“The David Foster Wallace Empathy Contest” – Fiction by Wm. Samuel Bradford

Sea Turtle - Mike Brice, 2014
Sea Turtle – Mike Brice, 2014

“The David Foster Wallace Empathy Contest” (contributed by Wm. Samuel Bradford for our Spring 2015 issue) is not merely a satirical homage to the work & fans of David Foster Wallace, it’s also a touching story of camaraderie and survival in a harsh, chaotic world.

{ X }

IN ITS LAST YEAR, WALLACEFEST HAD ONLY THREE ATTENDEES. The event was advertised as “an alcohol-free weekend of mutual appreciation for Wallace’s principles.” For Roland, it was a balls-to-the-wall competition.

Roland, Jon, and Bendiks sat on the pier behind the beach house rented for the occasion. They had just released the live lobsters they had purchased from a restaurant.

Roland, who had long ago realized that his looks and wit impressed no one, had latched onto Wallace fandom as his chance to be noticed. He had spent his inheritance building the no-kill dog shelter Wallace had allegedly dreamed of. He called it the David Wallace Foster House. No one would outdo him.

“So, I mean, I just felt so much gratitude. It wasn’t revealed by D or bolstered by D–it was, like, caused by D,” Roland said.

As Roland spoke, Jon spooned pureed squash into the lipless mouth of Bendiks. He had pointed Bendiks’s wheelchair to face the sunset, even though Bendiks’s eyes were rolled back in his head behind closed, twitching eyelids.

“How did you and Bendiks meet?” Roland asked.

Jon took a swig of non-alcoholic beer and wiped the rubber-capped spoon.

“So this new Latvian woman works with me in the lab. We wanted her to feel a part of the group, so we listened to Latvian folk music on internet radio while we worked. The lab started to get into it–all the zithers and stuff. It’s cool. Anyway, one day we’re listening and this news report begins, and the Latvian woman was like ‘Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!’ and no one else speaks Latvian, and we’re all like ‘What is it, Dagnija?’ and she starts telling us about the report.

“You know bath salts, the drug? Well, it had just hit Latvia, and this kid had taken a ton of bath salts and went into a pet store and like, went nuts. He started eating puppies. I’m talking, like, eating them alive. Then he bites himself. Chunks of his arms. He bent over and bit his calves off. He bit his own lips off.”

“And that’s Bendiks?”

“Yeah, that’s Bendiks. So they throw him in jail, and because he didn’t have any family or friends, nobody claimed him. He couldn’t be released until the damage was paid off, but since his brain is permanently scrambled, he was stuck.

“And, well, I was reading a bunch of Wallace at the time, and I got kind of obsessed with this news report, and I dunno, I just went over.”

“To Latvia?”

“Yeah. Pretty bleak place. He was just sitting there, staring at a wall, pissing himself. The guards didn’t even care.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Well, I didn’t really have a plan. I just went there–but then once I saw him, I had to get involved.

“Let me tell you, trying to take a cripple with a record of delinquency out of the country is not easy.” Jon dabbed Bendiks with a paper towel. “I tried everything. Met with lawyers, social workers, or at least the closest thing they have to a social worker, all with a translator paid by the hour. A real mess. In the end, there was only one way to get Bendiks into America: I had to marry him.”

“Jesus,” Roland said.

“Hey, it saved him from a miserable life. What do I care if there’s a piece of paper with our names on it?” Jon said.

“So, are you–I mean–” Roland said.

“Gay?” Jon hugged one knee, feeling the tug in his glute. “Sexual orientation is a strange idea when you think about it.”

“But, I mean–you have your whole life.”

“Look, I was never a very sexual person to begin with, but what I’m saying is if I can’t love anyone, then there’s a problem with my mindset. Please know that I am 100% utterly content with Bendiks. I take care of him. I feed him. I clean him. It’s just love and concern for him. If that’s not enough, I’m deluding myself.”

“But –”

“Think of it this way: you know really old couples? People together for decades learn to remove selfishness. Just care for the other person’s good. And that’s a wonderful thing. What I’m saying is I’m not fooling myself, and I’ve got that with Bendiks from the beginning. It’s all there needs to be. For me, anyway. Is that making any sense?”

