Authors: Thomas Berger
Earlier versions of some of these stories were published elsewhere; those parts of the “Granted Wishes” sequence here subtitled “Ugly Guy,” “Unpopular Girl,” and “Embittered Super” appeared in
; “Gibberish,” “Planet of the Losers,” “Tales of the Animal Crime Squad,” and “Personal Power” in
; “The Methuselah Factor” in
; “The Apotheosis of Dr. Poon” (as “The Achievement of Dr. Poon”) in
NLESS HE SPENT THE
night with a woman and thus was obliged to make small talk in the morning, Ken Phipps’s breakfast companion was the radio, tuned to an all-news station, but it was routine for him (unless some major catastrophe was being reported for the first time) to ignore the meaning of what was said while taking comfort from the sound of the human voice. He had usually caught the eleven-o’clock TV news the night before. It was rare that anything happened overnight except the opening of the Tokyo stock exchange, the report on which could, unless abnormal, be noted subliminally.
This phase of his existence had continued to be orderly even when others went awry. Recently he had been having trouble with the super of his apartment. He had also had a falling out with his only brother, had broken up with still another girlfriend. But the breakfast-time ritual of playing the radio while not listening to it had been reassuringly maintained... Until the morning at hand, when for what seemed no reason at all Phipps suddenly took interest, or tried to, in a news report about an occurrence in—that was just the problem. He could make no sense of it.
“...tenig pobed decisionally volatilitude, dowd happnil, be sprang. Than Mertonwhy Funchin, Blurvil, Rupeeble Don Grodwin.”
The last few sounds were given the tone and rhythm of a geo-graphical name—perhaps. Beyond that suggestion Phipps could not go. He thumped his temple with a heel of hand. Maybe water from the shower was still in his ear.
He twisted the dial to another station and there found an improvement that, according to the angle of interpretation, could be either significant or slight. He could at least assume that a sportscaster was reporting the results of the baseball games of the day before. A desultory fan except when his favorite team was in a pennant race, Phipps usually heard the scores in a distracted state that permitted him only occasionally to note a strenuous effort to avoid repeating the obvious verbs. Thus if the Yankees
the Red Sox, and the Mets
to the Cards, the Cubs
over the Reds, while the Twins
the A’s. Beyond that point the terms grew more rarefied. One team might, were the score sufficiently unbalanced,
hand a shellacking to
another. When one team had
no runs whatever, never having even
gotten on the board
, they could be said to have been
, with a score of
. To listen to such linguistic versatility was sometimes a certain compensation for a list of numbers that applied to contests to which one was indifferent.
But what he was hearing at this moment were the results of games between teams the names of which were unprecedented as designations for major-league clubs. The “Spawn” had “emballoted” the “Hings.” The “Jillies” were “oxwalled” by the “Bidwangers.” Who had won in a contest between the “Dunktoms” and the “Kalikinlogs” he had no means of knowing, not being able to identify the verb, in pronouncing which the commentator had used guttural effects quite foreign to English.
Had the material world not been altogether in order, Phipps might have been in panic at this point. But the facts were that the toast, though made from a high-nutrient multigrained loaf, was nevertheless delicious for a change, the honey exquisite though coming not from the thyme-sotted bees of Provence or another exotic meadow but being rather the familiar old supermarket brand, the Mocha-Java a first-rate brew as always, and suddenly even the sun did the cheery thing and broke through the overcast that had persisted throughout the previous two days.
The obvious solution to the problem of the radio was to switch it off. Phipps had long since learned that there were only the tiniest handful of true emergencies about which something must promptly be done: fire, choking, gushing blood, and a few others. Beyond those obvious and, if allowed to persist, irreversible situations were the partial or limited crises, those inflated by persons with axes to grind, or the downright pseudo problems so convenient for the use of TV newscasters when nothing else was there to report: e.g., the probability of minor flooding if enough rain fell, the alarming rise in the price of prunes, and of course the wind-chill factor.
The truth was that in all but a very few extremities, no response whatever was the most sensible and usually the most effective technique—if the word could be used to refer to the lack of something. By now Phipps was so good at this as to continue to walk on when he saw two men fighting each other with knives at the mouth of an alleyway not far from his office. Had he subsequently encountered a policeman, he would not have failed to mention this event. As it was, being unarmed and not vested with any official law-enforcement authority, he had done nothing whatever.
On the bus ride to work he typically exchanged conversation with no one. A mutually maintained silence was nowadays the most civilized arrangement one could expect in public. In the same spirit Phipps usually managed even to avoid overhearing the conversations of other passengers if such there were in his vicinity. But on the morning at hand he was not so fortunate—or deft. The two persons in the seat just ahead of him were arguing, not loudly but with shared intensity.
He could hear them very clearly, yet what they said had no meaning for him. If they were speaking in a foreign language, he could not begin to identify it even by family: Latin, Slavic, Oriental...
“Bet hunan vilmin hupergong bubfile,” said the woman, whose hair was short and cut smartly above small but assertive earrings.
