I flag down an ambling hiker and ask him to explain how one might get from (a) the place where he and I now stand to (b) the nearest town. He pulls hard on the leather strings of his cap and tells me there is a mid-sized exurban hamlet only a short distance off, perhaps two miles away over a series of hills. This is all very well, but what I’m really interested in is the national language. I wave my Dictaphone in the man’s face as his words fall carelessly out after one another in a kind of shit-kicker demotic. He doesn’t seem to care one whit or another whether his speech comes off with particular panache, and this is fine by me: I am, after all, here to gather whatever colloquial and illicit quirks I can. A great many of us feel it highly important that a study or defense of our national language begin from the particulars of the spoken thing itself, the living fact undergirding the static and well-lit face of our national language de jure. It is important our methods account for the pastoral. No good can possibly come of a theory of the national language that does not factor in the bucolic or the green. Such, anyway, is our feeling at the moment. We are constantly revising and reversing methodological tact, as the national language is today vital despite its relative nascence. Its ideal speakers and listeners do not now exist, but it has become necessary to believe in them as a sort of rough-and-ready makeshift. The national language is as yet chockfull of such legal fictions. Presently, the hiker stops to catch his breath, and I summarily thank him for his time. He throws a wave, collects himself, and returns to his marching song off around the next bend. A quiet beat. My Dictaphone, pad, and pencil are each returned to their respective holsters and I myself am on my way, bobbing under the weight of my pack and gear, eyes alive. The national language waits for no man.
“The national language has to be plastic,” Mort Katz tells me. “It has to have a sort of plasticity to it. If the thing can make the jump from (first) the oral storytelling tradition, through (later) vaudeville and minstrelsy, into (now) my act… Your basic, implastic language just couldn’t manage that kind of thing.”
We enjoy a drink together most evenings, typically in the same deeply salmon-colored hotel bar where Mort performs on weeknights. He delivers this last, above spiel straight into his cocktail before popping the olive into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. I consult Morty now and again on matters of the national language, but his opinion is inexpert and idiosyncratic—though this is, more often than not, his opinion’s value. I sigh into my seat and admit that he is certainly right on the plasticity count. We kvetch awhile. My work occasionally stands to benefit from the insights of a thoughtful amateur. The hotel barroom is full of various kitsch relics: a dusty fortune-telling machine sits in the nearest corner; the tiny span of the stage is opposite a wall-length mirror; thin-register muzak filters over the whole scene. Scanning, I accidentally lock eyes with a sullen and pockmarked teenager regarding the two of us from the far end of the bar. Mort tells me that this is Jerry, that Jerry is sixteen years old, that he works the counter at a local smoked meat restaurant, that he sells one-liners to Morty and others among the Catskills comic entertainers who come to perform these resorts each summer. Jerry makes six dollars a pop for a real zinger.
“Jerry’s mad at me because I’ve suggested we don’t settle until I can rest easy we’re dealing with a sure gag.”
“That sounds reasonable”
“I get why he’s angry. It sets a bad precedent on his end of things.”
Jerry, simmering, nurses his tomato juice. He stares straight at us.
Morty and I return to matters of the national language. He too claims proficiency, though he believes himself a stronger reader than speaker. On Mort’s more intellectually enterprising nights, he will retire to his upstairs suite with Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, a spine-shot copy of Bouvard and Pecuchet, maybe a volume of Averroes, or some lighter detective fiction. Any serious student of the national language could easily dispense with such a pile. On other nights a fan might stand Mort a beer or two, and events will take a different course entirely.
I come to Morty primarily on questions of cadence, style, and usage. It is fair to say that he is far better traveled that anyone I know. I will often avail myself of this fact by asking him about regional pronunciations, whether or not there’s a river in Belgrade, what the weather is up to today. Every now and then, particularly on matters of principle, he is spectacularly wrong. On such occasions I let Mort believe that we are agreeing to disagree.
I reach into my wallet, place two creased bills on the table, and make to leave.
“Quick, alright. While I have you here: My wife and have been happily married for 5 years. We’ve been together 15, but they say a person spends a third of his life sleeping!”
I’m not much one for jokes.
“Jerry. Jerry! This piece of shit doesn’t work!”
The national language is still developing, is only yet embryonic. It needs to be nudged and helped along here and there. All there is, sometimes, to do is find someplace the promise of an ember and gently blow. At such points the national language has to be massaged through its various pangs. It requires one’s work be done on hands and knees
“Good job,” I will now and then tell some young practitioner of the national language. On these sorts of days I feel my work very much worthwhile.
