Call me Ishmael.
Kindly pardon this disgraceful act of plagiarism, but that is indeed my true given name and one that I carry with unflinching pride, not because of its Biblical origin but rather for its literary renown, although I must confess that it is an appellation which frequently inspires considerable drudgery whenever I am compelled to spell it innumerable times for pseudo-literate mid-level bureaucrats and similarly challenged dunderheads. In my youth, when I was less than overjoyed by this unconventional moniker, more than a few people, my parents not included, dubbed me Ishy, a sobriquet that bore an unfortunate resemblance to the word itchy, thus providing sufficient ammunition for derision, most often delivered by my less imaginative grade school colleagues in spite of the fact that I was seldom afflicted with rashes, insect bites or similar maladies of the epidermis that required the application of fingernails upon the skin to provide relief. Even today, there are certain people, no doubt eager to engage me in amusing repartee, who will occasionally deliver a remark such as, “How is Captain Ahab, hahaha?” to which I habitually respond, “Obsessive.”
You see, my mother and father—both of them employed as English teachers at our local high school—had a profound fondness for Melville’s transcendent novel and thus considered the name an homage of sorts although, for reasons that defy logic, I believe it caused me to develop a strong distaste for all things of a maritime nature. I have, for example, always been vulnerable to seasickness and thus abhor boating; aquariums terrify me; I find the costumes worn by sailors to be a sartorial travesty; I am unable to successfully engage in the art of staying afloat in water. And so forth. Ergo, when I was but a lad, I would have preferred a title that was less unseaworthy and more conventional, such as Jake from The Sun Also Rises, Amory from This Side of Paradise, Holden or even Dorian, although I am greatly relieved that Mother and Father did not choose to saddle me with the likes of Huckleberry, Fitzwilliam, Ebenezer, Humbert or Quasimodo. Given their fascination with Moby Dick, I feel blessed that they refrained from selecting Queequeg, a name fraught with an infinite variety of daily mortifications.
Nevertheless, one might say that my childhood, if not idyllic, was
more than agreeable. Our domicile, which was not dissimilar in style to a British row house, was situated in Forest Hills, New York, where I attended the local public school, as my mother and father lacked the monetary resources for a private education or a tutor, either of which would have been their preference. As they had given birth to me late in their lives, I was not required to endure the companionship of a sibling and, as a result, received their full attention, a status quo that I found most satisfactory. My father bore an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Lenin, although his demeanor was considerably more congenial, while my mother was somewhat portly and prematurely gray. Sartorially, both were given to frumpiness, although Father was somewhat obsessive about the state of his shoes. They were sociable people—all manner of intellectuals frequented our house and I recall with great vividness, the scintillating banter that resulted from said associations, although I did not participate in it for, as a young fellow, I was somewhat intimidated by their philosophical depth. On occasion, they played a parlor game known as charades, but it was not until I had reached the age of ten that I was allowed to participate.
Fortunately, according to the recollections of Mother and Father, I required very little in the way of discipline or punishment. My only household duty as a lad was to shine my father’s shoes every other day, a task for which I received monthly remuneration in the form of two dollars, often rewarded in coinage. To the disgruntlement of my parents as well as my dentist, I frequently utilized said financial bonanza to purchase all manner of confections from a gentleman known as Claude Finkleman, the proprietor of a quaint candy store located six blocks from our residence.
Yet most significantly, my parents instilled in me a deep affection for literature that commenced shortly after I had achieved the age of six, at which time I eagerly consumed The Mayor of Casterbridge by Mr. Thomas Hardy. Thoroughly enchanted by this captivating tale, I would remain awake throughout the night, a brazen violation of my parents’ bedtime decree (which they seldom enforced), my fingers flipping madly through the book’s magical pages, my head covered by a blanket emblazoned with images of barnyard animals, my sole source of illumination provided by a miniature flashlight. Yes, this was the book that first awakened me to the wonders of fiction. I adored the sensuous feel of a book, the glorious musty smell of an old hardcover, the heft of a lengthy tome, the colorful symmetry of a regiment of volumes standing side by side on my bookshelves, the very act of turning pages. Thus I have always eschewed the use of flat, esthetically barren electronic devices. From that point on, I devoured the works of Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Thackeray and the Bronte sisters, eventually moving on to noted American scribes and those of other nationalities—Stendhal, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Mann, Marquez, Proust, Kafka and all the rest. My gluttonous reading of the 19th Century British classics during my formative years resulted in my somewhat stilted and admittedly verbose manner of speaking which, in my youth, was nearly incomprehensible to most of my young classmates and often considered snobbish although that was never my intention. Simply put, I have always harbored a distaste for the vernacular as well as all manner of slang, both of which I find somewhat pedestrian.
