This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
I lost my Travel John in Sweden. I lose it all the time. I leave it in taxis, hotels, on the floors of bars. It's not a big deal. It always comes back to me. At the Admirals Club in Copenhagen, though, a Swissair pilot overheard me asking about the public restrooms.
"The tea rooms?" he said.
"I am looking for Karl Ove Knausgaard," I announced. I made an abstract gesture toward my heart. "For KOK," I said.
The pilot grinned. "You like to have tea?" he said.
"Bathroom," I said. I spoke slowly, because my Danish is rusty. "I am here. In Denmark. Writing about the great writer Knausgaard. Karl Ove? I lost now. My Travel John. In Sweden. I left it on this guy's sofa. I met him there. He gave me Knausgaard's email, and then I wrote to Knausgaard and he said maybe we could meet up for tea. The great writer."
" Stor forfatter?" The pilot seemed confused. He was handsome, in his 50s, wore aviators, had curly reddish-gray hair, and looked rather stern. "Mener du Ho C Annersen?" (That's Hans Christian Andersen, the children's author.) "Eller mener du, du vil have sex? Med en mand mener du?"
"Well, yes, Knausgaard, but right now I need to go potty. Little boys' room?" I mimed urinating on the wall. "I lost my. Mein Travel John. It's no big deal!"
I worried this pilot was an idiot, like many pilots I've transacted with over the years. He would likely be no help. But then he unzipped his fly and took out his upsettingly large member. He stroked at it discreetly. " Hvad mener du?" he said.
"Yes." I removed my member then. He smiled, and his smile was friendly, not critical. "I lost my Travel John. I need a bathroom like bad."
After a few minutes, we put away our respective penises. The pilot stood and I followed him to a public bathroom. He sat on the toilet seat and stroked discreetly. After we finished, he patted me on the shoulder and said, " Tak. Tak for det."
"I lost my Travel John," I said, feeling a bit needy. "In Sweden."
He stowed his cock away, finally understanding me. "Just buy some travel diapers, my friend," he said in perfect English. "You can get them at SPAR."
Suddenly he was all business. My feelings were hurt, I admit. Like I didn't know you could buy travel diapers at any grocery store in Denmark. I had just given a uniformed Swissair pilot a pretty decent handjob, and yet I was no closer to acquiring a replacement Travel John than I was to meeting Knausgaard for tea and perhaps conversation. Still, I wasn't worried; it's always fine in the end. Had not many of my journalistic assignments begun in a somewhat similar fashion? The pilot zipped up, washed his hands, put on his cap, and left the bathroom. I went to the strange, egg-shaped urinal and pottied. The stream of my urine sparkled on the porcelain. I lit a cigarette and inhaled the smoke deep into my lungs. Why hadn't I bought two or three Travel Johns before leaving the United States? I could have stocked up. I knew well enough how prone I was to losing things. How could I have been so stupid that I hadn't taken care of it before I left? How hard could that be?
When the Village Voice contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in interviewing Knausgaard in, as my editor put it, "his stomping grounds," I couldn't have been more psyched. I frequently have these crazy sex dreams where editors call me up and ask if they can pay me good money to ramble on for thousands of words (then things get weird). Anyway, here I was, traveling on assignment, ostensibly for the Village Voice, though I was hoping to place the completed article in VICE. Long story. Short version: Ramses has a nice ass.1 And Ramses is an assistant editor at VICE now. I filled him up good with Goldschläger the night before I left for Denmark and then texted him from the departure gate: What did he think about me traveling to Denmark and writing that up for him? Ramses texted back, "I hate you!!!"
Later I emailed him from the plane: 2 "You'll never guess where I'm writing you from!"
"Jail?" he said.
I sent a follow-up message to seal the deal. "PS The critic James Woods says of Knausgaard, 'This guy writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically.'"
Then I sent another email: "We crossed lies just now?
In publication TK, famous author (PPS) Zadie Smith, one of the first English writers to recognize the genius of Knausgaard, extolled the virtues of his TK TK TK. (Needles)."
