Books and authors discussed in this episode:
Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest
The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong
Bordirtoun, population 157,000. My birthplace, the safest rest stop for the dubious intentions and the miserable legacy of the Pong family. My great-great-granduncle Millmore was the first American Pong. He arrived in 1861 from Guangzhou, China and worked a little-known railroad that ran from the New Mexico territories to Los Angeles, sticking dynamite in the most stubborn mountain faces of the southwest. A quiet man who rarely complained, Millmore chose not to join an unsuccessful worker strike because his pregnant wife was due, and the railroad company rewarded his loyalty with a transfer to the safer occupation of bridge construction. The following week, just two days after his son was born, at his new job, Millmore’s safety harness was chafing his crotch, and while adjusting it, he inadvertently undid the belt and plummeted to his death, off the railroad bridge that traverses what is now Bordirtoun River.
Millmore’s son Parris grew up to run one of the many brothels for which Bordirtoun became renowned. He was the head of the local Chinese business association and a notoriously poor speller. When the town was just a single dirt road, Parris Pong painted a large sign on the wall of one of the saloons that read: “Sects wif Beast Layddys af Parris’s Bordirtoun Brofful.” Parris’s misspelling of border town stuck, and the Chinese business association officially named the village Bordirtoun in 1895. Today, the faded sign hangs in the Museum of Bordirtoun History, which is not much larger than the principal’s office at my old middle school.
The railroads brought caboose-fulls of whites, Native Americans, and Mexicans, and over time, these people formed a full-fledged city government. Parris’s son Francisco became Bordirtoun’s most popular evangelical pastor, and he dreamed of bringing the extended Pong clan to America. During a time when Chinese immigrants were less welcome in the country than even the despised Mexicans, Francisco successfully sponsored the immigration of numerous Pongs. Today, many of them are scattered across the West Coast, no doubt lowering the average IQ of Chinese-Americans in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Francisco was the first Pong to speak fluent English. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francisco’s fluency was tested by officials convinced that his thick, sloped brows and high, round cheekbones indicated he was a member of the enemy. Under a blazing white sky without clouds, Francisco shuffled down the cobblestone road near his church, likely confident that God would resolve his case of mistaken identity, if not that day, then some day soon. The day was February 20, 1942, the morning after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the order to intern Japanese-Americans. Francisco was arrested and shipped to the Rio River internment camps, where he contracted pneumonia and died soon after, leaving no one to deal with the impending arrival of his cousin (my grandfather Robinson) and his cousin’s son (my father, Saul).
There’s a dearth of archived information regarding Robinson Pong. My father has generally avoided all mention of my grandfather over the years, and all that’s known of him is that he owned a general store for over a decade before going to work one day and never coming home. A missing persons report was filed. A few days later, a local waitress also disappeared without notice, without a trace, leaving a son and a husband, and for several weeks, police worried that there might be a serial killer or kidnapper loose in Bordirtoun. No sign of either Robinson or the woman was ever found, nor was there any evidence of a bone collector, a night stalker, or any such criminal.
Saul was the lucky Pong. History holds that engineer and entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell conceived one of the first video games, PONG, for his company Atari in 1972. What history fails to note is that my father and Bushnell were inseparable as electrical engineering students at the University of Utah and that he hired Saul (the Utes’ ping-pong champion 1966) as a table-tennis verisimilitude consultant in 1970. When the time arrived to name the landmark game, my father suggested his now-famous surname. Just before the patent for PONG was filed in 1973, Bushnell and Saul had a mysterious falling out, and the executives at Atari felt enough antipathy toward my father to pay him royally to leave the company and expunge his employee records. My father has never told me what happened between him and Bushnell, but for many years, in his home office, Saul kept a framed candid of himself and Bushnell’s first wife, Paula, looking into each other’s eyes and smiling in front of an Atari office building.
My father landed as he always landed: on his feet and ready to run. He invested the payoff into real estate and went into politics. By the turn of the century, my father had become the mayor of Bordirtoun. I found out via email, sent from Saul with the subject line, “I DUN IT! I WON MAJUR,” followed by a link to the Bordirtoun Daily article with a photo of my father beaming and holding up my frowning mother’s hand.
Why would Saul want to preside over a place with such a peculiar brand of mediocrity? I never felt safe within Bordirtoun’s confines, with its chemical plant stacks ever-spewing, its serpentine and never-ending outbound highways, the leering black mountains, and the acerbic atmosphere of cow patty and metal. Most of Bordirtoun’s cultural events included the following as narrative fulcra: a cowboy, a sinister Mariachi, or nude painted dancers as performance artists. In my early teens, I loitered after school in front of City Hall, tossing eggs at the statue of Leland Stanford, the man who had brought the railroads through Bordirtoun. When I was done, I sat at the base of the statue, hugging my belly, brutally constipated (as I often was due to the low quality butcheries and brittle produce endemic to the region), and I stared out at the turdy brown of the river separating the city’s eastern middle-class neighborhoods and its poorer western districts. I recall digging my heels into the pedestal and thinking: when I grow up, I will not be here.
