A Short Story by Zoltan James
In the Eisenhower years of the 1950s, when the American Dream appeared within grasp for more Americans than ever before, Indianapolis Smith grew up. He was a geeky, smart, shy white kid in the ghetto of Beverly Hills, California. In the schlummy neighborhood of his youth, the price of houses hovered in the $750,000 range. And, when he realized how different his Ozzie-and-Harriet-like-family lived in contrast to the rich kids on the other side of Sunset Boulevard, he for some unknown reason began to feel deprived. Despite the trappings and the promise of the American Dream the gene of confidence eluded him.
And adding insult to his already fragile ego, he was, in his mind, forced to walk to school everyday under cheery sunshine along a forlorn sidewalk lined with tall leafy palm trees and manicured lawns the shade of lime Jell-O. As he walked head down and shoulder stooped, feeling sorry for himself, thinking only of his poor existence, he was often the target of cruel taunts hurled by his classmates who drove by in long, black, chauffeured limousines. Historians later would surmise that it was his vanilla personality and pear-shaped body during his tender teen years that attracted the youthful harassment of his colleagues.
These classmates, these haughty, snotty boys with the neatly-parted blond hair and starched Arrow shirts would power down their limo windows and yell at poor Indianapolis, “Hey Annapolis, your shoes are untied.”
And Napolis, as his loving father called him, would look down and invariably trip on the crack in the sidewalk. It was a humiliating life.
Aside from the teasing, Napolis never did like his name. To make matters worse, he was the only boy in high school who ignominiously bore the uncommon moniker. And, rather than embrace his uniqueness, he allowed it to bruise his hypersensitive personality. Napolis often fantasized about having a simpler name like Jim, or Sam, or Ted. In his mind, he felt there was something Zen-like about a man who bore a name with only three letters. But Napolis?
His father named him Indianapolis after the city where he was born. But, his father pronounced the shorten version as Nap-Polish (as in the nationality, not the shine). And you can imagine how the haughty, snotty boys morphed his name into Sausage Boy, and other undesirable epithets.
Despite his given name and all the appointed barbs and arrows it attracted, he still loved his father, Harry, who was a jovial sort.
Harry worked for Walt Disney as an animator and was the on-call voice double for the cartoon character “Goofy.” Much to Napolis’ chagrin, his father practiced Goofy’s laugh day and night and oft times in front of imperfect friends and perfect strangers.
“Ya never know when some day Mr. Pinto Colvig, (which very few knew as the original Goofy voice), might someday come down with laryngitis,” his father would say with a twinkle in his eye. “Even backup quarterbacks get their day in the sun, son.”
At home, his father liked to sneak up behind his mother, Delaware, and surprise her with the folksy tease, “Gawrsh, honey, you shore are purdy,” followed by the famous chuckle, “Ya-hyuck, hyuck, yuck.”
During a serious moment of mano a mano bonding over an intense game of chess, Napolis asked his father what he was thinking when he conferred upon him such an unusual name.
“Well, Nap-Polish, you see I grew up a simple man in a simple time. I just wanted something better for you. In fact, I thought you deserved a handle that would set you apart.”
“Gee, thanks for nothing, Dad. Check.” Napolis moved his black bishop in a threatening line to face his father’s king.
Harry reached across the board and placed a strong hand on Napolis’ shoulder.
Napolis cringed for he knew he was about to receive one of his father’s skimpy and sympathetic speeches.
“I’m serious as a two-dollar bill, son.” Ya-hyuck. “You keep on keepin’ on and someday you’ll be somebody. This is America. You can be and do whatever you set your heart to do.”
“Yeah. Sure, dad. Whatever,” Napolis said. “It’s your move.”
“Gawrsh. So it is.” Ya-hyuck. Harry slid his queen forward three diagonal spaces. “Check, backatcha.” Ya-hyuck. Ya-hyuck.
