I am Retarded
Tom Armstrong

My dog is smarter than me.

Recently, when I arrived home from work--sweaty and tired, my pockets stuffed with currency and gold nuggets, tips from my minimum-wage job driving a dynamite truck--I found Sharik out on the back porch grilling a porterhouse on the hibachi and reading the cantos of Ezra Pound.

"Bad dog," I yelled. "Put that book back on the shelf and get some exercise! Play with your ball!"

He dropped his glasses, came inside, leaped onto his bench and typed the following on his keyboard: "All the other dogs are reading Ezra Pound! You're a very mean master. No other dogs I know have a retarded owner. I want to run away and join a pack! I want to howl with the wolves and study James Joyce!" He ran up the stairs whimpering, his tail between his legs.

His words hurt me deeply. Yes, I am retarded. And there are never fifteen minutes at a time when I can forget.

I feel sorry for my dog. I wish he had a normal person as a master, someone who could give him a better life and love him more. And I wish he had a swimming pool, a one-acre glen and a foul-smells garden in the backyard like his dog friends. But my wages are meager and it would all be far more than what I can afford.

Sharik's unhappiness with me made me deeply sad, which was worrisome for my friends. I called in sick to work for ten days, staying at home with the shades drawn. I started drinking little dark-brown cans of Hershey's chocolate and stopped keeping the currency in my wallet crisply ironed with pleats running down from the presidents' noses.

My dog stayed upstairs in his bedroom, updating his Web site, rabidwolverines.com, where he sells books written using software he's developed. The software combines the minds of dead authors for collaborations of new book-length manuscripts. His newest was a cookbook written by Jean-Paul Sartre and Julia Child: Being, Nothingness and the Perfect Souffle.

A sonic boom startled me into a standing position out of the La-Z-Boy, where I was sleepily getting grilled and shaken. To my surprise, I saw that it was nighttime. A Roman candle lit up the sky in flickering streaks of red. Within a minute, I heard screeching tires from the direction of my driveway.

A normal person could have assimilated these sights and sounds without the need of a lot of synaptic activity, but I am not so lucky. I have to think about what I have just seen and heard and organize its symbolic meaning. The sonic boom, though it was heard throughout the neighborhood, was clearly a signal for me. I am the only retarded person within a square mile, and no one else would need a clue that is so gauche. It means--since this is a Tuesday--that someone is about to arrive. The red Roman candle tells me that it is Cthrwsqwz who is coming over. The red sparks are meant (I think) to suggest Cthrwsqwz's feathery headdress. The screech on the driveway would provide normal listeners with a mother lode of clues. My friends could discern the make of the bike and the exact imprint of the skid just from the sound. And if they knew the motorcycle, they could tell quite a bit about the psychology of the rider and anything he brought with him. But I am retarded; and the most that I can tell is that it must be Cthrwsqwz who is at my door.

It is Cthrwsqwz, and he's brought Tjrbkspd with him. I'm delighted. These are my wonderful friends who are especially nice to me. I can see that they intend to stay for a while since they are each carrying in a six-pack of Baffin Island Yodelling Goat, Canada's finest. And Tjrbkspd has a little package of peanut butter-on-cheese crackers for Hairbrush, my parrot. It's so thoughtful; those crackers are Hairbrush's favorite. And Cthrwsqwz has a jar of dill pickle slices. From a tradition started in pick-up bars, one sticks a quartered slice of dill pickle into the throat of a Goat bottle while sipping the brew.

We go into the kitchen, where Hairbrush is quick to join us. It's so much fun for me and my parrot when the guys come over. Hairbrush walks on our heads and does impersonations from the movies she's been watching. "Squawk!" she says, and then, in the voice of Uma Thurman, "the baby tomato is trailing behind as they walk, so the papa tomato goes back and squishes him. And he says 'ketchup.' Squawk--"

We all laugh. The line is from a movie that was broadcast over the Bird Channel. People don't watch movies anymore. They're all too plodding and predictable. But we still recognize a lot of the dialogue.

Hairbrush is lively and animated when the guys are over. It makes me so happy to see her this way. But when she runs out of impersonations, I worry that the guys will quickly get bored and will find excuses to leave. That never quite happens, but I feel I'm on the spot to try to think about things to say myself. I try sometimes to tell the guys about explosions that have happened at work recently, but I talk very slowly and I can sense that they are antsy for me to get out of my mouth more quickly what it is I have to say.

