Chapter 2. Doctor
He spoke slowly, in a cutting nasal rasp. It was
a wheedling kind of voice and in
it, behind it, ten thousand smarmy echoes.
"But what about your name," he said.
"My name? What about it? Do you mean is my name a Rigid Designator?
Is it subject
to the Problem of Universals? Is it causal or denotive? Or do you
just mean why is
my name what it is?"
Jasper Nitz maintained his even smirk, not answering, and in the shuffling
that followed, I felt the class realign itself. The power lines were
a little screwy,
but I was used to that by now.
Every year, in every class, some kid asks me why I publish under the
name Dr. Silence.
Usually it's a tiny boy, dressed all in black, Converse sneakers,
a cross between Pierrot and a weasel. A Beat geek. And each one has
a grinning point
man, a sidekick, crouched inevitably in the shadow. I recognized Jasper's
He was my new teaching assistant for an undergrad lecture in Language
a gangly boy with a faint Amish accent and a new-wave tonsure. I couldn't
But as I say, I know the drill by now. Jasper Nitz was unusual only
in the girl he'd
picked out to perform for. I cast a glance her way and froze. The
rest of the major
points in the day's discussion, which had been pristinely demarcated
in my head,
melted into murk. She had a blunt power to her, Louise Brooks hair
and China Doll
cheekbones. But that wasn't it.
Perched neatly on the ripped black shoulder of
her Nico T-shirt was a pint-sized
version of the demon I call John. He kicked his feet into her collarbone,
at me. Normally, I wouldn't care. Normally, my demons are such an
part of the architecture of my day, I don't even blink. But I've found
of, I don't know, attrition, that somehow they tend to occupy the
place in my brain as public speaking, and as a result, I'm fucking
useless as a teacher
when they're around.
The classroom was hot and smelled of wet flannel. On the stage of
Nico Shirt's slender
shoulder, a tiny drama unfolded. A blond, square-jawed demon emerges
from a rectangle
pat of butter light, lugging a rocking chair out of sight, down her
back. In front of him, oblivious, minute, my father shrugs elaborately.
his tiny pocket and I know he's brought his opium ball along (he always
his opium softball), rendering him useless, and I wanna say "hey,
stop him; he's
stealing the chair," but now my father's squinting at me, concerned,
opening his toy mouth, saying,
"Nyugi, nyugi, Édesem."
"Is that an answer?" Jasper Nitz, seizing control. "What's
it supposed to mean?"
"It means," I whisper, "hush, hush, my sweet. In Magyar."
"What's the point?"
"No point, Nitz. Just something my father used to say."
He rolled his eyes, raising his arms in a lost-cause flap, a gesture
I've grown accustomed
to over the years, a gesture meant to imply: the chick's bughouse,
but what do I
care? Of course, if he knew my reputation, the gesture would've been
just as if he'd actually read my work, he'd already know why I published
name Dr. Silence. But why would he? Who'd pick up a dusty treatise
Or read an article in an obscure New England journal?
Looking up, I saw Nico Shirt's shoulder blessedly free of demented
parasites. I cleared
my throat, then fell silent. I didn't want to be there. Teaching smartass
students is not exactly the ideal job for someone who regularly hallucinates
of machine-gun dialogue with an entire bestiary of demons, even if
that person has
a facility for learning new languages akin to that of Captain Sir
Francis Burton. As usual, I resented being made to feel like more
of a fraud than
I already was.
But I was determined to earn my keep. The syllabus concerned the Language
a subject some might say I was ideally suited to take on. Also a subject
intimacy renders me mute. It all depends on how you look at it. But
if I couldn't
teach them what was on the syllabus, I was nonetheless prepared to
teach them something;
to stake out a claim, to charge in. To take no prisoners.
I was gonna play draughtsman extraordinaire and, early, draw them
a field map for
the mine fields, find them an inexhaustible source of rocket fuel
for the imagination,
and thus for the study of Linguistics as a whole. Better that, better
diminishing speech by counting the rocks in the speaker's head. Anyway,
I wasn't sure how to go about it, exactly, but it had something to
do with the truth.
The truth and carbon dating. The truth in pith helmets. The truth
and the silence
of the dig at night. The brutal shape of the pick, artifacts in shadow:
of language, the die of language.
Alright, so I'm full of shit. But I was gonna have to read their papers
for the next
four months and I was determined about at least this much: if I was
gonna read their
stuff, I wanted to watch them listen first.
Besides, Jasper Nitz was a smug little bastard but the kid'd asked
me a legitimate
question. I guess it is pretty stupid to publish academic work under
a wacko pulp
fiction name like Dr. Silence. To tell the truth, even given the fact
that it's common
knowledge among the higher philological circles that I'm mad as a
I can't believe I've gotten away with it this long. So I told Jasper
Nitz the truth,
"It was Flan's idea."
