Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p.1
Jonathan Safran Foer
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Why I’m Not Where You Are 5/21/63
The Only Animal
Why I’m Not Where You Are 5/21/63
Why I’m Not Where You Are 4/12/78
The Sixth Borough
Alive and Alone
Why I’m Not Where You Are 9/11/03
A Simple Solution to an Impossible Problem
Beautiful and True
BOOKS BY JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
A Convergence of Birds
Everything Is Illuminated
(with Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Serra)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
my idea of beautiful
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’étais pas moi!”
What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.
And also, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt?
My first jujitsu class was three and a half months ago. Self-defense was something that I was extremely curious about, for obvious reasons, and Mom thought it would be good for me to have a physical activity besides tambourining, so my first jujitsu class was three and a half months ago. There were fourteen kids in the class, and we all had on neat white robes. We practiced bowing, and then we were all sitting down Native American style, and then Sensei Mark asked me to go over to him. “Kick my privates,” he told me. That made me feel self-conscious. “Excusez-moi?” I told him. He spread his legs and told me, “I want you to kick my privates as hard as you can.” He put his hands at his sides, and took a breath in, and closed his eyes, and that’s how I knew that actually he meant business. “Jose,” I told him, and inside I was thinking, What the? He told me, “Go on, guy. Destroy my privates.” “Destroy your privates?” With his eyes still closed he cracked up a lot and said, “You couldn’t destroy my privates if you tried. That’s what’s going on here. This is a demonstration of the well-trained body’s ability to absorb a direct blow. Now destroy my privates.” I told him, “I’m a pacifist,” and since most people my age don’t know what that means, I turned around and told the others, “I don’t think it’s right to destroy people’s privates. Ever.” Sensei Mark said, “Can I ask you something?” I turned back around and told him, “‘Can I ask you something?’ is asking me something.” He said, “Do you have dreams of becoming a jujitsu master?” “No,” I told him, even though I don’t have dreams of running the family jewelry business anymore. He said, “Do you want to know how a jujitsu student becomes a jujitsu master?” “I want to know everything,” I told him, but that isn’t true anymore either. He told me, “A jujitsu student becomes a jujitsu master by destroying his master’s privates.” I told him, “That’s fascinating.” My last jujitsu class was three and a half months ago.
I desperately wish I had my tambourine with me now, because even after everything I’m still wearing heavy boots, and sometimes it helps to play a good beat. My most impressive song that I can play on my tambourine is “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” by Nicolai Rimsky-Kor-sakov, which is also the ring tone I downloaded for the cell phone I got after Dad died. It’s pretty amazing that I can play “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” because you have to hit incredibly fast in parts, and that’s extremely hard for me, because I don’t really have wrists yet. Ron offered to buy me a five-piece drum set. Money can’t buy me love, obviously, but I asked if it would have Zildjian cymbals. He said, “Whatever you want,” and then he took my yo-yo off my desk and started to walk the dog with it. I know he just wanted to be friendly, but it made me incredibly angry. “Yo-yo moi!” I told him, grabbing it back. What I really wanted to tell him was “You’re not my dad, and you never will be.”
Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore? For my ninth birthday last year, Grandma gave me a subscription to National Geographic, which she calls “the National Geographic.” She also gave me a white blazer, because I only wear white clothes, and it’s too big to wear so it will last me a long time. She also gave me Grandpa’s camera, which I loved for two reasons. I asked why he didn’t take it with him when he left her. She said, “Maybe he wanted you to have it.” I said, “But I was negative-thirty years old.” She said, “Still.” Anyway, the fascinating thing was that I read in National Geographic that there are more people alive now than have died in all of human history. In other words, if everyone wanted to play Hamlet at once, they couldn’t, because there aren’t enough skulls!
So what about skyscrapers for dead people that were built down? They could be underneath the skyscrapers for living people that are built up. You could bury people one hundred floors down, and a whole dead world could be underneath the living one. Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place. So if you wanted to go to the ninety-fifth floor, you’d just press the 95 button and the ninety-fifth floor would come to you. Also, that could be extremely useful, because if you’re on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground, and everyone could be safe, even if you left your birdseed shirt at home that day.