Happily, Cthrwsqwz and Tjrbkspd never tire of talking, and before their spirits have a chance to flag, they are into friendly fights over their favorite topics, which range from Beetlejuice to Zen Buddhism.

And tonight the guys get to yammering at full throttle. Cthrwsqwz begins gesticulating frenetically. His fingers splay and twitch. He tugs at his shirt and moves about in choppy steps. The words come like a geyser. "Yicmeatlo uplorpco splek. Brando as santos de bardo," was a part of what he said.

Tjrbkspd watches in that intensely focussed way he has, sometimes gesturing in tandem with Cthrwsqwz. Tjrbkspd jumps in with his siren of melded syllables when Cthrwsqwz pauses. I could catch only a few disconnected phrases: "optimize breakflow ... phojvolky torpe the younger type... remedial messenger, zenmar... how were the beefsteak tomatoes... screamers, tathagalpagarba!... PHOT!"

I listened intently to the conversation, participating as best I could--but as we all knew, I understood very little of what was going on. When they laughed at something, I laughed, too. But inside I felt fear and embarrassment. What we were laughing about, I couldn't know.

Cthrwsqwz and Tjrbkspd are very kind to me. And their kindness is genuine. But it has to be as frustrating for them as it is for me that I understand only a little of what they talk about.

I was caught off-guard when suddenly their yakking stopped and they were staring at me. I tried to seem nonchalant, tearing at the Goat label and poking at my pickle, but it seemed that everyone's attention was directed toward me. Even Hairbrush, who stood on the refrigerator, was giving me a stony stare.

At issue was getting me to agree to go with them to a club the next evening. Apparently I was needed for some research they were conducting. I agreed to go, for fear of the consequences of not agreeing to go, and this pleased the guys. Then they told me that Sariphina-platt was likely to be there, and this made me very nervous.

When our get-togethers end, they always leave together. I can hear them starting up their conversation again as they scruff down the walkway, popping a wheelie and throwing thunderbolts into the spittoons. I can see that it is easier for them to get into the flow and excitement of their discussion when they do not have to try to include me.

Up until a year ago, I was in a spotty, long-term relationship with the retarded woman Sariphina-platt. Every few weeks, we arranged to meet at her friend's house where we drank fermented grape juice and made love in the animal way. This is considered primitive and silly by average, smart people, but we enjoyed ourselves. Once, for a solid week, we insulated ourselves from all the pressures of being retarded. We holed up in an old-style hotel, talked simply to each other, loved each other, and tried to forget about other people and the culture we live in that is so complicated for us. For fun, we played two-dimensional chess in bed and finished games even if one of us was ahead by a knight or a passed pawn.

Our bodies are not considered beautiful or sexy, primarily because we cannot afford all the surgery and tattoos that are de rigueur. Sariphina-platt has taken care to keep her hands stylish and heavily tattooed and has a modest job as a hand model for television commercials.

After our delightful week together, we went back to our jobs and pretended not to know each other. Time passed, and I didn't call or e- mail Sariphina-platt. While anyone who comes to know either of us will quickly be aware that we aren't smart about anything, we try not to make people uncomfortable, so we pretend as best we can to seem normal. On those times when either of us sees another retarded person on the street, we quietly but quickly turn away.

I don't pine for Sariphina-platt, but I think of her sometimes. I think of what it must be like to live comfortably in the world, like real people. And in my dreams, sometimes Sariphina-platt and I are married with a large family. In these dreams, when people talk to us, we always understand whatever is being said. And our infant children are robust and supremely normal--jumping off the bookcases and chasing each other around the living room with firelogs and scissors.

I picked up all the Hershey's cans in the living room, and generally cleaned up my house. It seemed to calm my extreme nervousness about the club date with Cthrwsqwz and Tjrbkspd with its possibility of running into Sariphina-platt. I tried to think up excuses to get out of it, but in our society, the worst thing a person can do is be unsociable. And my retardation makes me very vulnerable.

Last year Cthrwsqwz had a three-dimensional name that was impossible for me to pronounce. For my benefit, he wore his name as a medallion on a chain around his neck. But one day he came over after he had dyed his chest hairs blue and, to be more stylish, had one of his arms surgically removed. When I saw him I couldn't recognize him. When word got around about my trouble identifying him, this bothered a lot of people. For a while there was talk about putting me in an institution for retarded people (called a university) where I could get care and lodging, and with help might get a Master's that would help me to cope with the people of this world, 99 percent of whom are much smarter than me.

