54. You Say “Tomato”

Begin with what you know.

And there followed in the wake of this simple thought . . . nothing. That is to say, once the ripples had dissipated, the metaphorical lake across which this musing puttered returned to its glassy, unexamined state.

Begin with what you know, I tried again, turning and crossing back through the blue exhaust fumes that hung there from my last attempt.

Again, the wake vanished, and there fell upon the earth a silence so complete it absorbed neighboring sounds, a quietude the profundity of which had not been visited upon the universe since the couple of peaceful minutes I assume would have had to have preceded what atheists claim to have been some sort of a Big Bang.

It was no use, and my imaginary 2-stroke, 25-horsepower, blue and white Johnson outboard motor with a Dukakis/Bentsen sticker on the side sputtered and died. I drifted helplessly towards shore.

Dukakis

“Chokorayto, pureezu.”

I know nothing, it occurred to me, as a tree branch brushed my face.

“Sumimasen.”

I am truly a “blank slate,” I thought, recalling something from some class somewhere where somebody was talking about, I assume, how stupid people are.

“Chokorayto, pureeeeezu!”

I looked up. A young man was tapping on the glass, pointing at a vat of brown stuff. His girlfriend giggled through a gauntlet of teeth, the energy requiring her to do so sending her toppling to one side, off her precarious balance atop a pair of five-inch stiletto heels not at all unlike those upon which perambulated the many other young women on dates here at the mall this Saturday afternoon, all of them being led along by sullen young men who loped slowly past storefronts, never raising their eyes from a spot two feet ahead on the Muzak-colored carpet, even when they had to from time to time reach out and grab ahold of their girlfriends to keep them from plunging through a display window or, in the case of this couple in front of me, through a sneeze guard and into a vat of chocolate ice cream.

“Chocolate ice cream!” I cried, finally understanding.

“Chokorayto.”

“Chocolate.”

“Chokorayto.”

“Chocolate.”

It was like some pronunciation activity gone horribly wrong, which is to say it was like a pronunciation activity.

31“Chokorayto,” my boss pronounced, shoving me to one side and attending to my first customer on my first shift at my new position as assistant scooper at SahteeWahng, which is Japanese for 31, which is Japanese for Baskin-Robbins, which is where I wound up after being discharged from my teaching position at Joyfull English for failing a Japanese language test designed to weed out foreign teachers who did not fall into the school’s acceptable band of competency below which it was felt they would have difficulty with basic functions such as getting dressed or riding the bus and above which it was feared suggested the kind of disruptive desire for independence and self-determination the yakuza has traditionally nipped in the bud by taking away the passports of the foreign woman they bring here to work as strippers and prostitutes.

I was below the band.

In fact, I was so far below this band that the school felt compelled to staple a gratuitously unkind and not particularly helpful note to my test results informing me of a study done in which 100 rhesus monkeys were given the same test, and answered the questions by hurling their feces at a large reproduction of the answer sheet wrapped in plastic. They all scored higher than me.

It was hard not to be discouraged.

“Begin with what you know,” I heard out loud this time.

It was the assistant scooper who was put in charge of my training. He spoke English exceptionally well. “I never lived abroad or anything,” he told me earlier that day. “I just pick up languages really easily.” I smiled, imagining him being pushed out of a high window.

“Begin with what you know,” he said again, a little nervously this time because I had that creepy inward looking smile.

“But I don’t know anything.”

“You know ‘chocolate.’”

“Yeah, so?”

Chokorayto.”

“What’s that?”

“Chocolate.”

“Chocolate what?”

Chokorayto.”

Chokorayto,” I repeated.

“Right!”

“Right what?”

He struck me across the face, and a cheer went up among the line of customers behind me.

Chokorayto,” he said, “is chocolate.”

Chokorayto,” I ventured uncertainly, “is . . .”

“Chocolate!” he finished for me in that happy and encouraging voice teachers and animal trainers use to conceal their impatience.

“Chocolate!” I parroted fearfully.

“And baaahneeeraaah is . . .” he continued, desperately stretching the word out and staring into my eyes, as if trying to will the answer into my head.

I gazed blankly back and watched this will slowly drain.

He clamped his upper teeth to his bottom lip and started to make a long v sound.

“Vvvv . . .”

I wondered why.

“Vaaaa . . .”

I waited patiently.

“nnniii . . .”

Where was he going with this?

“lllaaa . . .”

“Vanilla?” I offered.

“Right!” he cried. “Now you’ve got it!”

I smiled, though I didn’t know what I had got.

“Begin with what you know!” he cheered.

“Vanilla!” I cried, sensing this would please him.

“And what is it in Japanese?” he asked, jumping up and down with joy.

“What is it in Japanese!” I cried, jumping along with him now, pumping my fist into the air.

He stopped jumping.

“What is it?” he asked again.

“What?”

“Vanilla,” he said. “What is vanilla in Japanese?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Vanilla,” he repeated, “In Japanese. You do know.”

He looked into my eyes with the same sort of desperately pathetic hope a child pokes a bloated, floating goldfish. I just bobbed in the water, and his face sank.

Baaah,” he groaned.

Baaah,” I repeated.

neee,” he continued.

neee,” I rejoined.

raaah,” he concluded.

raaah,” I followed.

“So,” he said, “vanilla in Japanese is . . .”

“Delicious!” I cried, and grabbed his hands to do the jumping up and down thing again, and that was when I was hit in the side of the face with something brown but not chocolate. I turned in the direction from which is was thrown only to see, for the first time outside of a zoo, a rhesus monkey.

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