please don't
by Patrick Somerville

At two a.m., after a long Saturday night waiting tables at a Wicker Park restaurant, Mark keyed his way into his apartment. His keychain, an ironic red white and blue Jesus Christ badge—ironic because he was not a Christian and he thought it was funny, or had once thought it was funny—knocked against the locks. His shoulders hurt, and so did his feet. He prayed that Jeff, his roommate, was either asleep or gone. Tonight he had had a number of bad tables and angry patrons, condescending and nasty, indifferent to his presence. It wasn't a surprise, or anything out of the ordinary. But the job was grinding away at him in these last months, and he was growing more and more worried that he would not find a way to replenish himself.

Things seemed quiet as he moved down the dark hallway, and Mark didn't hear any noises coming from behind Jeff's closed door. He quietly breathed a sigh of relief and went directly to his own room, deciding to forgo tooth-brushing and face-washing for immediate sleep. He was in his pajamas with his finger on the light switch when he saw the note Jeff had left on his pillow. He went to it; it appeared to have been written in crayon.

"Mark," it said. "Both your parents are dead. Call your dad."

Mark left his room, crossed the living room, and opened Jeff's door.

To his surprise, Jeff was home. He was asleep in the lotus position in the corner, leaning forward in such a way that his forehead was pressed against the wall. Upon closer examination, Mark saw that there was not one but two bongs flanking Jeff, one beside each knee, one purple and one green, each standing tall, and by the smell of the small room, each clearly used within the last hour. Jeff was snoring softly. Physically, he was a mess. His hair was now so long that it hung all the way to the floor. Half of the hair he had successfully converted into white-person dreadlocks. The other half had failed, Mark didn't know why. His mustache had also gotten rather long.

"Idiot," Mark said.

Jeff did not wake up.

"Idiot," Mark said louder, and this time, Jeff's head snapped back from the wall. When this happened, he lost his balance and slowly tipped backwards. He came to rest on his back, his legs still crossed, his elbows still resting on his knees, upside down at Mark's feet.

"Dude," he said.

"Your note is hard to understand," said Mark. "For lots of reasons."

"What do you mean?"

"It says that my parents are dead and that I should call my dad."

"That's what he said, dude."

"First of all," Mark said, "my mom is already dead."


"Do you not see other problems with the logic? Even if we're only talking about my dad?"

"What do I care about logic?"

Jeff was an aspiring surrealist, and it annoyed Mark that he thought that these were the types of things he was supposed to say in order to prove it. He had twice failed his entrance examine at the School of Surreal Thought and Design in East Chicago, and was now lost in a confusing mixture of unintentional psychological collapse and intentional and pointed surreal behavior. This led to him doing some unpredictable things that were actually dangerous and other unpredictable things that were intended to be art. Mark had thought that emphasizing this connection might be a good way for Jeff to get into the school on his third try—actually committing suicide during the interview, for example, had a certain G.G. Allin aesthetic punch.

As Jeff slowly got to his feet, Mark had a difficult time not thinking of the first two failed entrance interviews. The School of Surreal Thought and Design required no application; to get in, all you had to do was show up for an interview and do something deemed surreal. On Jeff's first try, he had rappelled down from the roof of the School and made his entrance by shattering through the plate glass windows behind the table of interviewers while holding a plastic AK-47. He then rolled, stood, and pretended to open fire on the committee of two men and one woman. When he was through making the BANG-BANG-BANG noises, one of the men yawned.

Jeff panicked and began reciting e.e. cummings:

ingw Hi

"I'm not moved by this at all," said one woman.

"This feels very contrived to me, the way you're dancing in your silly way," said a shadowy man in the corner, wearing a veil. Jeff hadn't seen him. He was sitting on a bean bag chair with his legs crossed. "In fact you are the embodiment of alienated affect, exactly now. And now. And now. Et al, ad infinitum." He waved his hand around above his head.

"Do you have anything else?" asked the man who had yawned.

