May 2004Adele Hotel and SuitesWashington, D.C.
jay: Testing, testing. Testing. Testing.
ben: Is it working?
jay: I think so. [Click...click, click.
] Yes, see the little readout? Where'd you get it?
ben: Circuit City.
jay: Three hundred and ninety minutes. That should definitely do it. I'll pay you back.
ben: No, it's fine, honestly.
jay: Well, thanks, man. I just feel I have a lot in my noggin right now.
ben: So I gather. You look good, Jay.
jay: Really? I was working on a fishing boat for a while, dropped some pounds. Are those new glasses?
ben: Yeah, Julie helped me pick them. Did you know Brooks Brothers made glasses frames?
jay: No, I did not. Let me see them.
jay: "Made in China." I always check. Anyway, they suit you. Really, you look less like a bird.
ben: I'm glad to hear it. So tell me what's up.
jay: Oh, let's see. Where to begin? Where to begin?
ben: Obviously you have something on your mind.
jay: That's true.
ben: You could begin with that.
jay: Okay. Uh, I'm going to--okay, I'll just say it. Um.
ben: What is it?
jay: I'm going to assassinate the president.
ben: What do you mean?
jay: Take his life.
ben: You're shitting me, right?
ben: Tell me this is one of your little flippancies.
jay: It's not a flippancy.
ben: Come on, Jay. This isn't--turn that off.
jay: No, I'd like it on. Before I do it I want to explain, for the record.
ben: Please turn that off right now.
jay: It's got to stay on.
ben: I think I better go.
ben: Yes already. You're talking about the president, am I right? That is what you said. Or did I just hallucinate?
jay: No, that is what I said. But you can't go.
ben: This isn't what I thought you were calling me about. I thought maybe your girlfriend had left you.
jay: She did.
ben: Well, okay. That's more like it.
jay: But I also have this plan that I need to execute. Calm down, will you?
ben: That's pretty funny.
ben: You're telling me to calm down when you've got this...deed on your mind. It's a major, major, major crime. It doesn't get much more major.
jay: I know, and it's high time, too. I haven't felt this way about any of the other ones. Not Nixon, not Bonzo, even. For the good of humankind.
ben: Do you have a gun?
jay: I don't like guns.
ben: But do you have one?
jay: I may.
ben: That is so low. You're a civilized person.
jay: Not anymore.
ben: You can't--the country has no need for this service.
jay: I think it does. I think we have to lance the fucking boil.
ben: No, I'm serious, he'll be out of power eventually. Either he loses and he's out, or he wins, and then he's out a little later. Either way, his time will pass in a twinkling. Many years from now you'll be reading the comics in some cafe somewhere, and you'll think, Boy oh boy, I'm sure glad I didn't do that.
jay: I'm going to do it today.
ben: Let's just set it aside, shall we? Just put that off to one side. You know you'll never get away with it. They'll shoot you full of bullets and you'll die. Or they'll fry you. Seriously, you'll die. And for what? Do you know what a bullet does?
jay: It tears into your flesh at high speed. It rips through your vitals.
ben: If you get hit here? Half-digested material leaks out of your intestines into your abdominal cavity.
jay: That's what happened to McKinley.
ben: You mean President McKinley?
ben: Well, right. Do you want that to happen to you? They have snipers up on the roof.
jay: I know, I've seen them. They've got missile launchers up there, too.
ben: Those guys want to put bullets into you.
jay: They don't know about me.
ben: Oh, but they know that there are bad people out there.
jay: That's true, and I'm one of them.
ben: I don't think so.
jay: No, Ben, this guy is beyond the beyond. What he's done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It's too much. It makes me so angry. And it's a new kind of anger,too. There was a story a year ago, April last year. It was a family at a checkpoint. Do you remember?
ben: I'm not sure.
jay: It was a family fleeing in a car. The mother was one of the few survivors. And she said, "I saw--" Sorry. I can't.
ben: It's all right.
jay: I'm not going to let him get away with this.
ben: You think this is all him? What about, you know, Cheney? What about Donald? What about all the generals who came up with the attac plans? And the hopheads who flew the airplanes?
jay: Hey hey, ho ho--George Bush has got to go.
ben: Look, he's going to go, it's inevitable, he'll have a successor.