It remains a matter of intense fear that I might one day find myself dragged away in a straitjacket to Rutgers or UCLA where I'll have to do term papers and go to football games.

Sharik came downstairs from his room while I was cleaning. He had sensed my fear and nervousness--this wonderful dog--and wanted to give me comfort. He had me sit on the couch where he placed his head on my lap and let me stroke the brown fur on his head.

That morning, I had bought him the complete works of Proust and Balzac, setting the books just outside his bedroom door. And earlier still, I sent him an e-mail saying it would be fine with me if he read Pound anytime he wanted to.

That evening, chtrwsqwz and tjrbkspd arrived at my house as planned. Tjrbkspd was wearing a shirt in a color I hadn't seen before. The new primary colors that the scientists are releasing are an overload for my sense of sight, but whenever I first see a new one, it fascinates me. The new color is called frobjnicht. Tjrbkspd tells me that the color isn't the primary color in its pure form; rather, it's a reddish yiktatish frobjnicht with perhaps a hint of yellow and scormeare.

Then, Cthrwsqwz said to me in his speedy way "Validium grenidine thor brak!"

Validium is an old word that will expire in a week. It means "hop on the back of my bike." I don't know the words "grenidine" or "thor," but if what he really said was "grenitheen door" it would mean "the clouds are made of buttermilk." But what that might mean in the context of anything he would have to say to me, I cannot imagine. Brak! can variously mean "remove your pants" or "would you like a soft drink with your sprouts sandwich?" In any case, I hopped on the back of the motorcycle.

I ride as the third person on the bike, hanging onto Tjrbkspd's waist, smiling stupidly as I stare into his shirt.

We arrive at the club which, like many in town, has a name that cannot be pronounced. Its name is four dimensional, made from light and time.

The gist of what I'm told is that it's a gorpfucking club. Learning this scares me. I'm far too stupid to get involved with any gorpfucking, but Cthrwsqwz assures me that I needn't be anxious. He takes me to an anteroom inside the building and has me strip off my clothes. He places a helmet on my head that is lined with computer chips and has wires, transistors and metal plates on the outside. I am reluctant to wear this thing, partly because I think that anything with transistors must be a cruel practical joke. But Cthrwsqwz is a genuinely nice person (all the smart people are genuinely nice), so, with assurances from Tjrbkspd, I do what I am directed to do.

In the center of the building there is a large hall crowded with people conversing with each other in small groups. So far as I can see, I am the only person who is naked or wearing a helmet. The others are all young and are fully and stylishly dressed. Many have wonderful tattoos and arms that are attached to their bodies in interesting places. While I can tell nothing about their behavior that seems odd, I know from my limited knowledge of clubs like this one that some are gorpfucking.

I wander about the hall, losing sight of Cthrwsqwz and Tjrbkspd. I am pretty much ignored by all the people, but several glance over at me, looking first at my helmet, then at my face and then quickly at my genitals. This creates in me an odd mixture of embarrassment and excitement.

After a while, I see Sariphina-platt several yards away. She, too, is naked and wearing a helmet. I approach her, but when I am as near as three feet, something magnetic at the front of our helmets causes our heads to lock in contact so firmly that we cannot pull away.

My brain is then captured, like a rabbit in a snare. But for reasons I cannot understand, my sense of fear quickly ends, and it is as if the clouds have parted, revealing a sky that is a beautiful blue. And then the sky parts and the sun and stars come into focus and they are divine. I am in awe of how perfect it is. The beauty and my bliss are so intense and so complete that it is both unbearable and unbearable to suppose the feeling might end and my knowledge of the feeling might fade. I am hopelessly in love in a universe that is compassionate and just as it has to be. I am together with Sariphina-platt in a cavalcade of laughing and weeping. Our thoughts are not coded in words, but pass like a river flowing between us. It is ultimate beauty. Serene and delightful. Majestic and ineffable.

It was hard to return to the routine of my life and job after that night of gorpfucking, but I was able to, and I was glad my depression had ended.

Sariphina-platt began discussing with me the possibility of our combining our households. She had in mind the idea of leaving her apartment above a bowling alley and moving into my house. Of course, I am gleeful at the prospect.

I had her come over to my house where she met Sharik and Hairbrush. Sharik played ball with her and, if he wasn't actually having a good time, he pretended that he was. He told me afterward that he thinks Sariphina-platt is very, very nice. Sariphina-platt told me that my dog is wonderful and that my parrot is a joy. Things went very well. As Sariphina-platt was leaving, Hairbrush sang " 'Til We Meet Again," in the voice of Marlene Dietrich, which left all of us in tears.