“Bay,” answered the man, “dinsel topjaw pinjatorial, pinjam pinjallow, kipness.” He had projecting ears. He seemed to have the calmer side of the dispute, but perhaps Phipps made that assumption only because this male voice was richer and much deeper than that of this woman—not always necessarily the case: his own had a nasal quality (startling to himself when he heard it on tape) that could be thought, by strangers, to be a concomitant of peevishness, whereas his intimates knew him rather as the soul of geniality.
He decided that for his peace of mind he would not listen to anything anyone said on the elevator ride to his office, and this proved more or less possible, except for the times he was asked to give way to permit the exit of certain fellow passengers de-boarding on lower floors. Undoubtedly the terms they used were those routine to civilized social intercourse, “please,” “excuse me,” and the like, but though he pretended such was the case, and politely honored the requests, the words he actually heard were unfamiliar: “binkho,” for example, “ranchly,” and “veemhard.”
Therefore he felt fortunate that the young woman at the reception desk of the firm for which he worked was distracted by a phone call just as he appeared, and he was able to gain entrance to the office with no more than an exchange of loose-wristed waves.
He was less lucky in the case of his colleague Burt Wyman, just back from a midseason vacation, sporting high facial color, a belt that had gained a notch, and a pair of shoes made from a hide of unusual grain, perhaps reptilian, but if so from a serpent unfamiliar to Phipps, and given the incomprehensible identification made by Wyman, he might never know the name, unless there really was a lizard called “feemjohn.”
But that was only one of the words employed by Wyman, who spoke in the rapid rhythm of high spirits, and Phipps, understanding none, found it was however not unbearable to listen to an account he knew by precedent would have bored him terribly had he been able to understand the language in which it was spoken, Wyman being notorious for telling, with great energy, stories that had no point unless one was a member of his family: kids lost expensive sunglasses, picnics on the edge of disaster were saved when a nearby group had mayo to lend, distant acquaintances were encountered by chance in souvenir shops far from home.
Having only just reached his cubicle and hung the jacket of his suit on the coattree, Phipps heard a sharp rap on the clear glass wall to his left. It was his immediate superior, Mel Fallon, in a suit that as usual fit much better than the sandy toupee. Fallon was giving him the thumb, and wore an expression from which it could be inferred that an unpleasant interview was imminent, one that might well be nightmarish if Fallon’s side of it was couched in more of the gibberish Phipps had heard since breakfast.
Though having summoned him not twenty seconds earlier, Fallon, now behind his desk, first pretended he had not noticed Phipps’s arrival. Then, when eventually he lifted his head from the papers before him, he began what Phipps, not able to understand a word of it, could only assume was a furious complaint, punctuated occasionally by violent stabs with a rigid forefinger into the air between them.
Phipps could not imagine what he had done or failed to do that called for such an outburst. His own anger began to grow. He was not a criminal. And Fallon was not judge or jury, nor for that matter was he in a position of supreme power. In their division alone were several men and one woman who outranked him. Furthermore he was not that good at his job, his successful ideas generally having been provided by Phipps (without credit) whereas those exclusively his own were wont to fail. Actually the guy was a jerk, a fake, a clown, and even though he might have the power to arrange for Phipps’s discharge, it would provide great satisfaction to return his attack.
“All right, that’s enough! Now it’s my turn, you bastard.” This was what Phipps intended to say. What emerged, however, was something else, a series of words quite as incomprehensible as those that had been addressed to him. He could not even understand language when it was spoken by himself!
But Fallon suddenly stopped scowling, looked pensive for a moment narrowing his eyes and holding his head at the angle of a curious dog, then cleared his throat and said something a good deal more gentle than his previous rant.
For his own part, having gotten the feeling toward Fallon off his chest and survived, Phipps became more diplomatic. He was trying to craft a statement that would combine a kind of apology with a sort of sense of pride when Fallon rose, came around the desk, and indicated, politely enough, that Phipps should follow him.
Down the hall they went and turned the corner into the west wing, lair of the big boss, John C. Nebling, an executive whose ascetic appearance was at odds with his reputation for debauchery, though it was always possible that the latter was a fiction, for nobody Phipps knew had ever seen Nebling in a moment of hanky-panky, and Barbara Clark-Johansen, his executive assistant, held him in the highest regard and was humorlessly indignant as to the rumours of his sexual depravity, which, to be sure, some thought had been cut from the whole cloth by Nebling himself to give color to his image.
Phipps was always embarrassed nowadays when crossing paths with Barbara, which fortunately he was not often obliged to do, for they used different banks of elevators and he had no regular business in the west wing. He and Barbara had had a little thing together, not really long enough to be called an affair, not sufficiently passionate to have been a romance: on the other hand, it was more than series of one-night stands. Neither really knew what it had been, but both agreed, at about the same time, that it was over. For no discernible reason, it had not been replaced, as it should properly have been, by friendship. This was especially true on Barbara’s side. Though their parting had been amicable, she had on chance encounters since been barely civil to him. He could not decide whether this coldness was typical of her attitude to any man for whom she no longer had personal use or was reserved for himself after second thoughts had brought bygone injustices to mind. The fact was, despite having spent a half dozen nights in her close company, he knew very little about Barbara’s approach to much other than sex, medium-priced wine, and Thai food—and her retention of the name “Johansen” though the husband that went with it was no longer in residence.