Roland recognized Jon’s wince–as though miscommunication felt like a paper cut–from the ninety-minute interview Wallace gave for German TV in 2003, available for play and replay and replay on YouTube.

Roland fought the impulse to punch the piling as Bendiks slowly chewed the air. His exposed teeth, broken from biting his own bone, looked like a sick smile. Jon, revealing the nub of a former pinky finger, had earlier explained to Roland that “Bendiks has this biting reflex” and that “he can’t really control it–if he feels something, he bites.”

Apparently, before Jon lays Bendiks to bed, he uses a spatula to insert a plastic bit between Bendiks’s teeth to keep him from biting his own tongue off in the night.

Roland thought of his dogs at the DWF House. He didn’t even have a dog allergy. He secretly loved it when women’s voices jumped half an octave upon hearing that he worked at a shelter.

But what Jon did. What Jon did. What Jon did.

“It’s really not so bad,” Jon continued. “You get used to someone else’s incontinence, and sure, he doesn’t really communicate in any way, but –”

“Let’s go for a walk on the beach!” Roland said.

{ X }

The September wind made Roland borrow a windbreaker. Bendiks, wrapped in a pashmina, had chomped the whole time his hands were being arranged in his lap.

Their feet scuffed the dry cool sand. The wheelchair left two sets of parallel lines with Jon’s footprints between them.

They walked until they saw a wooden structure lined with tarp by the dunes.

Four chest-level pine stakes marked a square two feet long. Neon ribbon fluttered atop each stake. Next to that stood a yellow Caution sign with an illustration of a baby sea turtle drawn to look at you no matter where you stand.

Smaller stakes held shin-high tarp walls, creating a twenty-foot runway to direct the hatchlings to the sea.

“I’ve never seen a turtle nest before,” Roland said. “What are the odds that the nest hatches tonight?”

The long dune grass swayed in the breeze, but the sand did not stir.

“Probably about one in a million, but the important thing is that it shouldn’t have to hatch in order for us to be happy. The real trick is to be as happy without the hatch as we would be with the hatch.”

Jon was about to say “Are you ok? You seem to be grimacing,” when they both noticed the moving thing at the same time. A faint pulsation in the sand. Then crumbs of sand clinging to the top of a dark head. Two front flippers wiggled out until they connected into one body, smaller than a frozen pancake.

A second turtle emerged and began the long belly-scrape to the ocean, black against the white sand.

The third turtle veered to the wall of the pre-dug trench, swiping against the tarp.

Flippers, heads, stub tails. For two minutes the square throbbed life. The turtles boiled from the sand. Farther down they inched forward single-file. Their eyes were big and open and they had little beaks, and they left a trail that resembled little pairs of eyebrows.

It had taken an hour of toil to break through the shell and then climb out of the two feet of sand they were buried alive in. Then they limped three-hundred feet only to be thrashed by the breaking waves. Beyond that, many hungry predators expected them. And yet, more emerged.

It was the kind of positively re-orienting moment that causes strangers to high-five.

That causes four hundred volunteers to rise at small, dark hours to comb one mile of beach every morning in search of freshly dug turtle nests so that the Department of Natural Resources can build safety structures with pine stakes and neon ribbon.

That causes this group of unpaid volunteers to feel that they contribute to this endangered species’s survival enough to call themselves “The Mamas and the Papas” and feel enough camaraderie to actually listen to the Mamas and the Papas as they comb 350 miles of coastline every day.

That causes a certain “Papa” R. M. Hinkley to stand before various counsels in order to ensure that during the hatching season, the streetlights are turned off, so that the hatchlings won’t be tempted to crawl to Highway 135, mistaking the sodium light for the moonlight reflecting off the waves.

That causes Dale Smerg to compromise his virtually ideal position of artist-with-state-employee-benefits by giving the baby turtle on the official caution sign a cartoonishly sad expression, knowing that his sign is the last vestige against harming these “little guys.”