"This is the whole thing," Jeff said, lowering his plastic weapon.

"You fail," said the yawner. He then pounded a gavel down on his desk.

A year later, for his second attempt, Jeff ate seven thousand dollars in cash before the interview. He was a trust fund baby, and Mark, in great pain, had watched him eating hundred dollar bills all morning, dousing them in syrup one by one and shoving them into his mouth. "It's about bourgeoisie lifestyle," he'd said, after swallowing a wad. "It's about the conversion of capital into something more organic. It's about mystery and"—he paused here to swallow again, looking pained, and then finished with low-pitched—"ambiguity."

Pleased with himself, he had casually strolled into the interview, sat down in front of the committee, and said, "I just ate seven thousand dollars."

"Seven thousand dollars!" yelled one of the committee members—the yawner from the year before. Jeff frowned. As the third committee member tried to calm his colleague, the woman explained to Jeff that the destruction of legal tender was a federal offense, and that besides, to needlessly destroy money that could have been used for a nobler purpose went against everything the School believed in.

Jeff was already beginning to feel sick. "What do you mean?" he asked the woman. "You're all surrealists. What do you all care about legal tender? What about, like, Magritte?"

"We're not nihilists," said the woman. "Bill has all kinds of problems with his mortgage," she added, motioning to the man who seemed so upset. "We have a budget. This presentation lacks creativity."

The upset man pounded the gavel again. Jeff went to the hospital, where he spent seventeen days recovering from a messy stomach pump and its after effects.

"What I do, man, is not something that has a lot to do with logic," Jeff was saying to Mark. He had swung around and gotten to his feet.

"I'm just asking you if someone is really hurt," said Mark. "I'm tired. I need to go to sleep. Do I need to call my dad right now?"

Jeff thought about it for a moment and said, "Choices are only one aspect of living."

"Have you been here, doing this all night?"

"Doing what?"

"Whatever it is that you're doing?"

"No," he said. "I jerked off to Survivor a little earlier."

Mark left the room and brushed his teeth. He called his dad from bed. "I got a weird note from my roommate," he said to his dad, who had answered after three rings. "Is everything okay?"

"Not really," said Mark's dad. "Grandma and Grandpa got into a car accident. They're okay, but—" His dad paused.


"Listen," said his dad. "I'm in bed, I was over there for awhile. Just come over to their place tomorrow morning. I'll be there."

"What's the problem?" asked Mark.

"It's not them," said Mark's dad, after a pause. "It's the other car. What happened to the other car is not good."

"Oh," said Mark, who was imagining the worst kind of not good.

"Yeah," said his dad. "Just get some sleep. I'll tell you about in the morning."

Mark almost forgot to grab his keys before he left the apartment at seven thirty, but went back for them before he'd locked himself out. On his way to the subway station, he felt the plastic of his keychain and had the same thought he'd had a few times before in the previous weeks: time to get a new keychain. Jeff had gotten it for him on his birthday three years before and had explained to him that it was important to have ironic representations of one's identity available at all times, just in case.

"Just in case of what?" Mark had asked.

"You know," Jeff had said. "Needing to be interesting."

Jeff went on to explain his Theory of Minor Objects, something he had started working on just before Mark had moved in after he'd found him on Craigslist, and something he abandoned not long after he'd given Mark the keychain.

The idea, Jeff told him then, was that all of life, all of life's futures and pasts, and all of life's future and past fantasies, too, were contained in every small object. It was not unlike mass and energy. Great emotional energy was contained in minor kitsch, and wanted to be unlocked.

As he waited for the Blue Line on the platform, Mark noted that it was probably a solid general rule to do nothing Jeff advised and to believe nothing that he espoused. But he'd grown attached to the keychain; part of the Christ was worn off where his thumb usually pressed against it, and there were a few bite marks up by the cursive Jesus, from the two months it had take him to quit smoking. He had had it for so long, and it contained so many of the memories he had from living in the city—his mother's funeral, of course, as well as a slew of unsuccessful dates, as well as the mugging, when he'd lost literally everything except his keys—that it no longer exactly mattered that it was an easy joke, a funny way to say, "No, I do not hold Jesus Christ near, but there is most likely somebody out there who uses a keychain just like this to say that he does, and that's what's ridiculous."