In a rare interview granted to the Los Angeles Times, in July of 1966, Harry once revealed a snippet of his character. He was quoted as saying, “When I grew up, we were dirt poor, lived on a dirt farm, on a dirt road in Gravel, Georgia. And I always promised myself I would work my way out of there and do something good with my hands. Something that didn’t require them to get dirty. I was attracted to art an early age, and stayed with it, despite my father’s admonition that ‘The only thing I could draw was flies.’ But, I was hard-headed and determined to succeed. Guess I was just drawn to draw for Disney.”
Napolis’ beautiful blonde mother, Delaware Adirondack, started her career as an actress in the shady business of porn movies. Her handler (also her agent) gave her the stage name of Della DeRack (which was obvious for a couple of reasons). She enjoyed a modicum of success in several unforgettable films. And, then one day a light bulb went off inside her head, when Rodney, one of her shy co-stars, approached her during a break in the filming and said, “Gee, Miss DeRack, you have the nicest, uh, nicest, uh, oh, gosh, nicest. . .pair of hands.”
It was that comment that gave her the courage to leave the porn industry and become a hand model for TV commercials promoting household cleaning products, lotions and fine writing instruments. The move gave her a new and respectable lease on life and she never looked back.
Della was fond of sharing her faith with family and friends and often admitted that it was, indeed, her faith that saved her from a life of depravation in the pornography film business. “I finally found Jesus,” she would sigh.
And, Harry would quickly follow with, “And, we never knew he was missing.” Ya-hyuck, ya-hyuck.
When Harry met Della, it was kismet. After work one day, Harry stopped into the Pen and Pencil, a popular bar and hangout for authors and artists. He was sitting at the darkly lit bar practicing his Goofy laugh with the unimpressed bartender.
Then Della walked in.
Every man’s head in the joint snapped to attention when she slinked through the doors. As she stood in the doorframe adjusting her eyes to the darkness, the bright California sun powered in from the street behind her. It spotlighted her hourglass frame in silhouette.
A hush fell over the crowd, except for Harry who was still ya-hyucking it up at the bar.
“Oh,” she said in sultry voice sweet as maple syrup. “I thought this was an office supply store.”
Harry heard that voice, swiveled on his stool, and saw the light. He blinked. Then he saw the figure in the light. He blinked again. And, in that moment, he knew. It was love at second blink. He invited Della to join him for a drink.
She ordered a frothy, peachy concoction with a tiny umbrella. Harry said, “Make it two,” and the rest was history, as they say.
After Napolis was born, Harry and Della settled into the tony and up-and-coming neighborhood on the edge of Beverly Hills. They lived a life of bliss and were never in need. And, yet the ever frugal Harry continued to drive his egg-shell-white 1957 Mercedes convertible to the Disney studios year after year. He did this everyday until one humid July day in 1980. As he turned onto Sepulveda Boulevard, his front wheels plain wore out and fell off. He salvaged a hubcap and walked the rest of the way home.
Meanwhile, poor Della sacrificed, too, to help the family make ends meet. Her contribution was to reduce shopping on Rodeo Drive to once a month. And she fired their illegal Honduran gardener, Guatemalan nanny, and Columbian cook. Instead, she hired a crew of legal Vietnamese because she thought they worked harder, were cheaper, and she liked the fact that they smiled at everything she said.
The frugality, the endless sacrificing, and the forever having to walk to school in sunshine left an emotional and lasting scar on Napolis for the rest of his life. He became a book worm, a loner, a wallflower of a man. He hitched his pants high and fastened the top button on his shirt as a badge of protection. Things escalated to the point where he couldn’t even face himself in the mirror. By the time he was a senior in high school, he realized it was easier to say, “I’m sorry,” than it was to push back and stand his ground. Before he knew it, his sorry personality had been set in stone without cognition. Little did he know then that his sorry personality would later bring him fortune and fame.
Napolis had younger twin siblings, a sister, Saskatchewan, and a brother, Oxnard, who grew up with their own set of issues. But, since they were six years younger, they lived in different worlds.
Sassy, as she became to be known, was blonde, buxom, and popular. Her father said she resembled her mother. But, Sassy’s quick-witted response to that was, “Eeewww.”
She wore beehives, go-go boots, and adored the hits of Nancy Sinatra. When she grew older she changed her name to Zoë. She thought it sounded more sophisticated. One day, when her hormones seemed to be pegging in the red turbo zone, she declared to Napolis, “I can’t take this anymore. I’m going to run off to California and join a surfer band.”