He gave me this look. This really impressive look. This mean, squinty
said "I know exactly what you are." He said, "Is that
"Not exactly. Want me to answer your question?"
He shrugged. "Not exactly," he said, in a precise imitation
of my voice. No mean
feat, that, the nervous crash-down on syllables, the barest glaze
of Romany; and
so, delighted with him, I decided to tell them the story. It's a long
it's pretty goofy but, fuck, it's true. At least it's true.
First time I met Goliath Flanagan was in this scummy bar on Ludlow
Street. I was
wild, desperate to come up with a proposal for my doctoral thesis,
and I'd been on
a three-day drunk with this guy, Spin Burke, who claimed he was a
I never heard him play, in fact I don't think he even owned a bass,
so I have no
idea what the fuck that means, but cut me some slack. I was a young
probably half mad from grief.
Spin had the requisite skull ring gleaming on his knuckle and this
long ugly face
that just slayed me at the time. Anyway, I was sitting cross-legged
on a table and
Spin was knuckling the shellac with his Keith ring when this dream
in a black leather
cop jacket shows up. Goliath C. Flanagan.
Flan looked about the same in those days. Bar light suits him. He
was a pinch more
hungry then maybe, a tweak less worn, but he hasn't aged much in the
I've known him. He looks like a wrecked angel. He's all wide square
angles, rib cage
out to here, insane mop of auburn hair, baggy eyes of the murkiest
green. And always
a cigarette angling his jaw. Just about half a beer short of perfect,
in short. Anyhow,
he casts the briefest of appraising looks over Spin's slumped body,
turns to me,
"Jesus, Doll, that face. Let's cruise."
"I'm with him," I said, nodding at Spin.
Spin raised his head, looked at me, at Flan, sighed, and settled his
head on the
table. He had a kind of resigned zeal about bar fights. Flan caught
his look and
grinned at me.
"What if I hit him?"
"Then I'll be with a hit guy."
"What if I beat him to a bloody pulp, Doll?" he said, and
now I sighed.
"Then, I guess, I'll be with a bloody pulp and I'll be mad at
"What if I kill him?"
I looked at him.
"Then I'll be with a corpse and you'll have me for an enemy."
Flan looked at me a long time. He was back lit by a Rolling Rock sign.
His nose was
a knife in the shadow. He rubbed his hand across his jaw and burned
it on the cigarette
dangling from the corner of his mouth. He jumped back, dropping the
about half a beer short of perfect.
He said, "Jesus, Doll, you love him that much?"
"He's alright," I said. "I'm with him's all."
"Well," he said, coughing, "that's an answer."
I laughed at him. He was acting so fucking hard-boiled. But whatever
faculties, and they were probably at their lowest right about then,
I knew a sap
when I saw one. Flan's hard all over. But he's a swooning romantic
fool. His eyes
get wet at baseball games and he addresses dogs on the street.
After a minute, he laughed too and his face softened some. He bought
us a round,
then another. Then I bought several. Shitty bar tequila. It suited
us. Spin had a
few words with the bartender, followed her up to the office, and came
back with a
bottle. Passing it around, the long pulls burned at my gut. Spin probably
was licked by then but we all played it out cheerfully.
For about an hour, I drank, consorting silently, as was my wont, with
parade of hatted phantoms. I think at one point I must've borrowed
a crushed brown
fedora from a greasy mongoose named Cump, a favorite specter of mine
back then, a
dapper anarchical fellow possessed of the sheer joyful exuberance
of "Surfin' Bird."
I'm certain I felt it poised rakishly on my head when I turned, tuning
in on the
They were arguing baseball. Spin was a die-hard Yankee fan. It went
with his long
gray face, his cool eyes. Flan, with quieter vehemence, was a Mets
man. It flushed
his skin, a slow burn. I didn't know about the Mets then. Everybody
the Yanks. They were the magic men, could do no wrong. Everyone talked
democratic fairness of the designated hitter, the Yanks, the wunderkinder.
Unless you follow baseball, just about every player you've ever heard
of is a Yankee.
Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio. Lou Gehrig, the tragic Iron
Man. Bill Dickey
off the '27 Murderer's Row. Yogi Berra's blather. (C'mon, you've probably
ain't over 'til it's over" dozens of times, admit it; and what
do you know about
Like I said, I didn't know about the Mets then. Sweet. Balletic. Tough.