He boarded the train, switched, and watched the grimy buildings shoot by before he and all the passengers rose up over first Lincoln Park and then Lakeview. To think of the keychain was a way to avoid wondering about what, exactly, had happened with his grandparents the night before. He could have pressed his dad on the phone, but something had told him not to—the tone of his father's voice had suggested that the worst had most likely happened, and besides, the word "death" had gotten into Jeff's message somehow. Death. Death of other people due to accident. Death of other people due to the poor reflexes of his grandmother.

This fear was confirmed when he ran into his father in the lobby of his grandparents' building. He looked beleaguered, and surprised to see Mark. He was holding a croissant in one hand and a coffee in the other, and was talking to the security guard behind the desk. Mark tapped him on the shoulder.

"Hey, hey, Son," said his dad. He raised his eyebrows and looked at his watch. "It's early."

"It sounded sort of important."

"Good," said his dad. "Let's go up. I'll explain in the elevator."

The story turned out to be simple. Yesterday afternoon, driving home from lunch, grandfather in tow, Mark's grandmother had run a red light and struck another car in the middle of the intersection of Clark and Fullerton. It was a Mini. It hadn't stood a chance against Mark's grandma's grandma-car, a cream four-door Buick Continental. The driver of the Mini had survived, but the passenger hadn't.

"A kid," said Mark's dad grimly. "The guy's daughter."

"Oh, fuck," was all Mark could say.

"Really," said his dad.

"Why is she even driving anymore?" asked Mark, watching the numbers rise on the elevator's lit panel. "How come nobody took her car away?"

"We tried," said his dad. "Trust me. But it's not exactly easy to take somebody like your grandma's car away if they've never had an accident. Grandma—you know how grandma is. She threatened to use lawyers against me when I brought it up during a lunch."

"How is she doing?"

"Grandma?" said his dad, shrugging. "It's like nothing happened."

Mark was prepared to ride the rest of the way to his grandparents' condo without another word, instead letting the grey, leaden feeling of this news settle into his mind. What was worse? The accident itself or the indifference? Who was the girl? Who was the father? He shook his head and leaned against the side of the elevator, slowly thinking on these things. But his meditation was interrupted by his father, who was looking down at Mark's hand.

"What is that keychain?" he asked. "Does that say Jesus Christ?"

"It's the same keychain I've had for years. You've seen it."

"Why would you have a Jesus Christ keychain?"

"It's a joke, Dad."

"Why is that funny?" This is what happened when his dad was upset; he became extremely literal.

"It's not a joke," said Mark. "It's just ironic."

"Because you don't believe in Jesus Christ."


"Funny," said his dad, shaking his head, and in that shake there seemed to be a condemnation of an entire generation. Children were dying in car crashes, whole areas of the world were at war, and this was youth's response. "Funny joke."

She sat alone at the kitchen table, and Mark sat down beside her. Mark's father was in the other room, on the sofa with his grandpa, who was gone from life already, and who most likely had no memory of the accident. He spent his days either sleeping or watching television, and did not speak anymore. That his grandmother insisted on bringing him out to lunch was a good indication of who she was.

"And your restaurant?" she was asking. "You know I'm going to come eventually. The next time we go to the theatre, of course. But with this whole business, who knows when the car will be fixed."

"You can just take a cab," Mark said, knowing that even this might set her off—a suggestion that she would not be driving herself anymore.

"Oh, I don't like them," was all she said. She had a cup of coffee in front of her, and now looked past Mark, to the window. She looked good for her age, but Mark had seen, in the last year or so, the inevitable work of time on her face, her eyes—even on the shape of her skull. No matter how much she worked at the mirror in the morning, she could not hold back the flood.