Yes, I was a precocious lad, beloved by my grade school teachers for my superior intellect, flawless grooming (I customarily sported a starched white shirt and bowtie to class) and admirable behavior (I was a quiet, brooding sort of young man who caused no disruption in class) although at the close of my mostly gushing report cards, (written in a loopy cursive mode of handwriting and frequently containing a few minor but egregious misspellings or questionable grammar), there was always a sentence or two regarding my profound lack of social skills (Ishmael would benefit from more interaction with his schoolmates. He seems to be quite shy.) Having consumed many of the classics, I found it somewhat absurd that in grade school I was expected to read and discuss a thirty-page, poorly illustrated, ineptly plotted book involving the insipid escapades of various dimwitted characters and their equally insufferable pets. Simply put, I was entirely devoid of friends, as my schoolmates and their activities held no interest for me. The only connection I had to those in my age group consisted of a passion for such delicacies as Snickers chocolate bars, Black Vines Licorice Twists, Twinkies, Cheese Puffs and other items one might describe as unhealthy victuals, but that was the full extent of my shared interest. As this was not sufficient enough to inspire a true connection with my colleagues, I remained virtually friendless during those early days of my education. And so I invariably ate alone in the school cafeteria, my briefcase by my side, consuming the repast (which usually consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich) that my mother had hurriedly prepared for me the night before, and filling the remaining time with the perusal of a book.
Although I later made several acquaintances during my teenage years in high school—most notably Arthur Poindexter, my teammate on the chess squad—it is true that my solitude as a child disturbed my parents, who had been called in to discuss this matter with my teachers on more than one occasion. After much discussion, it was suggested by the principal that engagement in athletics might be a suitable solution to this hindrance.
Unfortunately, school athletics did not appeal to me—football struck me as perilous to one’s skull and I was unable to comprehend the mysteries of baseball. But had there been a croquet team, I might have participated, simply to eliminate that last annoying sentence from my report cards, a failure that so displeased Mother and Father. Besides, croquet seemed like a simple, civilized pastime, one that would require an economy of movement and an inconsequential risk of injury, not that I would have excelled at it. An abysmal waste of time of course, but perhaps also a way in which to improve my social skills and forever rid my report cards of negative commentary.
“I hate to tell you this Ishmael, but I’m afraid croquet will not become part of the school’s athletic curriculum,” Mr. Ramsey, the school’s gym teacher, said one afternoon as I sat quite alone in the school cafeteria. I had by that time formally requested in a letter that a croquet team be organized. In spite of his preoccupation with sports, I had a fondness for Mr. Ramsey, who took a great liking to me and thus violated school regulations by allowing me to abstain from gym class activities, mostly because I was so pathetically inept at them. He was an avid reader but I had no idea what sort of literature lined his bookshelves, not that it mattered, for Mr. Ramsey was my sole friend.
“I am not surprised to hear that, Mr. Ramsey,” I said. “Truth be told, I held out little hope for the acceptance of my application but I am most thankful that you were kind enough to propose it for me.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” he said. There was a trace of glumness in his voice. “Principal Thorndyke didn’t think standing around hitting wooden balls through hoops was good exercise.”
Although this was the precise reason I had suggested that the school adopt the sport, I did not address his citation of Principal Thorndyke’s reasoning.
“C’est la vie,” I said. “But I fear my parents will be quite displeased by this news.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, alas, it appears that I have no friends,” I said.
“Well, you’re not the only one.”
Mr. Ramsey glanced around the room and I followed his gaze until it fell upon a young bespectacled fellow who sat at a nearby table. I observed that he was quite alone as he consumed his lunch with great concentration, his eyes squarely fixed upon a yellow cupcake as if it were an ancient relic from an archaeological exploration. It appeared that he was myopic as he held said cupcake two inches away from his visage.
“That’s Jerome Duckworth,” Mr. Ramsey told me. “He’s a loner too. Maybe you two could eat at the same table. He doesn’t talk much.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Perhaps this suggestion is worthy of consideration.”
I placed a bookmark in the novel I had been perusing. Mr. Ramsey peered over my shoulder. “What are you reading today, Ishmael?”