I’ve only been in a limousine twice ever. The first time was terrible, even though the limousine was wonderful. I’m not allowed to watch TV at home, and I’m not allowed to watch TV in limousines either, but it was still neat that there was a TV there. I asked if we could go by school, so Toothpaste and The Minch could see me in a limousine. Mom said that school wasn’t on the way, and we couldn’t be late to the cemetery. “Why not?” I asked, which I actually thought was a good question, because if you think about
Even though I was trying hard for it not to, it was annoying me how Grandma kept touching me, so I climbed into the front seat and poked the driver’s shoulder until he gave me some attention. “What. Is. Your. Designation.” I asked in Stephen Hawking voice. “Say what?” “He wants to know your name,” Grandma said from the back seat. He handed me his card.
I handed him my card and told him, “Greetings. Gerald. I. Am. Oskar.” He asked me why I was talking like that. I told him, “Oskar’s CPU is a neural-net processor. A learning computer. The more contact he has with humans, the more he learns.” Gerald said, “O” and then he said “K.” I couldn’t tell if he liked me or not, so I told him, “Your sunglasses are one hundred dollars.” He said, “One seventy-five.” “Do you know a lot of curse words?” “I know a couple.” “I’m not allowed to use curse words.” “Bummer.” “What’s ‘bummer’?” “It’s a bad thing.” “Do you know ‘shit’?” “That’s a curse, isn’t it?” “Not if you say ‘shiitake.’ ” “Guess not.” “Succotash my Balzac, dipshiitake.” Gerald shook his head and cracked up a little, but not in the bad way, which is at me. “I can’t even say ‘hair pie,’” I told him, “unless I’m talking about an actual pie made out of rabbits. Cool driving gloves.” “Thanks.” And then I thought of something, so I said it. “Actually, if limousines were extremely long, they wouldn’t need drivers. You could just get in the back seat, walk through the limousine, and then get out of the front seat, which would be where you wanted to go. So in this situation, the front seat would be at the cemetery.” “And I would be watching the game right now.” I patted his shoulder and told him, “When you look up ‘hilarious’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of you.”
In the back seat, Mom was holding something in her purse. I could tell that she was squeezing it, because I could see her arm muscles. Grandma was knitting white mittens, so I knew they were for me, even though it wasn’t cold out. I wanted to ask Mom what she was squeezing and why she had to keep it hidden. I remember thinking that even if I were suffering hypothermia, I would never, ever put on those mittens.
“Now that I’m thinking about it,” I told Gerald, “they could make an incredibly long limousine that had its back seat at your mom’s VJ and its front seat at your mausoleum, and it would be as long as your life.” Gerald said, “Yeah, but if everyone lived like that, no one would ever meet anyone, right?” I said, “So?”
Mom squeezed, and Grandma knitted, and I told Gerald, “I kicked a French chicken in the stomach once,” because I wanted to make him crack up, because if I could make him crack up, my boots could be a little lighter. He didn’t say anything, probably because he didn’t hear me, so I said, “I said I kicked a French chicken in the stomach once.” “Huh?” “It said, ‘Oeuf’” “What is that?” “It’s a joke. Do you want to hear another, or have you already had un oeuf?” He looked at Grandma in the mirror and said, “What’s he saying?” She said, “His grandfather loved animals more than he loved people.” I said, “Get it? Oeuf?”
I crawled back, because it’s dangerous to drive and talk at the same time, especially on the highway, which is what we were on. Grandma started touching me again, which was annoying, even though I didn’t want it to be. Mom said, “Honey,” and I said, “Oui” and she said, “Did you give a copy of our apartment key to the mailman?” I thought it was so weird that she would mention that then, because it didn’t have to do with anything, but I think she was looking for something to talk about that wasn’t the obvious thing. I said, “The mailperson is a mailwoman.” She nodded, but not exactly at me, and she asked if I’d given the mailwoman a key. I nodded yes, because I never used to lie to her before everything happened. I didn’t have a reason to. “Why did you do that?” she asked. So I told her, “Stan—” And she said, “Who?” And I said, “Stan the doorman. Sometimes he runs around the corner for coffee, and I want to be sure all of my packages get to me, so I thought, if Alicia—” “Who?” “The mail-woman. If she had a key, she could leave things inside our door.” “But you can’t give a key to a stranger.” “Fortunately Alicia isn’t a stranger.” “We have lots of valuable things in our apartment.” “I know. We have really great things.” “Sometimes people who seem good end up being not as good as you might have hoped, you know? What if she had stolen your things?” “She wouldn’t.” “But what if?” “But she wouldn’t.” “Well, did she give you a key to her apartment?” She was obviously mad at me, but I didn’t know why. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Or if I had, I didn’t know what it was. And I definitely didn’t mean to do it.