Napolis reminded her that she was already in California.
“Oh,” is all she could muster.
Eventually, she did find her calling in the world of rock ‘n roll and became a backup singer for such one-hit wonder bands as John Fred and his Playboy Band, Spiral Starecase, and Bubble Puppy. Ironically, long before “restless leg syndrome” was identified as such, it worked to her advantage as her thrombulating left leg helped her keep up the perpetual 4-4 beat.
Some years later, she settled down and married a man by the name of Ballpoint. He was a jazz drummer with tattooed arms and a shaved head. Turns out he was a gentle soul and good to her. They bore two lovely undistinguished children and during the day while Zoë’s kids were at school, she wiled away the long hours by befriending hordes of old acquaintances on Facebook.
Oxnard, on the other hand, was a tow-headed boy, who unlike his father, enjoyed playing in the dirt. And, surprisingly, was the only sibling who actually liked and kept his name. Once he graduated to showering and using utensils, he formed into an upstanding citizen. Oxnard grew up to be a student of Other People’s Garbage (OPG). In other words, he was a distinguished garbage anthropologist. Following the completion of his doctoral studies in trash talk, he served as anthropologist-in-residence for the City of Las Vegas. He once told his father over the phone that he found OPG to be both aesthetic and a dire warning for the future. “Somehow, dad,” he said, “I feel like my life is no longer a waste.”
Harry felt kaflempt. He was so touched, it was the first time in his life he couldn’t summon up a Goofy laugh.
While Saskatchewan (nee Zoë) and Oxnard pursued their own bright stars, Napolis felt his life to be the sort of yawner you’d read about hum-drum dead people in used book stores.
Despite the hardships of growing up poor on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, Napolis kept his nose in his books and to the grindstone, which also served to rationalize his self-appointed permission to avoid eye contact with any humanoid or warm-blooded mammals of any sort. Owls especially made him nervous.
Even though he was desperately shy, he matriculated through high school with a 4.0 GPA and advanced to Princeton on a full-ride scholarship. He graduated in three years with a Ph.D. in Anthroapology – meaning the study of man’s innate nature to apologize for almost anything. He authored numerous mainstream books and college textbooks, was a much-sought-after lecturer, and was without exception the world’s foremost expert on how to apologize for the behavior of mankind. In his spare time he singularly advocated for the avoidance of human contact.
As Napolis grew older, he never grew more confident. He preferred valleys over peaks, a sidestep to straightforward, and a tepid organic tea to a strong Columbian coffee black.
He also chose to keep the spelling of his name but, one day in a radical and daring moment, after reading a dog-eared edition of a book by Dale Carnegie, he decided to change its pronunciation. He settled on an Italian flavor, as in Nah-Pole-Lee, but did not dare go public before profuse and prolific apologies were extended to his father and mother.
His mother thought the change was cute. “Sounds kind of like ice cream,” she said. Nevertheless, she conferred on him her hearty endorsement.
On the other hand, his father said he thought it sounded funny in an elitist- theatrical-sort-of-way. But he soon relented. “Whatever you want, son. Gawrsh. After all, you are 40 years old, you know.” Ya-hyuck. Ya-hyuck.
Since Napolis rarely looked others in the eye, it came as no surprise that he never married. It was a well-known fact that he was sexually unfulfilled. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested, it was just that whenever he stood in close proximity to a member of the opposite sex, especially the sultry ones who wore sweet perfumes, he felt his tongue break out in hives. This often left him in an embarrassing situation and he’d have to beg his leave by saying, “I’mmfff thorry. I dunt freel though gud.”
Napolis turned down numerous offers to teach at this college or that university and often declined simply by saying, “I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
But, one university dean was persistent. He refused to take “no” for an answer. Finally, Napolis accepted the appointment to hold the first Contrite Chair of Apologetic Studies at Harvard. It was here that he found his niche. It was here that he taught worthless, dismal and despicable courses to a plethora of unregenerate students who turned out to be, interestingly, some of our nation’s most sorry politicians, bureaucrats, ambassadors, UN representatives, and the occasional on-air foreign contributor to NPR.
