Holiday 2014 — THE POTOMAC

Everything You Need to Know

about Being a Nipple

  James Valvis

               "What happens when you stab Mark?... You get a pierced Nipple."
               It was the fourth nipple joke Mark Nipple heard that month, the fourth time someone told him the same old shit he'd been hearing since grade school, one of the same tiresome nipple gags that each idiot believed himself to be the first to create, every time the telling as banal as the joke itself. Considering it was already the 13th of May, a fourth time did not make this month any worse than any other month. It might even have been a nipple gag or two better than most. Last month he had counted sixteen nipple jokes, the month before nine, and the month before that fourteen.
               There was a time when he used to respond to these nipple jabs with a biting wit, but lately all he had been able to muster was a tight smirk. It took effort sometimes being around people, their unoriginality. Even Nipple's close friends noticed it after a while.
               "Is it like that all the time?" they asked.
               "That's right."
               "Was I like that?"
               "In the beginning..."
               What did Mark and his wife name their first child? Third... Third Nipple... Get it? Hahahah!
               What did the cop say to Mark Nipple? You're under a vest.
               Why did Mark get married and have children? So he could have tits to go with his little Nipples.
               He'd heard them all before, and he knew the embarrassment in which teachers said his name in class (NI-pelle, as if he was French), the way bouncers double-checked his ID going into bars, and how even his wife waited until almost the wedding before she sprung the name on her scandalized and livid parents. And wasn't it because of this that he refused to shorten his name to Nip or lengthen it to Nippleton? Didn't he like sticking it in the craw of the small-minded and dull-witted? Wasn't it a pleasure that he took away from these encounters, to know that these people were mental-laggards droning on the same weak attempts at cleverness?
               So Mark had no idea why he grabbed the young man by his custom fit Ralph Lauren Polo and slammed him into the wall, why he was sticking his elbow into the pretty boy's milky white cheek, why he was reaching down with his free hand to yank the ball off his body.
               He would have done it too had his son not pulled at him, desperately. Mark paused just long enough for three of the kid's friends to pull him off, though three buttons popped off the expensive shirt before Mark let go entirely.
               A couple of elbows and then Mark was free of the friends. He turned and walked off, cursing, swearing he'd kill them all. A moment later he was kicking down Tremont, his son catching up to him and matching his long stride.
               "What the hell, Dad?"
               Mark showed him the back of his hand and kept walking. He would do what he always did at times like this. He would walk, not breaking stride, not talk, and let his feet carry him wherever they pleased. Usually, this close, that meant the King's Chapel Burial Ground. It was never a conscious destination except by now he knew where he was going, where he would end up. Nobody knew he visited here regularly. He'd never travelled there with his family, never showed any serious interest in history, but time and again in moments like these he picked his way to the small, famous cemetery. By now he knew all the famous graves by heart. A failure at work brought him to the grave of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, who called America a shining city upon a hill, most people today thinking it a boast when in fact it was a warning. Wife troubles sent him to stand before the tombstone of Mary Chilton, who was said to be the first settler to step on Plymouth Rock. General malaise made him contemplate Hezekiah Usher, the colony's first printer. And during that short and intense and ultimately platonic affair he had five years earlier he spent several hours at the resting place of Elizabeth Pain, a woman tried for the murder of her child born out of wedlock and also the probable inspiration for Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Pain indeed.
               Mark was only vaguely aware of his son's company as he pushed around the tourists, the role-players dressed in revolutionary garb, the bums shaking the coins in their cups to make a pitiful music. Summer wasn't yet upon them with any sincerity, but Mark sweated anyway. He wasn't young anymore, and the lean but powerful body he carried to the punk concerts of his youth was no longer in evidence the few times he dared to take his shirt off in public. If the kid hadn't been taken by surprise earlier, if he hadn't been so concerned about his fancy shirt, he could have thrown Mark aside and had his way with him. The friends had done Mark a favor by pulling him off before Mark's wind gave out and the young man came to his senses and fought back.
               He knew this now, walking it off, getting his senses about him. He knew also that he would pay for the shirt and tell the kid he was sorry and that he would let bygones be bygones. And he figured the kid would sullenly accept the check and tell Mark he'd just been joking and hadn't meant anything by it. And Mark would nod because, really, what the hell could he expect? He didn't mean anything by it. There were a thousand people like him, a thousand times a million. To get angry at them was like getting angry at the stars, pointless and time consuming.
Mark and Aubrey entered the burial ground next to the chapel. Mark turned down the laminated information sheet being offered for a donation and stepped around the cemetery, which wasn't any bigger than the parking lot of a pizza parlor, until he found what he was looking for. He looked down at the tombstone, studied it, as he had all these many years. Of all the stones, this was the one that spoke to him the most.
               "Who is this?" Aubrey finally asked.
               Aubrey had kept his head and tongue this whole time. Mark was proud of him for that. He'd raised a good kid. Not much of a musician, but a lot of heart and more drive than Mark ever had.
               "Like the stone says," Mark said. "William Dawes."
               "And who is he?"
               "There's a famous poem," Mark said. "It's by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It's called 'The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.' Ever hear of it?"
               "Sure. I think so."
               "Ever read it?"
               "No. Sorry."
               "But you know the story?"
               "Yeah, kind of. Anyway, what's it got to do with this guy? Paul Revere's buried in that other cemetery. We just passed it."
               Mark wiped some of the sweat from his brow. Now that he stopped moving, his body was drenching his shirt. He looked around at the people strolling with their laminated sheets, checking out the dead. Or what remained of the dead. Even with the bustle, he found this place resting, calm. The people buried here—their lives were over now, their stories complete, and it gave this cemetery, as all cemeteries, a finality that Mark found comforting.
               "He an ancestor or something?" Aubrey asked.
               "No," Mark said. "Not really."
               "Then what?"
               "Paul Revere wasn't the only midnight rider. He wasn't the only guy to warn the colonists about the Red Coats. Dawes here left earlier and took the longer land route. His route was said to be more dangerous, but ask any kid in America who he is today and you'd be lucky to find one in 10,000 who's heard of him. Paul Revere on the other hand..." Mark stepped forward and removed a small stick that had landed on the tombstone. "There's this other poem, not as famous, written by a lady called Helen Moore. It's about Revere and Dawes. Want to hear some of it?"
               "Sure, I guess."
               "History rings with his silvery name,/ Closed to me are the portals of fame./Had he been Dawes and I Revere,/ Nobody would have heard of him I fear./ No one has heard of me because... / He was Revere and I was Dawes."
               Aubrey said, "Is that all of it?"
               "All that matters," Mark said. "In those lines you'll find everything there is to know about being a Nipple."
               For a few moments, long enough for the silence to become uncomfortable, they stood looking at the marker of a man who had been dead for over three centuries. Mark again wiped some sweat from his brow and Aubrey looked toward the fenced subway vent. An old couple wanted to scoot by and so they moved to let them pass and then, as if by agreement, began walking back toward Tremont.
               When they were a good distance closer to home, Aubrey said, "I guess I don't get it."
               "Don't worry, Third," Mark said. "You will."

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