Why would Bordirtoun want to be presided over by my father and his peculiar brand of mediocrity? Prior to my adolescent battles with orthodontic gingivitis, halitosis, and acne vulgaris, Saul took me on dates with his mistresses (many of them notably unattractive) and made me wait in unfamiliar backyards while he hoed sundry longhaired and breasted gardens. Naturally my mother protested, and many of my childhood nights were spent covering my ears with limp pillows. The way Saul treated my mother was the main reason I fled Bordirtoun. I aspired to be a better man, and for a long time, I was more or less successful.
What has become of me, you ask? Where do I, Sulliver Pong, fall in the spectrum of Bordirtoun Pong legacies? Allow me to provide an answer, however incomplete.
Twenty years, two business schools, a myriad of big city consultancies, and thousands of airport sandwiches later, I discovered myself in Copenhagen, of all places, with my wife, my Danish language instructor, Lene. I had always preferred tall women with Anglo-Saxon features, and since I was bald, short, Asian, and, at the time, obese, I often faced difficult odds. But Lene was my lucky play. I adored her allergy to confusion. Early in our courtship, while I hemmed and hawed over our evident differences, Lene revealed she had long since chosen me.
“When I was young, I had a teacher who had dark hair and bad teeth like you,” she said. “All my friends said he was very ugly. To me, he looked mysterious. I knew the man I married would have mystery. Tell me, will you stay or shall I look for another?”
Together for eleven years, married for eight, in that time, I rarely regretted Lene’s choice. Whenever we stood on our balcony, our bent elbows linked, my head resting on her shoulder as we stared out at the milky horizon toward just-invisible Sweden, smoking Prince cigarettes after a daylight-drenched summer dinner, I was reminded to appreciate how far I’d come: a Bordirtoun hick done good.
Before I go further and mislead you into thinking that all’s well that ends well, I feel it’s fair to note that I am, at this moment, writing belly-down on the top bunk of a jail cell, ignoring the stuttering breathing of my cellmate, Manny, who is masturbating. The prison is minimum security, but I’ve long since learned that it is so to my detriment. I can still stare out at the horizon here, through a human-proof window. If I somehow managed to pry open this glass and run, I’d be gunned down at a hundred yards, or, with my luck, eighty. Lene is long gone. I am no longer in Denmark. I am where I was born. In America. In Bordirtoun.
I am an innocent man with no prior criminal history. I have eighteen months remaining in my four-year sentence. Every six months I apply for parole, like a regularly scheduled dental cleaning, and each time, I’ve been assigned a less competent attorney, and laughed out of the parole hearing. My most recent legal representative was in the midst of a career change; he was a defrocked priest. Another attorney was so severely dyslexic that he couldn’t read his own notes. My latest lawyer is named Janning Jaynuss (pronounced Yawning Yay-ness), and he seems to believe that the reason I haven’t been paroled is that the board doesn’t know me well enough.
“I see the parole board more than I see my parents,” I said over the phone earlier today.
“Who were you before you came to prison?” he replied. Music (meringue or salsa?) was audible in the background. “How did you end up inside? How have you changed? How has prison reformed and rehabilitated your character?”
“I’m innocent of the crime for which I was convicted.”
I heard chips crunching over the line.
“Hello?” I said.
“That’s great. Just great.”
“That you’re innocent.”
“I pled innocent.”
“Haven’t you read my file?”
“Well, Mr. Pong, set the record straight,” he said. “Write it down. Tell your story. Leave no story stone unturned.”
I questioned whether storytelling was a good use of my time.
The music stopped. “Look, Pong, you got better things to do?” Jaynuss said. “You haven‘t given me much to work with here. The parole board doesn’t care whether you’re innocent or not. You’ve been convicted, and the board assumes that the process has been fair to you, even if it hasn’t. You’ve shown no remorse for anything that happened. You’ve shown no signs of even reflecting on how you got in the mess you’re in. All these hearings and not once has one of your family members sent a letter to the board asking for leniency. In fact, no one has shown up on your behalf. Not your ex-wife, not your father, not your mother.”
To that, I had no rebuttal.
“Leave no story stone unturned, Pong,” Jaynuss repeated before hanging up.
Fine. I will turn over all story stones, perhaps even a few other stones. Just for you, Jaynuss (pronounced Yoost for you, Yay-ness). Yoost for you too, reader. Once and for all.
Leland Cheuk, who has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies, including the MacDowell Colony, and whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn. His most recent book is Letters from Dinosaurs.