Fiction and Drama
The Blue Newt Faction
Sam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask, tells the story of Milo Burke, “a bald husband, a slope-bellied father” who has set aside his dream of becoming a painter to toil in the development office of a school he refers to as “The Mediocre University at New York City.” Early in the book, Milo gets fired for yelling at an obnoxious student whose father donated an observatory to Mediocre. The loss of his “good shitty job” strains both Milo’s finances and his relationship with his wife, Maura, with whom he has an almost-4-year-old son named Bernie.
The hand-scrawled sign over the door to the Happy Salamander preschool read: Closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts. Please call 917 887 8884 for further information. Sincerely, The Blue Newt Faction.
“Fuck,” I said, a word I had made sincere efforts to purge from my repertoire of professed displeasure, at least in the presence of my son. It was 8:50 in the morning and Bernie and I were alone on an Astoria side street, not far from a sandwich shop that sold a sopressatta sub called “The Bypass.” I used to eat that sandwich weekly, wash it down with espresso soda, smoke a cigarette, go for a jog. Now I was too near the joke to order the sandwich, and my son’s preschool was in the throes of doctrinal schism.
“Fuck,” said Bernie. “Fuckwinky eyeballhead.”
“No, Bernie. We don’t use those words.”
“You know which words.”
“You used them, Daddy.”
“I made a mistake. I am sorry I said that word. It isn’t helping with our problem.”
“What’s our problem?”
“There may be no school today.”
“That’s okay,” said Bernie. “It’ll be okay.”
We weren’t sure where he had picked up that becalming phrase, probably from us, as we tried to talk ourselves out of the awful lucidity certain days afforded. The whole mirthless dwindle of things would suddenly pull into focus, the crabbed, moneyless exhaustion that stood in for our lives, and Maura and I would both start the chatter, the cheap pep: It’s okay, it’s going to be okay, we’ll get through this. When Bernie repeated these bromides he sounded 73 years old. It broke your heart, as did about 43 percent of the things Bernie said and did. About 27 percent of the things he did made you want to scream and banish him to his childproofed room, or do much more heinous and ingenious things, just so he’d get the point, whatever the point could be with an almost-4-year-old, but still, to bury him alive and then save him at the last minute, or tell him that the state had passed a law against ice cream and he would go to prison if he even thought about it, because they now had the technology to detect illegal mint chocolate chip cogitation, had, in fact, the chips for it, seemed, if not conducive to his development, at least on some level deserved. Thirty percent of what Bernie said and did was either on the bubble or else utterly inscrutable, just the jolts and stutters of a factory-fresh brain working out the kinks.
“Pedagogical conflicts?” said a voice behind me. Aiden’s mother stood with her boy, her red bun blazing in sunlight.
She was sky-charged and goddessy in her pantsuit.
“I know,” I said, “like, what the hey?”
I was glad I’d remembered to shucksify my vocabulary in the company of children. I hoped it imparted the care with which I could also create a fluttery motion with my tongue around Aiden’s mother’s bunghole. I was falling in love with her on the spot, on the sidewalk. I wasn’t even an ass man, or ass person. I liked breasts, and the word “burgundy.”
It must have been the way she’d said “pedagogical.”
“It’s a bunch of baloney,” said Aiden’s mother.
You could tell she was sassy, the skeptical sort. She had opinions. She’d be the first to tell you she had opinions.
“I agree,” I said.
“They’ve got no right. We trusted those little brats with our brats.”
“Who are the brats, Daddy?” said Bernie. “I’m not a brat.”
“It’s just irresponsible,” I said. “This isn’t the end of it.”
“If you’re talking about messing those yuppies up, I’m in. Pedagogical, my behind.”
Bernie and Aiden slipped from their respective parental grips and commenced conversation about an action hero, something not quite human that maybe transformed or transmogrified but in any event could easily squeeze the liver out of any mother or father or adult guardian, which was the crucial part, the takeaway, as TV commentators might put it. It would have been hard to tell, witnessing the boys together now, that one had recently tried to bite off the other’s penis. The flipside to the fickleness of children was their ability to transcend grudge, adjust to new conditions. Innocence, cruelty, rubbery limbs, amnesia, successful nations were erected on these qualities.
“Say ‘pedagogical’ again,” I said, a little dreamily.
“Excuse me?” Aiden’s mother took a step back.
“I mean, say it ten times fast,” I said. “I can’t. Why is the school closed? Those crazy kids. I was really looking forward to school today. I had my activity nodes all planned out. I was going to play office.”
“Were you now?”
I’d won her back. It had been years since I’d flirted. I felt as though I were snorting cocaine, or rappelling down a cliffside, or cliffsurfing off a cliff of pure cocaine.