Insert great quote here from some big name TK. [Editor: Allen, can we leave out the Goldschläger? I mean, we'll know. Also, maybe better to leave the Voice out of this?] Literature, I explained to my Goldschläger-loving friend, began in the frigid Nordic regions. [Editor: Source?] In ancient times, literature—that is, the power of human story—was employed by our ancestors to, I don't know, have something to do while they were huddling around the fire. [Editor: Source?] This was, remember, after the fall of the mastodon, back when early humans exhibited the full complement of genitalia: the male penis, the female vagina, and the fliij, or third apparatus. Yes, early humans were hermaphroditic. As the penis then was small and fully detachable, it fit easily inside the vagina, with the fliij serving as a kind of flesh cap, not unlike the screw-top lid on a pickling jar. When mature, the fliij functioned as a powerful superego in the genital trio. Perhaps not surprisingly, early humans often lost their fliij, or left it behind accidentally on purpose. The fossil record supports this: Adult specimens are only rarely found with an intact fliij, whereas pilings of 30 or 40 or even 50 fliijes have been uncovered throughout the world. [Editor: Did you read this somewhere?] It was an interesting time, though quite brutal too, and for these people there were stories. The Nordic people grasped this truth better than others. Or else they did it first—or, I mean, who really cares?
Fast-forward to the 21st century, when a lone-wolf, critically celebrated Swede began writing down an account of his life in Denmark in intricate, some might say numbingly flat, detail. [Editor: Is he Swedish? I thought he was Norwegian but moved to Sweden, or do I have that wrong? He's not in Denmark, right?] He was from many places, and his name was Karl Ove Knausgaard. He looked every bit like the actor Brad Pitt's father if Brad Pitt's character in the movie Kalifornia had a really cool dad. His book—this is Knausgaard, not Brad Pitt's dad (who is also very handsome, and from Missouri3)—was like a diary but with more reflection to it. Like if he had a bowl of muesli, he wrote that down, but he thought about the muesli some, or about the box, or maybe about this other time he had muesli when he was child. (It was his mother. Brad Pitt's mother. And I. Had lunch, together. Once. Later, I received an email from her. She apologized for having invited me to lunch, she had realized she never should have done it and asked me not to reply to her email. Whatevs, weirdo.) Then if Knausgaard had a tremendous hard-on, he wrote that down too, with no more pride or style than he gave to his bowl of cereal. Or if after a big BM (bowel movement) he played guitar, he let you know that he played it badly, which was a shocking admission from one so accomplished. In time, Knausgaard, or KOK, as he is known, came to fill countless volumes with his subtle musings. [Editor: Allen, your tone here seems slightly off. It sounds like you don't like Knausgaard. But in your pitch, you said he was "the greatest living writer" and that he had "singlehandedly solved the problem of the American novel." Then you said he was the only writer who wrote honestly about children, and that the birth scene made you cry. Also, the volumes, are they countless? I mean, we could count them, right? Let's fix this, OK? Thx.] There were at least six but maybe seven volumes in all, and readers loved every page.
1 Some names have been changed in order to lend the characters more dignity than they deserve. Ramses here is no pharaoh, let's put it that way.
2 Gogo Inflight Internet. When the sky is your office, you need connectivity waiting for you. Go unlimited and start saving now. [Editor: Allen, is this an ad?] [Allen Pearl: No.] [Editor: Can we get on the phone?] [Editor: Are you rejecting my calls?] [Editor: Allen?] [AP: You don't know what I am dealing with. You don't know my heart, or my story.] [Editor: What?] [AP: I woke up with two old rubbers in my ass, OK? It's not a big deal to get them out or whatever, but I don't know when they got in there. So that's the deal, basically.]
3 I once had lunch with his father, for those who are interested. [Editor: Fact checker on this. Keep?]
I found myself at a road stop in Jylland—Jutland for the uninitiated. It was road stop after road stop on this journey, because I still hadn't located my Travel John, could not obtain any Danish alternative, and I wasn't about to wear diapers. I was looking for coffee shops—KOK goes to one every afternoon, that's his "arrangement"—but they don't seem to have them in the Jylland countryside, just large groupings of pigs—flocks? It's not herds, or is it?—roaming ahead of pig shepherds with their long pig canes, just poking away at the animals' rumps, saying stuff I can't make sense of, but it must mean something to the pigs, right? I had to get to København (that's Copenhagen for the uninitiated).