jay: Now. He has to go now.
ben: Set it aside. Just set it off to one side, please, will you? What have you been up to?
jay: Oh, I've had a bunch of jobs. I got into a slight financial scrape.
ben: How bad?
jay: Well, I nearly had to declare personal--insolvency, shall we say.
jay: It was intense.
ben: I bet.
jay: So I've been working as a day laborer.
ben: You haven't been teaching at all?
jay: That kind of ended. It was really a part-time thing, anyway, so... But the day labor has been really good for me. When you do gruntwork for hours and hours you actually have a lot of mental time.
jay: Your body is working and your brain can kind of cruise here and there.
ben: Yeah, I find in the evenings, like when I'm chopping up a cucumber to make salad, that rhythmic chop
, sometimes I think of a little connection that didn't occur to me all day.
jay: So tell me how your book is coming.
ben: Which one? You mean the one--
jay: The one about the government department during the war, the department that steamed open the envelopes.
ben: Oh, the Office of Censorship, right. Well, I kind of hit a retaining wall with that one. But we don't need to talk about that.
jay: I want to. It sounded very interesting when you told me about it.
ben: Well, okay, I spent some time at the National Archives and then I went to Wisconsin, and I spent some time there, that's where som of the papers are, and, well, the material hasn't started to sing to me yet. But it will, it will.
jay: When did we last get together? Was that three years ago?
ben: May have been. Long time.
jay: I'm so sorry about that wheelbarrow, man.
ben: No no no.
jay: I felt bad, I just didn't see it in the dark.
ben: It's fine, it still works. It lists a little, that's all.
jay: Really sorry. So what have you been working on instead?
ben: Instead of what?
jay: Instead of the book about the steaming open of the envelopes.
ben: Oh, a few things--a few Cold War themes that I've been pursuing. And my classes take up time--I co-teach an honors seminar every spring.
jay: Some good students?
ben: A few. Oh, and I bought a camera! That's my big news.
jay: A camera, huh? Digital?
ben: Well, I have a digital camera, but no, this one that I bought is a film camera. It's called a Bronica--a Bronica GS-1.
jay: A Bronica GS-1. What's that?
ben: It's a big heavy camera, it uses a wider kind of film.
jay: Where's it made? Germany?
ben: No, no, Japan.
jay: Oh, of course. And it's heavy, is it?
ben: Yeah, but the great thing is, you don't have to use a tripod. You can hold it with a handle called a speed grip. I love it.
jay: It sounds very professional.
ben: Oh, it's definitely professional--I mean, I'm just an amateur, but it's a privilege to hold this thing. I bought a couple of lenses for it, a beautiful hundred-and-ten-millimeter macro lens, butter smooth. I'm really into lenses now.
jay: Remember that photograph of the girl, the girl running?
ben: What girl?
jay: The girl in Vietnam running from the napalm? She's naked, she's crying.
ben: Oh, yeah, yeah.
jay: Well, they've used napalm in Iraq.
ben: I may have heard something about that.
jay: Right off the bat they used it. At first they denied it. It came out in a newspaper. Napalm bombs. And some PR guy from the Pentagon wrote an outraged response. "We did NOT use napalm, we got rid of our stocks of napalm years ago, this is a GROSS INACCURACY and a DISSERVICE TO YOUR READERS," and so on and so on. Well, then, of course, it turns out that, well, uh, yes, they're shooting missile full of this goop that starts intense fires and, well, yes, they're using it to burn people alive, and, uh, yes, all our Army commanders do call it napalm, but it isn't technically napalm because it's not naphtha-poly-toly-moly-doodlemate
, whatever. Whatever the formula was when they first invented it back behind the stadium.
ben: The stadium.
jay: The Harvard stadium. That's where they invented it. So this is a different chemical formula, but the people who shoot the missiles call it napalm, the generals call it napalm, because hey, it's exploding globs of fiery jelly that cause an agonizing death. In fact, it's improved fire jelly--it's even harder to put out than the stuff they used in Vietnam. And Korea. And Germany. And Japan. It just has another official name. Now it's called Mark 77. I mean, have we learned nothing? Mark 77! I'm going to kill that bastard.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker. Copyright © 2004 by Nicholson Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.