Or, I’ll tell others: “That’s a good effort. But you’ve not quite done it. Here, allow me…”
But it’s when you see somebody truly butchering the national language. These are the times I find I become so angry I hardly recognize myself. A part of me wants to reach right into a person’s mouth, grab his or her wriggling tongue, and take them, step-by-step, gently but firmly, through the whole business. Of course such things simply are not done. Stiff lip, I will at times remind myself. At this point I tend to become flustered and quite red in the face. You can’t expect just anyone to understand the national language in all its innumerable fine nuances, but there are some blemishes that will resist buffing to the bitter end. I do not think the things I ask for are excessive. If a person would just sit down (right there) and listen to me—who knows? perhaps I have something to say—we might just all be able to get on. Perhaps we could all stand to learn a little something about one another, and learn a little something about the national language along the way. I pull on my mustache and start accidentally to whistle through the gap in my teeth. These teachable moments don’t have to be so painful.
I have a tendency to get overexcited.
Hortensia—the nearly famous activist—explains to me that, though she remains opposed to the nation as such, there can be sometimes a germ of radicality harbored in the nationalistic itch. She is interested in such a tactical nationalism, the nationalism of long-game ends and means. It is at such a point that our interests become imbricated with one another, hers and mine. This though, of course, the national language’s worth is immediate, invaluable in my own estimation. It is a precious thing. She is significantly less optimistic, and I find this lack of spirit indicative of a dark demeanor. This is not the only thing that’s dark about Hortensia. Her hair is dark. Her complexion suggests that she has spent the winter somewhere warmer than our current clime, lending her skin a dark or duskish effect. She dresses in a palette much darker than my own. But, then, mine is the official uniform of a proudly sworn office—nothing dark about that.
My hope here is that this interview will offer insight into the social fact of the national language. I want to use everything. The majority of my hapless colleagues’ accounts so often fail to integrate a properly social perspective—harping on and on in the most ideational and abstract terms about the national language. The national language is ideational and abstract, but it’s also social. This week I’m interested in the national language’s social moorings. We talk further. Hortensia and I do not always understand one another. We are reduced in these moments to intimations and to dancing around a given subject. Sometimes the national language fails us. At such moments she will flair wide her nostrils, or I will brandish my spray mace and try to look menacing. This suggests we’ve each been brought up to fear the worst of one another. My breath is near opaque it is so unreasonably cold out. The sun is high in the afternoon sky, and we are making good progress.
At basecamp, I unpack my Dictaphone and play a super-cut of my favorite research demos backwards and frontwards on a miniature reel-to-reel. She tells me now about John Ball and then Danton. I explain to her a chart I carry detailing the subjunctive. Shortly, after perhaps 40 minutes of this exchange, the reel-to-reel machine misfires and sends tape flying in every odd direction. That’s okay. I’ve made extensive notes on the content of these particular recordings.
I see Morty with greater infrequency. At first he is hard to find, and now he is altogether absent. No one is entirely certain as to where he could have gone. This is unexpected; Morty Katz has always, famously, been the sort to leave a note. I raise a minor sound about the situation, but it seems that the barman, hotel staff, and booker know even less about the whole affair than I do— and the fact that they are currently enjoying their off-peak season means there is little incentive to follow up as to just where their comic might be.
Jerry has noiselessly taken over the man’s timeslot, performing weeknights in an oversized, narrow-lapel jacket that looks very much like something (but no one particular thing) that Mort himself might have worn. Jerry delivers his act into a hissing microphone and makes a big to-do about the fact that he writes his own material. He has a blonde crew cut and square-set jaw, pacing all the while up and down the short-spanned stage. He looks both less sullen and less pockmarked than I remember. Curious. I take a barstool and am careful not to sit on the coattails of my short-pants suit.
Jerry is, adolescent gawkiness aside, a consummate showman. He moves seamlessly from gesture to gesture and hits his beats with unlikely precision. Here the fabric of one polyester pant leg swishes lightly against the other, making a synthetic noise. There he disarms any smart remarks about his size or shape with a knowing aside. There is certainly nothing dark about Jerry. He is well-lit, fresh-faced of late, and seems to have settled comfortably into the polished sheen of respectable bearing that the public demands of her performers. Now he pauses for a brief second. Jerry stands in the plumb center of a snugly framed spotlight. The shadow he throws against the stage’s rose-pink curtain is pure accident—its play and cast, that is, have nothing to with the aboveboard fact of the show itself. A well-cast silhouette is not something a boy like this throws by design. He makes, for the few of us sitting in this hotel bar, passing entertainment.
Though I sometimes recognize in Jerry the flourish or tinge of a Morty Katz mannerism, he is not the genuine article.
The cultural identity of Comfrey is lent the town by the rustic, no-nonsense homes that irregularly dot the surrounding countryside. These buildings briefly inspired a mid-century genre of landscape (e.g. “Seen from Comfrey”) that was roundly enjoyed by then-contemporary urban audiences—with the down-to-earth buildings featured often as a compositional quick-fix, catching the eye and drawing it away from any lazy or mottled block incurred in a plein air painter’s working too hastily to turn out a canvas. The trick in those days, then, was always to get to the houses. Fischer, a master of the region, could always be heard near dusk haranguing his students to get to the houses before the sun set.