Incredibly mortal. The tang of strive and failure, of labor in obscurity,
magic, long muscles stretching under sweaty skin. It's one of the
main things Flan
gave me. But that was later on. At the time, I watched my two drunk
Maybe you think I'm a little too hip, gnomic, an asshole; and Flan's
a little too
smooth, working that big tough-guy seduction game: a pair of assholes.
as Flan might say, were the numbers we were running. We were young.
We were in a
bar. Seated. Drunk. We were seated in a bar drunk. We were all kinds
of fucked up.
After all, this story has a point of sorts. I was trying to tell about
how it came
to be that this long talker, this tall drunken girl, not two months
a widow and in
reckless need of a shape to her dementia, how it was that this girl
came to call
herself Dr. Silence.
If the story's kind of slick so far, I guess it's because madness
can be slick that
way. And so can tequila. In the right company. The point is listen.
Listen to how
you listen. Listen to me.
Toward the end, almost at last call, almost at
four o'clock in the morning, Flan
was having two conversations at once. He was talking to Spin about
what a cool girlfriend
he had. Me. And he was talking to me about, well, me. He said,
"What are you so drunk for?"
I told him. I told him that Evan was dead, coughing out the words
"my husband"; told
him that, tripping, he'd walked under a bus. (That one time, I kept
part to myself. I wasn't ashamed, but it seemed so over-determined,
he'd died in a motorcycle accident or got eaten up by syphilis.)
I told Flan that, including creoles, I spoke 39 languages. He blinked
at me like
a lizard. I told him I had next to no interest in any aspect of my
He nickered and shook his head sadly. I told him I had to have the
proposal in in
two days or lose my funding and all I really wanted was for someone
to pay me to
sit around acquiring new languages. And, as I told him this, he whipped
around, saying to Spin,
"And do you know what the coolest thing about her is, what I
love, what I've been
looking for all my life," beating him up with the words. Spin
"She just sits there, absorbed, absolutely silent. Or watching
you speak. She measures
every word. No cop could make her talk. Her silence is her bond,"
whipping his hard
face back to me, "your silence is your bond."
I remember the moment perfectly, Evan. It was the first time you ever
me. Goofy, your severed head floating and grinning. Now we're pals,
sure. Now I can
take it: Evan the honor guard, Evan the apparition. Maybe I even like
it better than
when you were alive.
But that was the first time. I was startled, cool, startled. How many
times had I
addressed you in the weeks after you died? A thousand times? A million?
And you chose
that instant, a drunk instant, wild, flirtatious, a brink, to make
You hovered inches over an ashtray, one long shock of your bloody
balk hair curling
into the smoldering butts. Someone came by collecting empties, grabbed
out from under you, and your head shot straight up like a jackrabbit.
off balance, against a Slits poster, then gracefully double-somersaulted
across the table 'til you were hanging right between Spin and Flan.
Isn't nostalgia sickening? Viscous and patently absurd, the way it
slaps that sepia
clarity on everything? "Now there's a notion, Chica," your
dumb head said. "Silence.
Damn. It's got a ring to it, no doubt about that. Damn, Chica. Get
a load of the
I turned my attention from your severed head to the raving guy your
head had indicated.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Spin raise his head from the table,
at Flan, raise his eyebrows, shrug again.
"Okay," I said, cool, knuckles white, my voice a little
high. "Silence it is. Dr.
Silence. Makes sense. Can't choose a facet of language, make it no
language at all."
"That's how it happened. Suit you?" I said, inserting myself
into the tired quiet,
into their boredom, their desire, the quiet catch of breath. Jasper
in his seat and grinned. He'd won, apparently. He'd won his battle
of Bohemian Honor.
I'd expressed emotion about something. I was wearing myself on my
sleeve. But of
course I'd won because he'd listened very carefully to my story, measuring
whatever, for phoniness, I guess. Anyway, I won. That much was clear.
I gathered my papers, looking over the sluggish faces. Nico Shirt,
her throat. Her voice perfumed the room.
"So, did you write your thesis on silence?"
"Well, actually no," I laughed. "The next day I got
a bunch of stolen chicory blossoms
from Flan and a call from Uncle Sam. I did a small job for the Feds
and kind of slipped
into an assistant professorship on the strength of that."
We were ten minutes over and at the far end of the table, watches
were checked repeatedly,
amid nervous coughs and twitches. I was happy. I'd rather talk about
just about anything
than Naming and Necessity.
"But I'll tell you about that another time. And you can check
the thesis I did end
up writing out of the library. I won't be here Thursday. I have to
up for a friend. We can get back to how loons talk after that. Finish
memoir and I'll give you each five bucks if no one has any questions
about it. Stay
out of trouble."
Right. Get back to how loons talk. As if we ever left.
- Biograph and