Dad always used to tuck me in, and he'd tell the greatest stories, and we'd read the New York Times together, and sometimes he'd whistle "I Am the Walrus," because that was his favorite song, even though he couldn't explain what it meant, which frustrated me. One thing that was so great was how he could find a mistake in every single article we looked at. Sometimes they were grammar mistakes, sometimes they were mistakes with geography or facts, and sometimes the article just didn't tell the whole story. I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn't have to invent a thing.
When Dad was tucking me in that night, the night before the worst day, I asked if the world was a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. "Excuse me?" "It's just that why does the earth stay in place instead of falling through the universe?" "Is this Oskar I'm tucking in? Has an alien stolen his brain for experimentation?" I said, "We don't believe in aliens." He said, "The earth does fall through the universe. You know that, buddy. It's constantly falling toward the sun. That's what it means to orbit." So I said, "Obviously, but why is there gravity?" He said, "What do you mean why is there gravity?" "What's the reason?" "Who said there had to be a reason?" "No one did, exactly." "My question was rhetorical." "What's that mean?" "It means I wasn't asking it for an answer, but to make a point." "What point?" "That there doesn't have to be a reason." "But if there isn't a reason, then why does the universe exist at all?" "Because of sympathetic conditions." "So then why am I your son?" "Because Mom and I made love, and one of my sperm fertilized one of her eggs." "Excuse me while I regurgitate." "Don't act your age." "Well, what I don't get is why do we exist? I don't mean how, but why." I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, "We exist because we exist." "What the?" "We could imagine all sorts of universes unlike this one, but this is the one that happened."
I understood what he meant, and I didn't disagree with him, but I didn't agree with him either. Just because you're an atheist, that doesn't mean you wouldn't love for things to have reasons for why they are.
I turned on my shortwave radio, and with Dad's help I was able to pick up someone speaking Greek, which was nice. We couldn't understand what he was saying, but we lay there, looking at the glow-in-the-dark constellations on my ceiling, and listened for a while. "Your grandfather spoke Greek," he said. "You mean he speaks Greek," I said. "That's right. He just doesn't speak it here." "Maybe that's him we're listening to." The front page was spread over us like a blanket. There was a picture of a tennis player on his back, who I guess was the winner, but I couldn't really tell if he was happy or sad.
"Dad?" "Yeah?" "Could you tell me a story?" "Sure." "A good one?" "As opposed to all the boring ones I tell." "Right." I tucked my body incredibly close into his, so my nose pushed into his armpit. "And you won't interrupt me?" "I'll try not to." "Because it makes it hard to tell a story." "And it's annoying." "And it's annoying."
The moment before he started was my favorite moment.
"Once upon a time, New York City had a sixth borough." "What's a borough?" "That's what I call an interruption." "I know, but the story won't make any sense to me if I don't know what a borough is." "It's like a neighborhood. Or a collection of neighborhoods." "So if there was once a sixth borough, then what are the five boroughs?" "Manhattan, obviously, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx." "Have I ever been to any of the other boroughs?" "Here we go." "I just want to know." "We went to the Bronx Zoo once, a few years ago. Remember that?" "No." "And we've been to Brooklyn to see the roses at the Botanic Garden." "Have I been to Queens?" "I don't think so." "Have I been to Staten Island?" "No." "Was there really a sixth borough?" "I've been trying to tell you." "No more interruptions. I promise."
From Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, pages 1-15. Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Safran Foer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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