My cell phone buzzed. A text message. "Your a big fat stupid idiot," it said. "Your" should've been "you're," but then this was my son. He's seven and very funny. He must have just awoken. I imagined him in New York, still in his bed, surrounded by plush toys—stuffed animals mostly, with some cute stuffed monster-type things thrown in. He had about three dozen, altogether too many, but how do you draw that line as a parent? Or do you not? Do you maybe just comment on how crowded the bed seems and leave it to the little one to deduce your veiled intentions? I ask myself these questions periodically.
Anyway, regular readers—or even semi-occasional readers with what they call better things to do—may here express shock that Allen Pearl, bon vivant, etc., etc., would be, gasp, a father. Look, it's a long story, but yeah, I'm a dad, get used to it. The short version is I got this woman to accept an injection of my sperm. I paid her pretty well. She used a turkey baster. That's what I read online you're supposed to do. The woman is from Mongolia originally, from the steppes. Beautiful country, just gorgeous. I've seen some pictures. The woman works at this used-furniture place I'm always trying to sell chairs at. I'm getting out of Hollywood regency, people, big time. Just saying. So the woman, she had me deliver the money to her at the store, in 20s. When I asked what time she got off work, she looked at me strange. "Let's get one thing straight," she said, "this isn't a date." Well, I don't know what you'd call it, but a couple weeks later, we got an email saying that, basically, the eagle had landed. My partner and I—my then partner, I should say—were beside ourselves with joy. Etc. We were going to be co-parents, or whatever. And for a while, we were. And it was blazes, I tell you, raising the little one, feeding him all the time, trying to keep him from getting injured, then trying to figure out how best to clean baby vomit off my collection of vintage 8mm porno films. I'm talking vomit on the film itself, if anyone has any ideas. We called him the Warlord, which we meant affectionately, just because of how imperious he was, from a very young age, imperious and tyrannical, really. He also bore a certain resemblance to drawings of Genghis Khan.
The homeless loved him. They were crazy for the Warlord, always waving, trying to strike up little conversations. I'd be walking around, pushing his bassinet, and I'd smile, say "thank you," move on. One homeless was like, "Is that a girl?" "Boy," I said. "He needs a haircut. Like me." I smiled my smile, and the homeless didn't say anything. "Haircut," I said, louder. "How old is he?" he asked. I told him. "That's so great," he said. "And he's your son?" Of course he's my son. Did he think I rented him? I didn't say that part. We were crossing the street, the homeless guy at my side. I expected him to ask for money, but he didn't. Instead he pointed at the Warlord and said, "He's the future," and I was like, OK, thanks, man, kind of blowing him off but in a polite way? And then he said, "No, you've got the future in your hands there." It was only later that I thought, you know, crazy homeless dude's right, sort of: The Warlord is the future. Of course he's not the only future. It's not like he's the last of his kind or whatever. I mean, Christ, look around, babies everywhere. For sure, he's part of the future, the Warlord. But then crazy homeless dude is part of the future too. As am I. And as are you.
Anyway, the bloom on the co-parenting rose lasted about two years, three months, and 14 days, give or take, which is a long time if you're talking about a rose, but since I'm talking about a human being, it was not so long. The Warlord was still in diapers for Pete's sake! Toddling around, etc. In due time, my partner, Tutankhamun, or Tut, proved himself to be a lying sack of you know what. We hardly ever had sex. Too tired or one of us sick or something. It got to be I felt lucky if I saw him undress at night, just to get that glimpse before bed. What I'm trying to say is, King Tut ran off to pursue his peculiar notions of happiness between the muscled thighs of our Pilates instructor. I emphasize that this was our Pilates instructor, though it's true I did not often make it to his studio. I had good intentions.
Well, so I was a single parent then. I got on the neighborhood listserv and realized pretty quickly that there weren't any Mongolian nannies currently looking for work. I called the woman at the furniture place. When I explained who I was again, she said I had to be kidding and hung up. I just thought it was important that the Warlord be close to someone who understood the culture of his ancestors, someone who knew about yak butter and yurts, or whatever. Before the week was up, I managed to hire a somewhat experienced Filipino nanny who knew nothing about Mongolia and spoke zero English but indicated by eager head movements that she would be willing to teach my boy Tagalog, which I thought might come in handy, should she stick around, which she has, thank God. Her name is Ginjie, by the way. Actually sometimes it sounds like Ginny when she says it, so I say both, interchangeably, and just hope it sounds half-right. It's too late to ask her for clarification.