I moved over to Grandma’s side of the limousine and told Mom, “Why would I need a key to her apartment?” She could tell that I was zipping up the sleeping bag of myself, and I could tell that she didn’t really love me. I knew the truth, which was that if she could have chosen, it would have been my funeral we were driving to. I looked up at the limousine’s sunroof, and I imagined the world before there were ceilings, which made me wonder: Does a cave have no ceiling, or is a cave all ceiling? “Maybe you could check with me next time, OK?” “Don’t be mad at me,” I said, and I reached over Grandma and opened and closed the door’s lock a couple of times. “I’m not mad at you,” she said. “Not even a little?” “No.” “Do you still love me?” It didn’t seem like the perfect time to mention that I had already made copies of the key for the deliverer from Pizza Hut, and the UPS person, and also the nice guys from Greenpeace, so they could leave me articles on manatees and other animals that are going extinct when Stan is getting coffee. “I’ve never loved you more.”
“Mom?” “Yes?” “I have a question.” “OK.” “What are you squeezing in your purse?” She pulled out her hand and opened it, and it was empty. “Just squeezing,” she said.
Even though it was an incredibly sad day, she looked so, so beautiful. I kept trying to figure out a way to tell her that, but all of the ways I thought of were weird and wrong. She was wearing the bracelet that I made for her, and that made me feel like one hundred dollars. I love making jewelry for her, because it makes her happy, and making her happy is another one of my raisons d’être.
It isn’t anymore, but for a really long time it was my dream to take over the family jewelry business. Dad constantly used to tell me I was too smart for retail. That never made sense to me, because he was smarter than me, so if I was too smart for retail, then he really must have been too smart for retail. I told him that. “First of all,” he told me, “I’m not smarter than you, I’m more knowledgeable than you, and that’s only because I’m older than you. Parents are always more knowledgeable than their children, and children are always smarter than their parents.” “Unless the child is a mental retard,” I told him. He didn’t have anything to say about that. “You said ‘first of all,’ so what’s second of all?” “Second of all, if I’m so smart, then why am I in retail?” “That’s true,” I said. And then I thought of something: “But wait a minute, it won’t be the family jewelry business if no one in the family is running it.” He told me, “Sure it will. It’ll just be someone else’s family.” I asked, “Well, what about our family? Will we open a new business?” He said, “We’ll open something.” I thought about that my second time in a limousine, when the renter and I were on our way to dig up Dad’s empty coffin.
A great game that Dad and I would sometimes play on Sundays was Reconnaissance Expedition. Sometimes the Reconnaissance Expeditions were extremely simple, like when he told me to bring back something from every decade in the twentieth century—I was clever and brought back a rock—
I spent all day walking around the park, looking for something that might tell me something, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking for. I went up to people and asked if they knew anything that I should know, because sometimes Dad would design Reconnaissance Expeditions so I would have to talk to people. But everyone I went up to was just like, What the? I looked for clues around the reservoir. I read every poster on every lamppost and tree. I inspected the descriptions of the animals at the zoo. I even made kite-fliers reel in their kites so I could examine them, although I knew it was improbable. But that’s how tricky Dad could be. There was nothing, which would have been unfortunate, unless nothing was a clue. Was nothing a clue?
That night we ordered General Tso’s Gluten for dinner and I noticed that Dad was using a fork, even though he was perfect with chopsticks. “Wait a minute!” I said, and stood up. I pointed at his fork. “Is that fork a clue?” He shrugged his shoulders, which to me meant it was a major clue. I thought: Fork, fork. I ran to my laboratory and got my metal detector out of its box in the closet. Because I’m not allowed to be in the park alone at night, Grandma went with me. I started at the Eighty-sixth Street entrance and walked in extremely precise lines, like I was one of the Mexican guys who mow the lawn, so I wouldn’t miss anything. I knew the insects were loud because it was summer, but I didn’t hear them because my earphones covered my ears. It was just me and the metal underground.