Considering this vanity, Mark felt a new sense of resolve about the situation. She needed to be stopped. She needed to be convinced of the importance of what she'd done, even if it had been an accident. Some family had just shattered, and here she was, sipping her coffee and musing.

"Grandma," he said. "You can't drive anymore."

"I certainly can."

"That girl died yesterday."

Pure ice. Her eyes did not move, not even a tick to the side, and remained focused on the window behind Mark.
This, of course, was her typical response to anything even resembling confrontation. Mark listened to his father speaking to his grandfather in the other room; he was telling him about birds; there was no sense of urgency at all in the room, which seemed very wrong to Mark. He didn't want to be in the position of moral center, but what else could he do? Something great, and grave, had occurred. No one seemed to realize it.

"Grandma," he said again. "The girl died." He couldn't help it; he couldn't help thinking about the gore, about the body of a child in the middle of the road.

She continued to look out the window, although her mouth parted, just a bit.

Mark waited for some kind of reflection, or apology. At least a show of emotion. What she said, finally, after turning to look him in the eyes, was, "I noticed your keychain."

Mark looked down at it—it was on the table, beside his hand.

"When I die," said his grandma, nodding toward it, "I only hope that Jesus will be there, to give me back my voice."
It was only after he stared at her for some time that he saw the faintest hint of something in the corner of her eye.
The meeting ended soon after this conversation, and Mark said goodbye to his father in the lobby. As he walked back toward the train, he felt angry—angry that nobody seemed to care, or if they did, nobody could talk about it directly, angry that her cold blue eyes had focused in on him in the way that they had. As though, if anything, they expected sympathy. As though somewhere, wherever the crushed family lived, irrevocable damage had not been done. True, she had been a singer, years and years ago, and true, she had had an operation in her sixties that had damaged her throat, and made her unable to sing. True, it had been a good voice—a beautiful voice, even. He'd heard about it, at least. But this-—why did it have to be so indirect? Why couldn't she say, "I can't believe what I've done, it's the most awful thing somebody can do"?

Because direct was a different thing entirely.

It was when he was almost home that he looked down and saw that he was again rubbing his keychain with his thumb, right where he usually did.

He watched it intently, and what he saw there was something—not an explanation, not an apology, not even any kind of real sense. He had never thought much of the afterlife, and was not any nearer to believing it now. That was clear to him. But when he looked, he looked at it, just to see what it looked like. Jeff, he thought, would have been proud of him for trying to have a séance with kitsch. He did not see cars; what he saw was a stage, and a long, smoky room, and in the room there were one hundred people. On the stage there was a band, and at the front of the band, there were two women. One, his grandmother, twenty years younger in a cocktail dress. Beside her was a little girl, in a miniature version of the dress, standing in front of a miniature version of a microphone. They were both singing something jazzy.

He looked up. It was all too sentimental for him, and he didn't believe it. This was exactly the wrong thing to do, to have some vision or conception of the whole thing as though nothing bad had happened—as though nothing bad ever happened. This was his greatest complaint about art, and about youth, and about obsessing about youth, and about Jeff's self-indulgent practice of art. His grandmother was the same: just pretend it didn't happen. Just pretend something else was real. Just pretend those old times were what mattered most.

And yet he looked down at the keychain again, and saw the same scene. The room, the smoke, the stage, the music. And when he closed his eyes and focused in on the band, he changed his mind again, or at least decided that he did not know after all, because somehow, in his own vision, against his will, Jesus Christ, an incarnate god he did not believe in, was also there, helping to forge some kind of restitution. He was all the way in the back, in the shadows, playing the xylophone.

Patrick Somerville is a writer living in Chicago. His first book of stories, Trouble, was published by Vintage Books in September of 2006. A forthcoming novel, The Cradle, will be available from Little, Brown and Co. in 2009. You can read more of his work at

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