I texted my son back: "Hey, what do you got going on today?"
I didn't have to wait long for his reply. "Uh, I think the nanny and I are just gonna stare at each other." The kid's hilarious!
I wrote back: "I'm in Denmark, I think."
"I hope it's really, really cold," he said.
"I miss you," I said.
"OK," he said. "Bye."
I have an old message from him, a voicemail. I'd lost my gloves, and I was 99 percent sure I'd left them at this restaurant where I like to wet my whistle. I say "like to." It's the restaurant where I used to like to go, an Italian place in Park Slope. I still eat there. Good fettuccine Alfredo. During the dark days, I used to go there nightly, sit at the bar, order a salad and a few glasses of Montepulciano. The bartender—RIP, Eugene—knew to fill them to the brim. But then he had his stomach surgery, and there was the one night I "drove the customers away" by "approaching them at their tables" and "asking inappropriate and unwanted questions." Sorry. I didn't realize "What is that that you're having?" and "I think I'll have the same" and "Are you two really married?" and "What kind of jeans are those?" were inappropriate. Anyway, so I called Ginjie and asked her if she wouldn't mind swinging by the restaurant after school pickup and getting my gloves, but all she kept saying was she didn't wish to be paid in gloves. So I waited until school was out and called the Warlord. He put me straight into voicemail, which he always does—you can't take that stuff personally, as a parent, all the experts will tell you that. Later I got this message from him. He was just letting me know they had the gloves, and I saved that little message, because he sounds so sweet in it, and so sure, and, I don't know, it just got to me. Anyway, I listened to that message then, in Denmark, sitting in my rental car.
It is not so easy to smoke and give a good handjob at the same time, but I can do it if I have to.
His name was Østergaard. He was in his 60s and had a deeply lined face and kind eyes behind his glasses. He was handsome and tan. He stood one urinal away from me, several feet from the potty orb, took out his surprisingly modest endowment, and played with it discreetly. Reader, I was disappointed. I had my endowment in hand and was discreetly stroking it. He winked at me with his long reddish eyelashes. I lit a cigarette, pulling the smoke all the way into my lungs until it hurt. It is great, by the way, to smoke in restrooms. I'd forgotten how much I missed it until I was back doing it. There are ashtrays here, very well designed, very tasteful, and built right into the potty orbs. And in the stalls, they got them on top of the toilet-paper-dispenser things, exactly where you want them. I thought again about forming a tour company and selling American smokers on lavishly overpriced package trips that would take them on winding drives from Jylland to København or wherever. We'd hit all the best road stops and just, you know, light up. Or, hell, walk into the bathroom already smoking, because who cares? Danes don't care. I don't care. Those who wanted to get handjobs could, and if they didn't, well, that would be OK too. As I contemplated how much money I could make this way—and I'd do it too, if I didn't already have so much on my plate—I noticed the window above the door was ajar. The wall beside it was heavily tagged with graffiti. "I suck cock," one man had written in Danish. He gave the hours when he could be found. I thought about the soda I want to market. It would be unsweetened and all-natural. Ginger, lemon, and sparkling water. I'm thinking of collaborating with the people at the local business school. They have a program for entrepreneurs, and I know people there. All I have to do is call them. The unsweetened-soda market is on its way. I've watched it happen, since I had the idea years ago. This was before carbonated tea. I had that idea, but I didn't jump. I wondered, if I'd started dancing young, the first time I had the thought, when my friend Hilary started dancing and I visited her at the ballet class, could I have been a Baryshnikov? Then I wondered if maybe Knausgaard frequented this very urinal. Was this his tag, as they say? The sentences of his I had read always had a particular stamp, or style, and I reasoned that if he were to write on a stall, giving his hours, he would do it in this way: "I suck cock." Elegant, unaffected, but also true. I would ask when we met up for tea.
