Daniel Quinn - My Ishmael
I think it's pretty lousy to wake up at age sixteen and realize you've already been screwed. Not that there's anything terrifically unusual about getting screwed at this age. It seems like everyone inside fifty miles is bent on doing you in. But not many sixteen-year-olds get screwed in this particular way. Not many have the opportunity to get screwed this way.
I'm grateful, I really am.
But this story is not about me at age sixteen. This is about something that happened when I was twelve. That was a painful time in my life.
My mother was deciding she might as well go ahead and be a drunk. In the previous three or four years she wanted me to think she was just a social drinker. But she figured I must know the truth by now, so why go on pretending ? She didn't ask my opinion about it. If she had, I would've said, "Please go on pretending, Mom. Especially in front of me, okay?"
But this isn't a story about my mother. It's just that you have to understand some of this if you want to understand the rest.
My parents were divorced when I was five, but I won't bore you with that story. I don't even know that story, really, because Mom tells it one way and Dad tells it another. (Sound familiar?)
Anyway, Dad remarried when I was eight. Mom almost did the same, but the guy turned out to be a creep, so she skipped it. Along about in there, she started putting on weight big time. Luckily, she already had a good job. She heads up the word-processing operation at a big law firm downtown. And then she took to "stopping for a drink after work." This got to be a pretty long stop.
All the same, she rolled out of bed every morning at seven-thirty, no matter what. And I think she made it a rule not to start drinking before the end of the business day. Except on weekends, of course - but I won't go into that either.
I was not a happy girl.
In those days I thought it might help if I played the Dutiful Daughter. When I got home from school, I tried to put the house back to the way Mom would have wanted it if she cared anymore. Mostly this meant cleaning up the kitchen. The rest of the house stayed pretty neat. But neither of us had time to tackle the kitchen before heading off to work and school.
Anyway, one day as I was gathering up the newspaper, something in the want-ad section caught my eye. It read:
TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest
desire to save the world. Apply in person.
This was followed by a room number and the name of a ratty old office building downtown.
It struck me as weird that a teacher would be seeking a pupil. It just didn't make any sense. The teachers I know, seeking a pupil would be like a dog seeking a flea.
Then I took another look at the second sentence, Must have an earnest desire to save the world. I thought, Wow, this guy doesn't want much.
The crazy thing was that this teacher ought to be pitching his services like everyone else, and he wasn't. It was like a help-wanted ad. It was like the teacher needed the pupil, not the other way around. A shiver started at the back of my neck, and the hair stood up all over my head.
"Wow," I said, "I could do this. I could be this guy's pupil. I could be useful!"
Something like that. It sounds silly now, but this ad hooked into my dreams. I knew where the building was, and all I had to remember was the room number. But I tore the ad out anyway and put it in a drawer in my room. That way if I fell down, hit my head, and became an amnesiac, I'd still find it sitting there someday.
It must have been a Friday night, because the next morning I lay in bed thinking about it. Having a daydream about it, actually.
I'll get to the daydream later.
The good news was that Mom didn't try to keep me on a short leash. She didn't keep herself on a short leash, so maybe she figured she had no business keeping me on one. Anyway . . .
After breakfast I told her, "I'm going out," and she said, "Okay."
Not "Where're you going?" Or "When'll you be back?" Just "Okay."
I took a bus downtown.
We live in a pretty decent little city. (I'm not going to say where exactly.) You can stop at a red light without getting car-jacked. Drive-by shootings are rare. No snipers on the roofs. Like that. So I didn't give a second thought to going downtown on a Saturday morning by myself.
I knew the building mentioned in the ad. It was the Fairfield. A loser uncle of mine once had an office there. He chose it because it was in a good location but cheap. In other words, crummy.