"There is one last thing," Sariphina-platt told me as she got into a taxicab. "We will have to get the approval of my Clydesdale. You must meet him on Thursday."

Her horse. It seems that the horse her parents bought her when she was small makes most of the decisions for her in life. Sariphina-platt is anxious, but insists that there is no getting around the need for our getting the approval of Rising Star before we can move in together.

"There's something you need to know," she went on to say, "Rising Star is also Equus Majorca, the leader of the equine separatist movement."

Of course, I am astonished. While for the most part it is considered rude for humans to stick their noses into the politics of other species, all news-aware humans know Equus Majorca, the author of We'll Take Colorado, a manifesto that demands that human-run America cede territory to set up an all-horse republic in the Rocky Mountains. Already, horses have taken over many of the suburbs of Denver and Colorado Springs. To further their political agenda, horses have been lying down on the runway at the Denver Airport to prevent planes from landing.

The horse demands have recently been strengthened by support from many other animals. Felines United argues that humans should be eager to give up a state that is simplistically rectangular. But as a geometry-wise antelope writer pointed out in a National Geographic editorial, due to the curvature of the earth, Colorado is actually more of a rhombus. Others argue that humans should keep the state because it's a parallelogram. Congress tried to end the uprising by simply passing legislation declaring Colorado to be circular.

I am wearing a new frobjnicht-colored suit when I arrive at Sariphina-platt's apartment. Her living room is large, clean and fashionable with photographs on the walls showing her lovely hands holding wrought iron perches and seed dispensers.

"Brak!" she says.

"Yes," I reply. "I would like a Dr Pepper with my sprouts sandwich."

We have a cordial conversation while seated on her sofa. I can hear below us the loud noises of bowling balls striking pins. And from a room nearby I hear the stomping sound of a large horse walking about.

"I have to tell you," says Sariphina-platt, "that moving in with you would be a great convenience for us since the bowling alley is having us evicted for making too much noise."

I smile in reply, gobbling down the last bite of the delicious sprouts sandwich.

When it is time for the interview my attention turns toward the slimy feel of sweat covering my body. I loosen my necktie a tad and worry that her horse will be offended by the placement of my arms in sockets at each shoulder.

Sariphina-platt leads me to the end of a short hallway where we stop in front of dutch doors. The top door is pushed open by the nose of an enormous beige horse who whinnies and then runs behind a curtain.

It is quickly evident that behind the curtain is where the horse keeps his keypad, because a Times Square-style Linotype at the back of the room quickly spells out the word "Welcome."

"Welcome to you, too!" I blurt.

"I hope that we become fast friends," says a line of new words. "While I am known for insisting that humans call me Equus Majorca, I would like you to call me by the name Sariphina-platt gave me at the time of my birth, Rising Star!"

"Thank you, Rising Star," I say. "Please call me Freedjor, which is my label this week."

"Thank you, Freedjor" says the Linotype. "Can I know you by the name you were given at birth?"

"Well," I say, "when I was born they just called me 'the baby.' "

"Then I will call you Freedjor this week," says the line of type. "Greetings, Freedjor!"

It tickles me to see my new name in all those large letters. This horse is a very nice one. "Greetings to you, Rising Star!"

"You should know, Freedjor, that my activities with the equine separatists will be ongoing and can only intensify. As much as I love Sariphina-platt and respect many humans, I cannot forget that humans have been on our back for thousands of years and have murdered us to make dog food and glue."

At this point, Sariphina-platt has started to weep. I place my arm around her shoulder and say, "I would love for you and Sariphina-platt to come and live with me and my wolf, Sharik, and my parrot, Hairbrush. Sharik, by the way, is a strict vegetarian. We will all be close friends."

"Your offer warms my heart. I know that you and Sariphina-platt belong together and that you can have a normal life. As for myself, I want to take you up on your offer, but I must go to Colorado! When we are evicted from our apartment by the bowling alley, I would like for Sariphina-platt to move in with you while I go to Colorado to advance the welfare of noble horses. We can remain in close contact by e-mail. And, of course, we can visit each other frequently!"

Sariphina-platt is inconsolable.

"I will take good care of Sariphina-platt," I say.