Østergaard made a sharp barking sound. I looked up and caught it right in the face. That was the worst experience.
I used the toilet. I had been constipated since leaving the United States, so the result was significant. I wiped myself thoroughly, then flushed.
Instead of the water disappearing with a slurping noise before the bowl filled up again, it started to rise. I watched it for a long time. The water level showed no sign of going down. The toilet was clogged. I flushed again, thinking perhaps that would increase the pressure sufficiently. Instead, the water flowed over the top of the bowl and ran down on both sides, spilling onto the floor. I mopped it up with some toilet paper, put the wet paper in the trash, and looked around for an implement of some kind. There was simply no way I was going to call my editor about this.
I searched every nook and cranny but found nothing I could use to try to remove the plug of feces and toilet paper that must be clogging the drain. Instead, I wrapped a plastic bag around my arm and stuck my hand into the icy water that was welling up from the bowl.
My arm wouldn't go far enough.
How much bad luck could one person have?
I threw the plastic bag in the trash can, washed my hands carefully, closed the door on the whole sorry mess, and went back to my car.
I drove for about 60 kilometers, 4 then turned around and drove back. In the bathroom, however, the situation was unchanged.
I stood there for a while wondering whether I should dare to flush one more time. Finally, I did. But nothing had changed. The water welled up, spilled over the edge and down on all sides. I mopped it up. With toilet paper. Danish road-stop toilet paper is about what you'd expect: no better, no worse. I looked around the restroom again for a suitable instrument, stood there for a while with a toilet-paper roll, like an idiot; the toilet-paper roll was way too big for the drain. But what if I tried breaking it, or folding it origami-style?
With some effort, I was able to manipulate the toilet-paper roll into the cobra formation. This would be my instrument. I got another plastic bag from my car, emptied it of dirty laundry, wrapped it around my arm, and, holding the cobra by the tail, tried to stick my hand further down the drain this time, with no success. My cobra had crumpled, useless.
There was nothing for it but to tell my editor.
After all, it wasn't my fault.
It probably happened all the time.
But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I went back to my car.
I drove for about 12 kilometers, 5 then turned around and drove back. In the bathroom, again, the situation was unchanged.
I lay down on the cool bathroom floor and continued reading some part of KOK's saga, the fourth, I think, or the third, I don't know. I fell asleep and dreamed. I was flying over Copenhagen and looking for KOK. The earth and the sun were pretty much how they always are, except around the earth there orbited three identical moons. They were so beautiful! I've been going to the museum lately. I like this one statue in the Egyptian wing. It's not anything anybody else would notice, probably. It's only about a foot tall. It's just this man with his arm around the shoulders of two women. I'm not going to tell you what it's called, because it will make a good title for my collection, forthcoming from W. W. Norton's historic Liverlight imprint. 6 Anyway, in my dream, everybody denied the existence of the two extra moons. I saw a shaman I know and asked him what to do. He told me go to a shrink. Then he said, "Actually, go to Russia and find this painter with a pipe." Then he said, "Scratch that, go and find Karl Ove." Karl, I found you downtown at this dive bar. You were sitting beside another man. I threw a trash barrel at the window, causing it to fracture but not shatter. You came outside, and we got on the train. When we got to my place, I had to throw you over one shoulder and carry you because you were vomiting on the ground. I was all like, "Dude, look, three moons!" Then everything got pornographic and you wanted to have sex with me, and so we did, but then later you said: "One moon, Mike." For some reason you called me Mike.
When I awoke, I checked the bathroom again, by then it had sorted itself out on its own; all the water had drained away. I flushed, and the bowl filled with fresh, clean water. [Editor: Allen, this seems to be lifted from Knausgaard's piece in the Times, no?]
4 That's 37 miles, you twat.
5 About 7.5 miles, F-body.
6 I am so overcome with gratitude and so excited for all that's to come. Thanks, everyone, for your support.
The landscape stayed the same all morning, groves upon groves of trees casting their shadows across the snow-covered roadway, broken up by open fields or little towns that were seldom more than single rows of sunlit houses on either side of the road. I'm having trouble concentrating, actually. [Editor: Is this Knausgaard again?] The washing machine here seems like it might explode. Shaking and rattling. I mean, here where I'm typing all this up, in Missouri. I'm staying at my mom's new duplex. She's driving over from California. Taking her sweet time. She lost her debit card or something. I don't know. The movers got here last week with her boxes. She had three. I texted, "Three boxes? Is that it? No furniture? Just linens and the statue and that rolled-up mat?" and she went silent on me a few days. Then she wrote, "Yup."
