Because I have what some might consider a slightly exaggerated estimation of the power and reach of the U.S. government, believing it for instance to count among its many creeping tendrils an institution as seemingly innocuous as the Chicago Public Library, I wrote with my left hand and did not include my return address.
You never know.
I remember scoffing at the leaflets being passed out downtown by unkempt, shifty-eyed university students about the U.S. government’s illegal sale of arms in one part of the world to finance an illegal war in another part of the world until it turned out to be so painfully true that even the conservative Chicago Tribune found itself having to report on the Iran-Contra scandal.
You just never know.
CIA-orchestrated coups d’état abroad, FBI wiretaps and surveillance at home, even the donut-munching Chicago Police Department running a Red Squad with informants planted in every group to the left of the Boy Scouts.
“You really really never know,” I said out loud, looking back and forth from the scrap of paper to the envelope. “All strangers are cops,” I added absent-mindedly, repeating a refrain I had learned from one of those unkempt university students.
I finished and held up the envelope onto which I had just spent half an hour copying the address, the entire time with my tongue sticking out like Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, the difference being that Michael regularly scores 30 to 40 points a game and I am not only incapable of scoring 30 to 40 points even in an entire season but am also apparently unable to form letters with my left hand, because despite my best tongue-jutting efforts I somehow managed to transliterate a simple address on Chicago’s north side into something more closely resembling Farsi, and although there were probably some native Farsi speakers at the Chicago Post Office, perhaps some who had fled Iran during the CIA-sponsored dictatorship of the Shah, I could not be sure this was actually Farsi or just some swirly script that Americans nervous over the possibility of retribution for their government’s misdeeds might mistake for Farsi. or if indeed it was Farsi was in fact a transliteration of the address or something else, like a recipe for chicken soup, a bus schedule, or the Lord’s Prayer.
You never know.
It did seem, at any rate, that the odds were stacked against this address being deciphered and the envelope being delivered to that Post Office just off Montrose Ave. where I borrowed Teach Yourself Japanese more than a year ago, three weeks after which I officially entered a life of crime by not returning the book before the date stamped in smudgy black ink on the inside front cover, and, having continued to not return the book for such a long time, was now most likely in violation of some very serious law that may even involve mandatory sentencing, a truly odious encroachment on American jurisprudence, I thought in an attempt to drive off fear with indignation, that seemed to both violate the divine right of a judge to employ his keen powers of discrimination on the unique particulars of each case without being bound by sentencing restrictions dictated by a democratic legislative body, and at the same time trample on the rights of private citizens to influence that keen discrimination with bribery and/or threats of violence.
In a rare and unfamiliar stroke of genius I covered the squiggly address with glue and slapped the scrap of paper directly onto the envelope. If it gets traced back to anyone, I thought, it will get traced back to that parsnip-complected Presbyterian apparatchik at the U.S. Consulate, the guy who refused to slide the phone book under the bullet-proof window to let me see the library address, and who, after first saying he was not allowed to use Consulate office supplies to write the address out for me, did finally scratch out the address when he noticed an older lady staff member winking at me from her cubicle. He pushed the paper roughly through the slot at the bottom of the window while muttering something about bothersome taxpayers and oversexed middle-aged women, the latter remark I suppose referring to that lady staffer, who was now blowing me kisses and holding up a large paper with her phone number on it.
You never know, and you can never be too careful. I slid the soft, worn, incredibly overdue copy of Teach Yourself Japanese into the large envelope. Then, I folded the letter and slipped that in too. The letter did not look like Farsi at all, but neither did it look like my handwriting. I had written it out carefully with my right hand and divided it into five parts which I then had five students from five different classes copy separately. I furthermore chose students with extremely low English proficiency, which was not difficult because even those students who came to my class with a relatively high level of English, quickly worsened under my tutelage. Given these precautions, I was reasonably certain that the letter that I eventually reassembled and glued onto a single larger piece of paper could not be traced to the samples of handwriting I am certain the U.S. government has for each of its citizens and keeps on shelves next to those citizens’ corresponding tissue samples in an underground bunker in West Dakota, a top secret state not shown on maps that is located between North Dakota and Montana, and is home to an extensive network of bunkers housing intelligence gathering operations, missile silos, and the original recipe for Coca Cola.
You never know.
I put my gunte gloves back on and slid the letter out to check it one final time. I read it aloud but very softly so that my neighbor Nishihara-san could not hear through a wall so thin you could make out shapes. I liked Nishihara-san, but believed he had probably cut a deal with the intelligence branch of the U.S. Occupation Forces shortly after he returned from The Philippines, where he claimed to have been part of a medical division that wandered about providing free checkups, passing out candy, and performing random acts of kindness.
The letter read:
Dear Chicago Public Library,
I am returning this book, Teach Yourself Japanese. I am aware that it is a bit late, but this is due to circumstances beyond my control that I cannot go into at this point in time.
You will notice there is no return address on this envelope. There is no use trying to find me. I am in a safe location beyond the reach of the U.S. government and its many agents, such as the CIA, the Chicago Public Library, the FBI, and those one-hour photo-developing places at the grocery stores.
I do regret keeping this book out so long and depriving the Chicago reading public from teaching themselves Japanese, as it appears this will be the language of the 21st century.
In closing, let me urge you to reduce late book fees, expand library hours, and not meddle in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union.
John Q. Public (not my real name)
– – –
(The kiss-blowing, phone-number holding woman described here is almost certainly our own Mrs. Doyle. And since the only other male staff member here is the wheat-colored, or perhaps barley-hued, Mr. Kikuchi, it would seem this Trombone fellow refers to me when he writes of a “parsnip-complected Presbyterian apparatchik at the U.S. Consulate.” Honestly, to disparage a man’s religion so, and then to drag into the mix a perfectly good vegetable known for its fiber soluble content, is quite simply beyond the pale.
Naturally, I have searched my memory for some recollection of the incident described in this passage, but simply cannot recall any such meeting with this bellyaching malcontent. Seems to have been just another day in my long service to the United States of America and its citizenry, which unfortunately includes far too many pathetic whiners like this Trombone character who, if I had my way, would be marched at gun point into the annoyingly friendly arms of our neighbors to the north, or into the deserts of our southern neighbors still surly about us taking bits of their land. Okay, large tracts of land. –Consular Ofc. Dirkins)