“Dead Souls by the Russian author Mr. Nikolai Gogol.”
He nodded. “Sounds like a hoot.”
I chuckled at his witticism. Just then the first warning bell rang signaling the end of the lunch hour so I folded up the remains of my lunch in the piece of tin foil my mother had wrapped it in and placed the novel in my briefcase.
“You sure do a lot of reading Ishmael,” Mr. Ramsey said. “Every time I see you, you’ve got your nose in a book.”
“Reading is my primary form of gratification, ” I said. “Yet I also do it for inspiration.”
I glanced around at my schoolmates as they sucked noisily through the straws in their miniature milk cartons and then proceeded to unload their trays into the trash receptacles.
“Inspiration for what, Ishmael?”
“For my work.”
“You mean your homework?”
I hesitated. Should I tell him? Would he laugh or make a condescending remark? After all, I was only eight.
“No,” I said. “A slightly more ambitious project.”
“And what would that be, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Do not inform a soul, but I have recently commenced writing the Great American Novel!”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? I must say, I like your ambition, Ishmael. It’s very admirable for a young fella like you to think big. I look forward to reading it.”
“Thank you,” I said. I had yet to inform my parents of my lofty goal for fear that they would find it a trifle too ambitious and therefore discourage me from undertaking it at such an early age. Mr. Ramsey’s encouragement was most welcome.
“What’s it about?” he asked. I looked at Mr. Ramsey. In some ways he reminded me of Charles Bingley, Miss Jane Austen’s delightful fictional character, in that he was a cheerful fellow, although the whistle that resided around Mr. Ramsey’s thick neck was not a fashion accessory that Mr. Bingley would have sported.
“I am not entirely certain of that yet, Mr. Ramsey,” I informed him. “Perhaps a memoir disguised as fiction. Something along those lines.”
“A memoir, huh?” he said. “But you’re kinda young, Ishmael. Have you had a lot of memorable adventures?”
I gave this some thought and said, “Well, I once purloined a package of Hostess Ding Dongs from a convenience store.”
He appeared to be stifling a chuckle. “Why?”
“I had just completed reading Oliver Twist by Mr. Charles Dickens and I wished to experience the art of theft, although I did not possess the derring-do to attempt the picking of pockets. Please do not tell anyone as I do not wish to be taken into custody by the local constabulary.”
“I won’t,” he said. His expression told me that he was being truthful. “So how far have you gotten in this book you’re writing?”
I removed my spectacles and wiped them with a napkin. “Alas, at the moment I have written only two words.”
“And what might those be?”
“The word ‘Chapter’ and the word ‘One’. I have not yet decided whether or not to pen the words ‘Part’ and ‘One,’ but I may do so, thus doubling my word count.”
“Well you’re off to a good start,” he said with a smile. As the second warning bell sounded, he put an arm around my shoulders and together we ambled out of the cafeteria and into the commotion of the hallway.
* * * * * *
The next day, I followed Mr. Ramsey’s advice and settled myself at the table that was occupied daily by Mr. Duckworth. When I greeted him with a cheery hello, he did not look up from his food but merely replied with a barely audible “hey.” No further conversation ensued. As he continued to examine his dessert, I read my book, hoping that he would not perceive me as an interloper who had rudely invaded his privacy. After two weeks of this peculiar relationship, I inquired as to whether he would care to accompany me to my domicile for some refreshment following school to which he responded with the word, “sure,” and so later we walked silently together to my house, stopping only once in order for me to purchase a few of my favorite items at Mr. Finkelman’s candy shop, some of which I graciously shared with my reticent companion. When we arrived at my abode I introduced Mr. Duckworth to my mother, who beamed as if I had just won the Nobel Prize, and proceeded to offer us Oreo cookies and milk as we repaired to the living room. After we had consumed our snack from a tray, Mr. Duckworth situated himself on the floor directly in front of the television and watched, much to my approval, a quiz show known as Jeopardy, whilst I reclined in a nearby armchair with a notebook, engrossed in deep contemplation concerning my work on the aforementioned Great American Novel. Yet I must confess that, after a certain period of time, I enjoyed Jerome Duckworth’s company, limited as it was, and commenced to call him by his given name, though he did not respond in kind to this act of familiarity. Disappointing yes, but this weekly ritual seemed to satisfy those who were concerned about my unsociability, and the offending sentence regarding my solitary existence, never again appeared on my report card, thus removing the sole remaining obstacle from my path to greatness.