It was during this period when he became a prolific author. Some of his best-selling books were: “The Apocryphal Apology;” “Apology is the First Step to World Peace;” and the book which commanded number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for four weeks in a row, “Apology Accepted.”
In an interview in Beg Pardon Fortnightly, Napolis said, “The problem with our world today is that more things merit an apology and no one recognizes it. I’m a firm believer in apologizing for things in which I have no idea why I’m doing so. Excusing myself and making amends has become second nature and it makes me and the other person feel better. By the way, I hope I’m not going on and on too long? Am I? Good. Fine. Then, consider this, suppose our nations started apologizing to each other? It doesn’t matter what for. It could be for the proliferation of space junk, or not allowing the Olympic Games to be played in every country. Just think how much more peaceful our planet would be if the Games were allowed to be played in Togo?”
He invariably waited while the journalist furiously kept notes and mentally re-arranged and translated the logic. Then Napolis followed with, “I’m sorry. Did I say too much?”
He once said to another journalist, over a white-table-clothed breakfast, in a concatenation of raw emotion “. . .that to apologize is a moral truth that can be asserted within any cultural context.” Unfortunately the sound of the word “asserted” caused a nauseating round of neurons firing in his brain in pinball fashion at which he jumped up and made a hasty retreat to the latrine for a forceful expulsion of his own words, and his hurried breakfast of eggs benedict.
Napolis’ sorry fame spread far and wide. The zenith, or nadir of his rocketing career, depending on your interpretation, occurred on August 11, 1999 when Time magazine put his photo on the cover and knighted him as “The Sorriest Man on Earth.” Unfortunately, due to the historic event of the day, which was the last solar eclipse of the millennium, no one took notice.
Regrettably, years later, while in Chicago he made a fatal error. Napolis had been invited to give the keynote dinner speech to the annual congregation for the Society to Preserve the Soiled Reputation of Neville Chamberlain, (SPSRNC) of which Napolis was a founding member (in absentia, of course).
He was prepared to offer up excerpts from his new, but yet, unfinished book, “Apology is the Crosswalk that Bridges Cultural Differences.” But, on his way to the event, he crossed Michigan Avenue in the middle of a block, without paying attention. Napolis was focused on reviewing his notes. It was more comfortable than looking strangers in the eye. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize he was stepping straight into oncoming traffic. A rented U-Haul truck, passing through from Ottumwa, Iowa, struck him hard. The impact sent Napolis buttocks over tea cup while twenty pages of notes fluttered down the avenue, like pigeons on the wing.
The driver of the truck, a Middle Eastern fellow named Kavoos, was angry and unapologetic in front of the police and passersby. He ranted hysterically to anyone who would listen. “He crazy this man. He step in front my truck. He no look up. This not my fault.”
Kavoos was arrested for not wearing a seatbelt. Later he was held on terrorism charges when authorities discovered the back of his truck was stuffed with skunky fertilizer and batteries made in China.
As Napolis was whisked into the emergency room of Rush University Medical Center, he was heard to whisper, “Will someone please call the organizers of the Neville Chamberlain Society and give them my sincere apologies for being late. I’m so sorry.” And, then he fainted.
He passed away later that evening due to numerous internal injuries. After hours of tedious but failed surgery, an exhausted doctor sat alone in his lamplit office and with a heavy heart called Napolis’ parents with the sad news.
Harry and Della hovered around the speaker on the kitchen phone. Harry held Della’s hand and forced back the lump forming in his throat. Harry said, “Tell me doctor. Did Napolis leave any last words?”
The doctor said, “Why. . . yes. Yes. . . he did. . .come to think of it. But it was rather garbled. In his last moments, he was restless and mumbling and he sounded kinda goofy. Kinda like he was saying, ‘Gawrsh.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
And, when they heard that word, the tears flowed freely, but it also made Harry and Della wear a great big smile.
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The opinions expressed in this satire do not necessarily represent the opinions of the author. The events depicted in this article are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental, I think. Ya-hyuck. Ya-hyuck.