“I had a memo all planned out.”
“Well,” said Aiden’s mother, “there’s no way I was going to play office. Not when I have to go to one. I was really counting on making a house out of pipe cleaner. Maybe a four-bedroom, three-bath Italian-style villa.”
“That could be tough, with pipe cleaner,” I said. “Milo.”
I stuck out my hand.
“His legs are the motorcycle, they become the motorcycle or the airplane, but he can’t fly like Superman,” said Bernie.
Sometimes with peers, and with us, Bernie acquired an authoritative tone that charmed. Autodidactic vigor is darling in a little boy. Give him forty years, though, a beer gut, leather vest, bandana, granny glasses, and picture him, the poor slob known as the Professor, in a biker bar off the thruway, the arrogant but harmless turd humored for his historical factoids about extinct warrior societies and mots justes about the bankruptcy of liberal democracy, humored, that is, until some severe, silence-craving patron, maybe a thug who made his living garroting wives and business partners for high–three-figure fees, suddenly didn’t find the Professor’s disquisitions edifying, kicked his neck in, then it wasn’t so charming. Which is why I tended not to picture it.
“I saw him fly on TV,” said Aiden.
“He’s not real,” said Bernie.
“Who? Iron Hawk?”
“No,” said Bernie, and I started to cringe. “Superman. He’s not real.”
“Yes, he is,” said Aiden.
“No,” said Bernie. “He’s just a story people tell to make themselves feel better. That’s what my daddy says.”
Denise shot me a look.
“It’s true,” I said.
“I guess it is,” she laughed.
Now the Happy Salamander door opened, and a bearded young man peered out. This was Carl, a Salamander founder, the heavy theorist with the barn. I’d met him once at a school picnic. Was he Blue Newt Faction? We’d have to tread carefully.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “Probably be better if you didn’t loiter here.”
“Loiter?” I said.
“We came to drop our kids off at school.”
“I’m sure you read the sign on the door,” said Carl.
“I’m sure you have our reimbursement checks cut,” I said.
“You tell him, Milo,” said Denise.
“Excuse me?” said Carl.
“We’re paid up through June.”
“Us, too,” said Denise.
“There’s still a month and a half left of school.”
“Yeah, look,” said Carl. “This isn’t about money, okay? The whole project has been ripped apart. There are former comrades out there spreading intolerable lies about our methodologies. Reputations and friendships are in tatters. And you’re worried about reimbursement?”
“Damn right, I am,” I said.
“We just wanted a nice pre-K for our kids,” said Denise. “Blocks and hugs. That’s all. We didn’t demand Mandarin, or even tumbling. Blocks and hugs. An ant farm.”
“And we wanted to give your children the most wondrous educational and social experience ever devised. But we blew it. It’s that simple. It’s a tragedy. I’m going back to grad school. I don’t need this shit. Screw budgets, overhead, trying to compensate for the inadequacies of parents like you. I’m going back to grad school and then I’m going to teach rich kids in Brooklyn. I’ll write books. Fuck you, reimbursement. Of course you’ll get your reimbursement. But also, fuck you, for not contributing, for not helping to make this work, for being a coward in the battle for your children’s minds and souls.”
“Going back to grad school?” I said. “Didn’t you get your degree already?”
“There are many versions of that story, my friend.”
Carl shook, his beard wet with spit. He wiped it with the sleeve of his stained French sailor shirt.
“Can we talk to Maddie?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Maybe it’s better if you talk to Maddie.”
He disappeared into the house and in a moment Maddie poked her head out.
“Sorry about that. Carl’s taking this hard.”
“So are we,” I said.
“The Blue Newt Faction is talking about starting again. Maybe upstate. If you’re interested. The others, I don’t know what they will be doing. But we would be delighted to take Bernie back if we get something together at some point. Aiden, too.”
“Would you board them? With the milk cows?”
“We live here, Maddie,” I said. “This school is near our houses. Are you suggesting we all move to a little town upstate? Will there be a cheese collective we can all work at?”
“Jesus, Maddie. We were depending on you guys. We didn’t realize it was just an intense hobby.”
“I resent that, Bernie’s Dad.”
“I’m just being honest, Bernie’s immature, self-involved pseudo-intellectual preschool teacher.”
“I’m closing the door now,” said Maddie. “For Bernie and Aiden’s sake.”
“Close away,” I said. “Tourist. Honky.”
“We’re all white in this conversation,” said Maddie.
“This might be your year abroad, lady,” said Denise, “but we live here.”
“I really am closing the door,” said Maddie, did.
“Come on,” said Denise. “There’s a Montessori on Ditmars. Maybe they’ve got some openings.”
We marched off together.
“Daddy,” said Bernie. “Is Carl sad?”
“I think so, yes,” I said.
