick wit and succinct punchy comebacks and i for my non sequiturs and dry sarcasm. our enjoyment of hoke’s density towards my sarcasm will unite us in chuckles, further endearing us to the crowd, which is a good thing too, because we’ll both be playing second fiddle to the importance of hoke’s prison rehabilitation work and the earnestness of his engagement with the questions.<p-comment>
<p-comment>and hopefully it won’t be during a dodger game.<p-comment>
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<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>I do like the sound of this tour.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>I could easily be sucked in by this hypothetical, but--like--you're joking, right?<p-comment>
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<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>yeah. we both know hoke’ll be done with this prison nonsense by then.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote>But I’ll take an explanation instead<pull-quote>
<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>no need. sarah miscarried, it was horrible. thanks for your efforts here, boys, this was fun. see you on the dodger thread.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>Only a sociopath would make this joke, so I'm guessing this isn't one.<p-comment>
<p-comment>If I were with you, I'd attempt a score of angles to see which you grabbed onto, to see how you feel, to gauge your desires moving forward. Across the country, without seeing your face, I'll just tell you I'm sorry and that I love you.<p-comment>
<p-comment>Give Sarah my love too for whatever it's worth; she probably needs it more than you do but probably not from me.<p-comment>
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<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>bro, of course this is a joke. you think i'd break the news of such a tragedy here in the comments? i assumed hoke might not get it, but i figured you would. your response is so touching, however, i feel like i owe you a miscarriage.<p-comment>
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<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>If you'd omitted "it was horrible," I might have erred on the side of miscarriage joke. Then again: "miscarriage joke." Bro yourself.<p-comment>
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<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>Phew. If I'd gotten to your comment first, without Murph calling you out, I woulda fallen for it hard: pulled the red lever, called you ready to cry it out together.<p-comment>
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<pull-quote><pull-quote>
<avatar-murph><avatar-murph><author-name>Murph<author-name>
<p-comment>Lorem ipsum dolor sit.<p-comment>
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<avatar-hoke><avatar-hoke><author-name>Hoke<author-name>
<p-comment>Lorem ipsum<p-comment>
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<avatar-wuck><avatar-wuck><author-name>Wuck<author-name>
<p-comment>Lorem ipsum<p-comment>
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