That causes Nanette Pipperton, Special Education Teacher at nearby Oceanview Middle School, to devote two-thirds of her curriculum to fashioning paper mache turtles, inviting a marine biologist to speak on the importance of recycling, and the students’ subsequent creation of posters and donation baskets, encouraging you to “shell out for those in shells.”

That causes Nanette to take the children to the beach, every night for weeks if necessary, to witness the hatch, and whose bus was now pulling into the beach parking area.

That causes Charlie Andrews, Oceanview Middle Special Ed Alum, who is phenomenal with numbers but who still needs a little work with expressing his feelings, upon seeing the hatch and calculating that odds of survival were a one-in-one-hundred chance for each turtle–to make huge emotional progress by sharing that he thought the odds were “unfair”–and also “a load of cock-sucking ass shit.”

That causes Margaret O’Holahan, Nanette’s teacher’s aide, who drives the bus on the nightly field trips, and who takes two hits from a water bong to repress thoughts of smashing the children with the bus, who, last year, completely baked and seeing the square pine stakes arranged in a square–a square of squares–a perfect square–and the erumpent miracle of life that could only come from such mathematical perfection–that causes Margaret, for a second, to share Numerically Predisposed Charlie Andrews’ awe of numbers.

Nanette Pipperton gasped as she held hands with children and saw the three men (one in a wheelchair!) by the nest. The idea that her initiative to involve the special needs students was becoming a Local Movement caused the words Hope and Progress and Community to inflate in her mind and buoy her spirits.

But when they saw what was happening, Nanette’s scream, the children’s screams, and Margaret’s scream, which was emitted from a system clouded by so much marijuana that the scream was accompanied by face-scratching, woke the seabirds.

For being so recently embryonic, the turtle doesn’t squirt when you stomp it. There’s a blob–yellowish white, but it’s too viscid to squirt. Like a Cadbury egg.

Roland had hopped into the trench. Turtles were much slower and easier than cockroaches.

“You shouldn’t need turtles!” he said. He crawled to the source of the boil. He pushed their heads back into the sand with his thumb. “Can you be happy now? Can you be happy now?”

Bendiks was still parked neatly to the side, the sea breeze rustling a tassel of his pashmina. The sheer volume of the screams, the waves, and the gulls caused a change in Bendiks’s mind.

Years ago, the bath salts had shut down entire quadrants of his brain. As soon as he had smoked it, the Methylenedioxypyrovalerone seeped into his system, eradicating the whole of his mental faculties with the exception of one dendrite–the chalice of a single memory: his mother, back in Latvia, spooning tapioca pudding into his mouth when he was a little boy. That memory had become superimposed on his drug-induced reality. The walls and streets had dripped glistening tapioca pudding. The puppies had been tapioca. His arms, his legs, had become tapioca sheathed in sausage casing. And he had been hungry and emotionally so in need of that comfort. And ever since then, his mind had been nothing but a continuous loop of the three-second memory of the tapioca-laden spoon entering his mouth.

The flexibility of the healing brain and the shrieks on the beach, however, triggered, briefly, another dendrite. And for four seconds, it played before the tapioca loop returned.

Bendiks’s mouth stopped opening and closing:

Pre-bath salts, pre-heroin, pre-codeine, pre-pot, Bendiks had been eight years old in the bathroom at school with his friend, Mihails. Mihails held two cigarettes, stolen from his mom’s purse, exactly parallel in his palm.

“They’ll smell it,” Bendiks had said.

“No they won’t,” said Mihails.

“They’ll know. They’ll smell us.”

“I have mints.”

“What are the chances we’ll be caught?”

“Low. Very low.”

“Like one in a hundred?”

“Like one in a thousand.”

{ X }

IMG_20150219_102737Wm. SAMUEL BRADFORD teaches in Atlanta and is working on a novel. He will present this story at Illinois State University’s 2nd Annual DFW Conference. He wishes to thank Valerie, for convincing him to cut the poo scene; David, for liking the poo scene; SG, for opting to read this over the bible; and Trevor, for responding, with total compassion, to an email from a stranger. Please visit www.wmsamuelbradford.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s