Bite Me

 I’m reading a non-fiction piece by a cable TV tech

who says she told a customer that she needs

 to get into the basement to run a line, and the customer

says, “You can’t go in the basement—it’s a mess,”

 and the cable TV tech says, “Look, I’ve seen it all,

so unless you’ve got a kid in a cage down there,

 nothing will bother me,” and the customer pauses

for a beat and says, “Not a kid.” Just then

 the phone rings, and it’s a friend who tells me


 he’s thinking about taking up fox hunting

but hesitates when I ask him if there are foxes

 where he lives. I tell him to go ahead, though:

this way, he’ll have all the fun of fox hunting

 and none of the barbarism, presuming some other

prey appears, of course, like geese or skateboarders.

 Or your own thoughts: isn’t being startled

by some idea or feeling that you never knew

 you had in the first place just the best? Think how


 smart you feel when you’re crossing the street

or walking through the woods and suddenly you see

 how the coadjutant power of an atom is determined

by the number of hydrogen atoms that it combines with

 or what Kant meant by the categorical imperative

or why your mom stayed with your dad even after

 he kept getting arrested, especially that one time.

“To live is so startling, it leaves but little room

 for other occupations,” says Emily Dickinson,


 and surely that’s how people felt at Elvis’s first

stage show, because here was a kid who wasn’t

 playing country, said producer Sam Phillips,

and he wasn’t playing rhythm ‘n’ blues, and he

 looked “a little greasy,” and the venue was “just

a joint,” and the audience was a bunch of

 hard-drinking folks who weren’t about to settle for

a tepid performance, but they didn’t have to,

 because their reaction, said Phillips, was “just


 incredible.” I’m so happy that those people

had that experience. It must have been

 the best surprise. I think probably the worst

surprise is to have a heart attack during a game

 of charades, because either people will think

you’re mimicking someone having a heart attack

 or else you’re doing an absolutely terrible job

of acting out the scenario you’re supposed to be

 acting out, such as transcribing a Beethoven


 sonata but in a different key from the original

or knitting a muffler to give your granny for

 Christmas or Hanukkah, if she’s Jewish.

This one woman said her biggest surprise

 was when she woke up after an unsuccessful

suicide attempt: she’d checked into a motel,

 put a plastic sheet on the bed, lain down,

and swallowed what she thought would be

 an overdose of pills only to be found by


 the housekeeper the next morning and wake up

a few days later in a psychiatric ward. “I was

 very upset I had failed,” she said. Not me,

I say. Kill yourself and you miss out on

 the eight million little surprises that happen

every day, such as the time last week when a tiny

 slip of a student came to my office to drop off

some work, and we chatted for a minute,

 and it turns out she’s a German major,


 and when I say why German, she says, “I want

to be a butcher, and the best butchery schools

 are in Germany.” Take that, you village explainers

who say that humanities degrees are worthless!

 Lucky student. She’ll be in Germany for a year,

and after that, who knows where? Anthony

 Bourdain says, “Travel changes you. As you

move through this life and this world, you change

 things slightly, you leave marks behind,


 however small. And in return, life and travel

leave marks on you.” Bourdain is also the guy

 who said, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an

amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Someone

 who always enjoys the ride is Percy, the neighbor’s

cat, who comes over every day to bite me.

 There I am, having coffee on the deck

and reading the newspapers, and Percy settles

 down between my feet and looks at them as


 though he’s studying the menu board at

a McFriendly’s and trying to decide whether

 he wants the Chocolate Chili Cheese Dog

or the Big Bubba Bacon Bomb. When my friend

 who wants to take up foxhunting gets off

the phone, I start reading again, which is when

 I learn that the cable TV tech goes down into

the customer’s basement and finds, not a kid

 in a cage, but a man, and actually a happy man


 at that, if “happy” is the word you’d use to

describe someone who is paying the householder

 to lock him up and starve him and beat him

regularly or whatever it is that a sex worker

 does to someone who takes delight in

a leisure-time activity that wouldn’t exactly

 make my heart leap up with joy, but then

there you have it. Oh, go ahead and bite me,

 Percy. You’ll only surprise me if you don’t.