"Wonderful!" reads the Linotype. "Things are being arranged. As Sariphina-platt may have told you, my hobby is ballooning. What with the problems at the airports in Colorado, I will get there by balloon. The launch in scheduled for the 25th."

At the park on the 25th a large crowd gathers. While the majority of creatures are horses, there are many other animals including hundreds of supportive humans, many wearing T-shirts that read "They deserve Colorado! We should throw in Wyoming for good measure!"

Rising Star addresses the crowd while standing in the basket of his red-and-blue balloon. The Linotype machine is set up in front of him. For the occasion, Rising Star is "a horse of a different color," having dyed his coat a marvelous shade of splendorfus, a brand-new color that makes people think of happiness.

Sariphina-platt, Sharik and I are nearby. Hairbrush is fifty yards away fighting with some other birds for perch space on the branch of a tree. I am proud of Sariphina-platt, who is holding up bravely. She dabs at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief.

"Greetings to you all!" reads Rising Star's first burst of words. "I leave for Colorado with feelings of love and friendship! For me, this is the beginning of a grand adventure. Still, I am overwhelmed with sorrow. I will miss many friends and, especially, I will miss Sariphina-platt, who is so dear."

As the ropes are loosened to release the balloon, Sariphina-platt kicks off her red slippers, breaks from my side and leaps into the basket of the balloon with Rising Star. The humans in the crowd cheer and the many horses whinny. Rising Star bobs his head and Sariphina-platt waves robustly at the crowd as the balloon ascends into the blue sky. I watch as the balloon, Rising Star and Sariphina-platt grow dim as a tiny gray dot. Finally, they disappear behind a solitary white cloud and leave my life forever.

A month later, there is no sonic boom that precedes Cthrwsqwz's visit to my home. He carries in several boxes of varying sizes and introduces me to a woman he has brought with him, a Dr. Brendafsh who is wearing an official-looking white jacket.

I am scared. Sharik barks at our visitors and I tenderly restrain him.

The Wednesday before, I was fired from my job after driving erratically--some said suicidally--on the freeway with a full load of explosives. It was a terrible day; the police handcuffed me and I didn't earn any tips.

The news that Cthrwsqwz has for me is that he and my friends have committed me to a university where I am to take advanced courses in comparative lit and animal husbandry. All this is meant to help me to cope with the strains of living in a world that I experience as very complex. The university that has accepted me is just down the street, so I won't have to relocate. And thanks to Sharik, there's enough money coming in so I won't have to get a new job.

At Sharik's Web site, sales of his books are booming. A series on existential cooking tops the Amazon.com best-sellers list. One volume released just days ago, co-written by Erika Jong and Albert Camus, Fear of Frying for Strangers, has recipes for pork chops that make your mouth water no matter what your state of angst. The top Religion and Spirituality book is Sharik's The Son Also Rises, by Matthew, Mark, John, and Ernest Hemingway.

The boxes contain the final version of the gorpfucking helmets that Cthrwsqwz has been working on. They look very much like football helmets. Whatever chips and mechanics are involved in making the machines operate are hidden inside. By their appearance, the helmets seem made of fiberglass. The inside is lined with a comfortable-looking padding. A chin strap holds the helmet in place on one's head.

Dr. Brendafsh places the largest helmet on me and makes several adjustments with her three hands. My fear melts away. I have often depended on the kindness of smart strangers.

"Brak!" says Dr. Brendafsh.

My heart pumps like mad. I am high above the ground, flying among the clouds. Sharik is there, his tail wagging so hard that his hindquarters moves right and left. Hairbrush is flying happy and free. And the sky is an azure German river; and the stars are rhinestones, glistening. My dreamy thoughts are not coded in words, but pass like a river flowing in front of me. It is ultimate beauty. Serene and delightful. Majestic and ineffable. I feel like I could live forever. And I am lost in swirling thoughts that combined my memories and the possibilities in an unlimited future.

O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and scormeare and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a boy where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in her hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a frobjnicht shirt yes and how she kissed me in that sad hotel and I thought well as well her as another and then I asked her with my eyes to ask again yes and then she asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around her yes and drew her down to me so she could feel my loins and smell the whiff of musk and yes and my heart was going like mad and yes I said


I will


Tom Armstrong (TomArmstr@aol.com) lives in San Francisco, where he's an unemployed low-level accountant who's one month behind in his rent. He writes for and edits Zen Unbound. Articles written by him have appeared in eDharma and CyberSangha.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Tom Armstrong.