“Is he bad?”
“He’s young. He’s idealistic.”
“He’s a total disaster,” said Bernie.
We skipped the Montessori, got milkshakes instead.
“Cheese collective,” Denise laughed. “That was funny. You’re funny.”
I was funny again, the sexy jester Maura could no longer appreciate. Denise’s swirling green eyes appreciated all. We’d go to her house, plant the children in front of a longish DVD, Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps, devour each other in the bedroom. She was a single mom, probably no stranger to kid-friendly assignations. (Had she ever listened to a thrusting lover sputter a broken poem of climax into her ear while Aiden moaned with night terrors over the monitor? Might be fun to ask.)
Denise smiled, spooned up her café au lait. The noise of our kin fell away. I pictured days lost in a soft white bed, us rising only to pee or nibble on some olives or last night’s stale baguette before our bodies would start to twitch with lust again. I could almost smell the high stink of our clinches.
It might be awkward with Aiden around. It would be better if he didn’t have to experience that particular cliché, the naked Mommy Friend, raw whang aflap, washing up in the bathroom or drinking from the kitchen tap. Hey, kid. Your mom is a real nice lady. You like baseball? You talk at all? Suit yourself. It would be better, but it wasn’t mandatory that Aiden be spared the crushing animal truth, especially if it meant I forgo crushing animal need.
Denise was definitely not touched out. Denise was all touched in.
I watched her wipe chocolate from Aiden’s mouth. Then I looked down at Bernie, the top of his head, looked through his hair at a sliver of pinkish scalp. His tender little scalp. We’d made that scalp, Maura and I, shielded it from the scalp hunters of this world.
There was no way I could go through with this. I wasn’t that guy. No matter what had become of my marriage, my life would never be a cavalcade of nooners. Pornography and corn chips would be my mistresses. Maura would be my wife.
I’d led Denise on. Now I’d have to let her down. She’d see through me anyway, the timid husband afraid to act upon his desires, the evader, the deflector, the sublimation machine. She’d find a better man to touch her in and out, somebody capable of real love, real deceit. Maybe a single man, though they said the good ones all were taken. She’d find a married man who could afford another secret family. Some men could pull that off. Capacious souls, who yearned for monogamy with several women at once. Their energy was unthinkable, biblical, Koranic. Poor Denise. She’d probably just been horny, wanted dick. Here I was getting sanctimonious and my whang did not even warrant it. But I had no choice, I had to close off this buzz between us. She’d have to learn to live with the spurning.
Denise threw some money on the Formica.
“So, Milo, it was nice to meet you, officially. Guess we may end up seeing you at Christine’s. Goodbye, Bernie.”
“Goodbye,” said Bernie. “Goodbye, Aiden.”
“You’re leaving?” I said.
“I just got a text from my boyfriend. He’s coming home early with pizza and movies.”
“Sounds fun,” I said. “Boyfriend?”
I watched her face register what I, and only I, it turned out, had been mulling, saw the surprise there, the disgust, the deeper disgust, the moral judgment, the slight flattery, the steepening dive into new realms of physical revulsion, followed by pity’s steadying hand. Denise snapped her purse shut.
“His name is Larry. He’s great. Hope you can meet him sometime. He’s a trainer at a gym in Manhattan. He trains the guy on the news.”
“Which one?” I said.
“The one with the awesome body. Though not as awesome as Larry’s. Okay, Aidey, let’s go.”
Denise stood, hustled her little boy out of the diner.
“Daddy, why did they have to leave?”
Bernie blew sugar across the table through a straw. Normally I would have snatched the straw away, admonished him loudly enough to demonstrate to the dining public my stern but fair-minded parental manner. But now I just sat there, dazed, let Bernie blow sugar and shred napkins, pour ice water onto his ever burgeoning heap of sugar and shredded napkins, tamp it with a coffee spoon.
“They needed to meet up with Denise’s friend, Larry.”
“Larry, with the muscles?”
“You know him?”
“He used to come to pick Aiden up at Christine’s.”
“Aiden says that Larry is gone. He went to a land called Elmira. He got a pole of violets for it.”
“He . . . ladled his prole.”
“Violated his parole.”
“That’s it. You know, Daddy. You always know.”
“Aiden told you this?”
“His mommy cries a lot. Aiden saw Larry’s winky, too.”
“When did he see Larry’s winky?”
“In the kitchen. Aiden got up from a bad dream and went to the kitchen and Larry was drinking juice out of the carton, which you said is bad, but Larry does it.”
“It is bad,” I said. “It’s just really wrong to do that, Bernie.”
“Larry does it.”
“Larry got violated up to Elmira.”
“Did he have to go there because he drank from the carton?”
“Life can be very tough on people,” I said.