Q: We’re alone in here, just you and me.
A: Is that a question?
Q: Do you have difficulty distinguishing between questions and statements?
A: Here’s a story: This guy gets out of prison. He’s been locked away for forty-seven years. Went in as a kid fresh out of high school, and when he steps back into the world, he’s a senior citizen. He stares up at the sky, at the gathering white clouds, the breeze hitting his face. It’s the same air, the same sky that he stood under when he was out in the prison yard, but now it hurts him, like a dull ache deep inside his bones. The vast open spaces now feel terrifying. He takes a city bus back to his old neighborhood. Of course he knows his parents are dead, his friends have grown up and moved away, started their own families. Still, he needs to go there. This neighborhood was where he spent every year of his free life. This neighborhood was him. But then he steps off the bus and looks around. He’s shocked. The details he used to know, those vivid snapshots of memory that carried him through day after day and night after night as he stared at those concrete prison walls – it all looks different. Bigger trees, enormous, with wide-reaching arms; remodeled and repainted homes; a tire store on the corner lot where he and his friends shot off bottle rockets. Even the road itself is now a three-lane with a turn lane in the middle. So many cars rushing by, a traffic light. A bike path – a fucking bike path on the side of the road! He doesn’t even know it’s a bike path because he’s never heard the term before, but that’s what it is. The whole scene is so foreign that he questions whether he’s in the right neighborhood. He wonders if his neighborhood got up one day and just left this place behind, hiked up the highway a few hundred miles and set up shop somewhere else. But then he looks up at a street sign and sure enough: Montgomery Road. He walks farther up the sidewalk, checking the numbers. At last he reaches 841, the house he grew up in. He’s nervous now, though he doesn’t know why. The simple act of standing in front of the old place is making his head all sweaty and his heart jittery. At that moment, a kid rides up on a bicycle. This boy is around twelve years old, and he looks not unlike the ex-con looked when he was that age, skinny and gap-toothed and starting to need bigger shoes. You looking for someone? the boy says. Yes, the man answers. I’m looking for so many people. The boy seems to understand the situation on a deep level, his eyes shining with a mixture of solace and pity and regret, as if he knows, truly knows, the pain the man is feeling. Here, mister, the kid says. He gets off his bike. Take this. You’ll find them faster. Then the kid walks away. The man drops to his knees and weeps. He’s forgotten how to ride a bike.
Q: I don’t believe you answered my question.
A: There’s a phrase in our language: tell time. As in, Billy is learning to tell time. Personally, I never learned how to do this. Instead of telling time, I ask it.
Q: And what does it answer?
A: Ask it yourself.
Q: Finish this phrase: I am most happy when I . . .
A: . . . am most happy.
Q: Desire: Can it be controlled?
A: If you’re asking me should it be controlled, I will say no.
Q: That’s not what I asked.
A: My answer was in my statement, if you look.
Q: How tall is too tall?
A: Five-thousand feet would be a bit much for most people.
Q: Should boxes come in different shapes?
A: You mean other than square and rectangular?
A: There are tubular boxes. I’ve received them on occasion.
Q: Those are generally called tubes, not boxes.
A: So maybe a box, by definition, is a square-ish thing.
Q: Does that make you angry?
A: A little bit.
Q: Tell me about Kansas.
A: I lived in the town of Manhattan. Just for a year. There’s a university there, and a military base nearby. College kids and army kids, they like to party pretty wild. The wind was nasty, absolutely mean. It would whip up across the prairies and slap you around until you wanted to cry. Children in Manhattan have to pedal their bikes downhill, no kidding. For a whole year I squatted, never bathing or shaving. I lived in the crawlspace of a family’s house, in an area no larger than a refrigerator. At night I snuck into their kitchen and drank water from the tap. Ate their yogurt and cookies and sat on the couch reading their magazines. They had shitty magazines but I didn’t care, I read them anyway, cover to cover; that gives you an idea of how messed-up I was at that point in my life. About six months in, the family started noticing the smell. The smell of me, that is, my filthy body. They thought they had skunks or corpses. I remember hearing the wife tell her husband over breakfast: “It’s just not a normal smell, Earl.” Got me thinking about what a normal smell is or isn’t. I sat there with my head between my legs and cried for about a month. When I wasn’t in the crawlspace or reading their uninteresting magazines I was lurking around town. Sometimes I walked backwards down the sidewalks, but nobody seemed to notice. One day I pretended to be an important dignitary from Istanbul. Went into a car wash and told the kid behind the counter that in my country they had donkey washes that looked identical to American car washes. The stupid kid believed me! Later that night I saw this same kid carousing with his friends, all of them wasted drunk. He saw me standing in the shadows and was like, “You’re the donkey wash dude!” That’s all I was to him, and I find that sort of tragic.