My morning’s ambling hiker has directed me well.
I make my way through the main thoroughfare and note both the slight and the slump of the town center’s older structures. Every one of the structures is in fact quite old, and I’m certain that in each there is at least one major load-bearing beam or column that has been seriously compromised—any contractor could surely find in here a worm-chewed girder or in there a joist soaked all the way through with wet rot. The whole effect in walking down the Comfrey drag is that of an atmosphere of slump, and this I write up as parcel and symptom of the generalized slump that has become lately endemic to the national language proper. The national language’s beams, columns, girders, and joists are not mere metaphor.
It has been an exceptionally scorching summer, and I’ve been made to understand that many of Comfrey’s farmers are worried the overbearing sun will wreck this year’s yield. No one knows just what will happen if the paddy field harvest is ruined, although there has been intense speculation on the policy wonk end. It’s possible that there will be a run on government notes. It’s possible that the townspeople will refuse to take their produce to market, that they will take to the streets against their better interest and security, that they will move to recall the magistrates. Due preparation, I’m assured, has been made against the more extreme of these contingencies. A passing eighteen-wheeler raises dust and kicks up a cloud of small rocks, which shoot and rattle against the storefronts. I cough a bit in the driver’s chalky wake as he blows his air horn at street vendors diving out of his path. Everything here has been bleached and baked.
A mid-sized crowd of square-built field hands are assembled on the central square.
“Screw, guy,” one tells me when I approach him for a quick interview.
“Yeah—beat it,” says another, hulking tough.
I ask aloud why the group is gathered here today, and a larger man still yet replies with an obscene gesture. Unhelpful. I’m soon answered in any case as a general hush falls over the rabble while at its center an adolescent blonde ascends an overturned crate and soon commands the crowd’s attention. I recognize Jerry immediately as he swells now with a new confidence, as he begins to play expertly upon the enthusiasm of his listeners. He waves his arms. He and his audience begin to reciprocally spur one another. The Comfrey rice paddy workers listen rapt as he details point-by-point their every grievance and shakes his finger in rhetorical admonition at the people towards whom these grievances are addressed. I am momentarily convinced that Jerry and I have become locked in long eye contact, that he even shares with me a knowing wink. There is not a doubt in my mind that Jerry has now entered his element. The boy speaks with hard won fluency while, against the sun low now on the horizon, rustic Comfrey houses frame his figure in silhouette on either side. I reach for the reassuring weight of my holstered Dictaphone and nervously finger the device.
I see a full-figured man, unkempt but otherwise a dead ringer for Mort Katz, standing now at the crowd’s periphery, no further than ten or so feet to my immediate left. I call Mort’s name in a hoarse whisper just under the measured drawl of Jerry’s speech but fail to gain the man’s attention.
“Mort—” I try again, loud enough to confirm that he is willfully ignoring me.
Jerry continues to string together turns of phrase altogether striking for his age, and the field hands’ heads begin to discover a sort of rhythm as they all nod in first concession and then assent along to his points. When the Comfrey fieldworkers begin to take on such a group manner, they assume a startling aspect.
“Morty!” I carelessly shout and throw a wave.
A prompt silence falls over the crowd and all heads turn towards me. All heads, that is, apart from the head of the man who looks like Mort Katz, whose own eyes remained fixed on blonde Jerry, himself now giving me his full and unmistakable notice.
There is an uncomfortable beat.
Jerry plays the pregnant moment masterfully, and I know straight away that I am going to be toyed with. The corner of his lip shoots cruelly askance, and he play-acts considering me up and down from under the corner of his black-brimmed hat. Slowly, he raises an arm, and the dumbshit farmers of Comfrey look to him for their cue. Everyone knows what’s going to happen. He drops his hand, and, in an instant, I am set upon. There are fists and kicks all over. I fall to the dirt and am dragged, gut-wrenchingly nauseated from number and force of blows, in a dozen directions at once. There is a quick series of steel-toed knocks to my ribs and an open-handed crack across my jaw while somewhere there exists a part of me that knows I am bleeding and will likely bleed far more. Through the pain, I hear far off teenaged Jerry give a sharp whistle, and the Comfrey hirelings are drawn away. Bits of my uniform are strewn around haphazardly, and the leaves of my notebook paper a good area of the dusty ground.
I am pulled to my feet as the boy gives me a condescending look that says plenty clear that he has always taken me for a jerk. Together we all endure another strategically overlong pause as the boy mulls what to do with me.
“String him up,” Jerry finally sneers, and the man who looks like Mort Katz moves to comply.
It is on such occasions that I wonder whether I’ve learned anything at all about the national language.
Drew Dickerson is a writer living in Chicago. He has written previously at *The Onion *and *ClickHole*. You can find him on Twitter at @DrewLDickerson.