I'm house-sitting in the meantime. Me and the Warlord. Sort of camping. I told him it's camping. My mom has us here "rent-free," in exchange for staining her living-room and dining-room floors black. She saw some photo on Houzz, of Stellan Skarsgård's bungalow, and now she wants the same look in her duplex. The first time I laid down the Minwax, after renting a sander from Home Depot and all that, to take up the original stain, I sent my mom a photo of the floor and she texted back, "I wouldn't mind that it's not black if I couldn't see the brown undertones." Then she texted, "I can see the grain." She texted, "Can you watch this video?" It was the Skarsgård bungalow. "Look at those floors," she said. "Gorgeous."
It turned out the only place you could get the Glitsa sable that Skarsgård used to such devastating effect was at this wholesaler's way the hell out. The Warlord and I took an Uber there one afternoon. In the country, the sky was full of birds I believe were hawks. I had to get the driver to stop and let me pee. We stopped several times. I have to pee a lot. Lately, I mean. I'm just peeing all the time. Maybe I have an infection. Jesus. I woke up this morning with a string of bites around the waistband of my trousers. They were in a straight line. I don't know. I don't need bed bugs again. Right before we left New York, the Warlord spent the night at Ginjie's mother's apartment (long story, you're spared). I hated to blame Ginjie, or her mother, so I just sent a text. " do you have bed bugs ginjie? or does your mom? i need to know now." She wrote back, "Yes, sir, I am available in summertime at the same hours and rate. Best wishes, Ginjie." The Warlord meanwhile was on his phone, texting. "Grandma says to call her the moment you get the Glitsa," he said. I nodded, thinking how many different ways she could go fuck herself. Anyway, the guy at the wholesaler's said he only sold to the trade, but seeing as I was in a highly emotional state—his words—he'd help me out. I only needed a gallon.
So I sanded, did a test stain, sent a photo. Those three dots popped right up. Mom wrote, "How many coats? Did you water pop it?" I went back, re-rented the sander, got a couple more gallons of Glitsa. Now I'm waiting for the third coat to dry. Maybe it's all those fumes—I told the Warlord to play outside, but he went downstairs to wash his grandma's linens. He was like, "Where's she going to sleep, Dad?" Sweet little guy—but I realized something important just now: A profile is not about finding the subject of your profile and asking him questions. Nor is it about sitting down with your subject and breaking bread with him and then repeatedly excusing yourself to the potty orb in order to make notes on the ways in which he breaks his bread. Goddammit, it's about giving out free handjobs! It is about the author and all the little details that lead up to his ultimate fight with his editor, when Ramses suggests in veiled terms that I, Allen Pearl, am a lazy one-hit wonder, and then I suggest in veiled terms that Ramses is a no-talent crook in a ten-dollar blazer, 7 and then the both of us steam for a while. The author bitches to his mom, or child. Ramses bitches to an editor friend at some party or maybe at the Scratcher (which, incidentally, Allen Pearl made, you bitches! You bitches, Allen Pearl made that bar—were it not for Weird Stevie and Allen Pearl, you would be drinking your drinks at, I don't know, a different bar). Days pass. The issue goes to print.
[Allen, how about we cut this last section and replace with something here like you call your son from the airport and he lets it go to voicemail? It's no big deal, that's just what kids do. You go to the airport bar and get a couple of drinks. Next thing you know, you're texting King Tut, and while you know you shouldn't go there, you do. He's like, "Send me a dirty picture." And you're like, "I thought we weren't going to do this again." "Please?" he says. Then maybe tie it back to the origins of Scandinavian literature, something about storytelling, but in your own words. Like, we've lost this style of narrative now, in the US—I mean, haven't we, really? This intimacy of ordinariness?—and that's why Knausgaard is so unique… then something about smartphones maybe, to wrap things up. Rx]
7 This blazer, my God.