Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Dave Egger's Short Short Story

You know how to spell Elijah
Dave Eggers
Saturday June 5, 2004 The Guardian

You are at the airport, airless, sitting in a black faux-leather chair near your departure gate. There is a girl, about 12, sitting in a similar chair, across the wide, immaculate aisle, and she wants to know how to spell Elijah. She is working on a crossword in Teen magazine, and is squinting at it, chewing her inner mouth. She is flanked by her parents, and soon appeals to them for help. Her father is burly and bearded, her mother tall and thin. Her mother, who reminds you of a praying mantis, answers her daughter's question this way: "It's easy, Dakota: E-L-I-S-H-A." And though you have your own things to do, your own Boating Week to read and your bagel to eat, you can no longer concentrate on anything but this young girl's crossword puzzle, quickly being polluted by the advice of these people she calls her parents. (And the young girl is working not in pencil - fool! - but in pen.) You are burning to tell her the truth about the young actor's name-spelling, but fear you would embarrass or undermine her mother, which you don't want to do. Besides, you think, the girl's father will surely correct the mother; isn't that the beauty of the two-parent system? Indeed it is, for here he is now, leaning over, inspecting the crossword. And now he is putting on his glasses even, and finally he says, "No, Sharon. I'm pretty sure it's A-L-I-G-A." Fucking christ! You let out a quick, desperate cough. These people cannot be serious. This poor girl, stuck for ever in a dim, ill-spelling world, nowhere to turn. She'll never know the spelling of Elijah, or Enrique, or even Justin or JC. Should you intervene? Isn't it your duty? Don't those who know the truth have a responsibility to stop the dissemination of untruths? You must step in. You can do so good-naturedly. You can do so without upsetting the family unit, the sanctity thereof. But you're 18ft away, making it impossible without implying that you were paying far more attention to the girl's crossword than would seem casual or proper. They'll assume you have an unhealthy interest in Teen magazine and its cover boys. And really now, what were you doing, listening in to her spelling request? Isn't your own life complicated enough? Is your own existence so free of mistakes that you need to seek them out in strangers, inserting yourself into the life of a 12-year-old with a crush on a hobbit-playing actor? No wonder you're on your way to a spa in Palm Desert. You damn well need the rest.