My best friend growing up was Mark Frantin. His name spelled backward is Nitnarf Kram, and that’s what everyone called him.
My brother’s best friend was Chris Minch. His name backward is Hcnim Sirhc. Everyone called him Chris Minch.
Danny, my brother, would walk the mile and a half to school with Chris and their other friends and say things like “Gee, I sure hope no one shoves Chris Minch into the irrigation ditch.” So of course someone would.
Chris and Danny were a year older than us. Chris was small and studious with blond hair that looked almost white. He supposedly spoke three languages but it was hard to get a word out of him.
Danny did most of the talking. His primary topics were cars and sports and the long list of things he hoped no one would do to Chris Minch.
He hoped no one would throw rocks at him, and dog turds and cherry bombs—whatever was handy. He hoped no one would give Chris Minch Indian burns, wet willies, titty twisters and melvins.
One time Danny hoped no one would put a black widow in Chris Minch’s book bag, an orange leather satchel that looked more like a purse. In that case, no one would.
A melvin is when you pull the waistband of someone’s underwear out the back of his pants until the elastic tears, the penis is crushed, or both.
I never had a melvin. Where I came from they didn’t give those to girls, but one time I was bitten by a black widow. My whole arm swelled up and turned purple, and Danny took bets on whether I would die.
Nitnarf told me not to worry. He said an immunocompetent 14-year-old dying from a black widow bite had a probability index of less than one percent. That’s how Nitnarf talked.
Astrid, my mother, talked like this: “Tabitha, has your brain died and gone to be with Jesus? If you don’t have enough sense not to get bit by poisonous spiders, maybe you should stop crawling around with them under the porch.”
Chris bet $1.13 that I would pull through. He smiled when he gave Danny the money, not at me, exactly, but near me. His skin was so pale he seemed to glow.
A minch is a fjord or spring. Had there been minches where we lived, in Penryn, California, population 460, Danny probably would have hoped no one pushed Chris into those, too.
That’s what the population was before all of this. I haven’t been back in years so I don’t know what it is now.
Danny played baseball. Penryn was too small to have its own team so he pitched for the Loomis Jaybirds. They led the league in brawls and forfeits but hadn’t fielded a winning team since forever.
Danny fit right in. He was a reckless fielder and his fastball was crap, but he had a couple of nice off-speed pitches and a natural gift for making his opponents look stupid. It wasn’t enough to turn things around for the Loo Jays but it made everyone feel better about losing.
Something else that made everyone feel better: throwing tomatoes at cars off the I-80 overpass.
Up past Chris’s house, the tiny road we lived on crossed over an eight-lane freeway. Interstate 80 was Penryn’s most distinctive feature, even though it bypassed the town and there was no on- or off-ramp for miles either way.
The freeway had been widened for the weekend traffic between San Francisco and Reno. Friday night, it was bumper-to-bumper going up the hill, and on Sunday night, same thing coming down. The rest of the time it looked almost abandoned, like the civilization it was built for had mysteriously died off.
Extracurricular activities in Penryn included: underage drinking, losing at baseball, teenage pregnancy, acts of unkindness toward our animal friends, things Danny hoped no one would do to Chris Minch, and throwing tomatoes at cars off the I-80 overpass.
In comparative terms, throwing tomatoes was almost a humanitarian act, like caring about poor people or giving your allowance to save the whales.
Rotten tomatoes were the projectile of choice. They were spongy and sour and had to be cradled just so or your fingers would poke through the flesh. They made a satisfying splat whatever they hit but didn’t cause any real damage.
Danny preferred unripe tomatoes, little green missiles he could launch so far that motorists didn’t know what hit them. If they figured it out and wanted to complain, it was six miles to the next exit in Loomis for a phone.
One night out on the overpass with Chris, Danny said later, he bounced tomatoes off a Valiant and two Novas without incident. Then he wound up and threw a beautiful 12-6 curve that crashed through the T-top of a brand new 1979 Camaro Z28.
The driver probably didn’t know what hit him but he was pissed off enough about it to call the police from Loomis, and they had a pretty good idea where it came from.
Early the next morning, Dan Sr. and I drove out to the interstate and took it east, up the hill, to the police station in Auburn. He squinted into the sunrise all the way there, like maybe the day had come with operating instructions etched across the sky.
He came out with his arm halfway around Danny, who shrugged it off and climbed into the front seat of the van with a deep exhale and an oppressed look on his face.
Danny scooted his seat back, then forward, then back all the way, then forward, forward, forward, an inch at a time. Then he tilted it to an almost precise 120-degree angle and put one foot on the dash.
“Well, Dan,” he said, “I think we can agree this removes all doubt that the Camaro Z28 is the ultimate douchemobile.”
Inwardly, we agreed. No question. But outwardly, Dan Sr. was not happy.
Maybe he was expecting a different son to walk out of the station. A quiet youth, possibly thinner, ready to face bravely the consequences of his actions. When instead Dan Sr. got multiple seat adjustments and the tired but victorious demeanor of a released prisoner of conscience, he was angry.
Here’s the first thing that happened when Dan Sr. got angry: nothing. He didn’t say or do anything. Then, very slowly, he leaned his head back between one and two inches and began to sniff every couple of seconds, as if on top of everything else now he had a severe snot backlog to deal with as well.
Danny appeared to have some additional thoughts he was prepared to share about the Camaro Z28, so I said, “The important thing is, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson,” although I couldn’t think of what it was.
I spent the rest of the drive home watching the endless trail of concrete in the rearview mirror, wondering how a place we had just been could look so unfamiliar.
Dan Sr. had his belt unbuckled and Danny by the hair before they walked in the front door. That was usually the second thing that happened when Dan Sr. got angry.
The sound from Danny’s bedroom for I don’t know how long after was of someone knocking fungoes into the cheap seats, over and over. I blinked with every stroke and finally crawled under the porch until it stopped.
If you picture the face of a clock over home plate, a 12-6 curve comes in high, around the 12, and then falls straight out the bottom.
The sun streaked between porch boards, slats of light shining on me and through me. I sat so still I could see the dust settle on my skin.
When Astrid saw Danny’s back, she stomped into the living room where Dan Sr. was resting his eyes. “Jesus all to hell,” she said. “Are you not smart enough to beat your own kid? How many times do I have to tell you don’t leave marks?”
According to Nitnarf Kram’s calculations, she had to tell him between 1.6 and 2.2 times per month, depending on a variety of psychosocial factors researchers were only beginning to understand.
Nitnarf’s father ran the Psychology department at U.C. Davis. Dan Sr. ran a paper pulp machine at Keyes Fiber in south Sacramento.
Professor Kram said macro-structural theory could account for the complex nonlinearity of the relationship between anger and the extremes of occupational status.
“He means your dad’s violent because he works at a paper plate factory,” Nitnarf explained. “Why do you always say that?” I said. “He manufactures high-quality disposable dinnerware. It’s Chinet.”
I considered our fathers’ occupations roughly equivalent ventures. In terms of which was more interesting, I gave Dan Sr. the edge.
I told Nitnarf about the recent independent study that showed Chinet single-use tableware handled buffet loads 75 percent better than the leading competitor. He was wearing Mickey Mouse ears at the time, which I felt strengthened my position. “It is a premium brand,” he conceded.
I’d actually made up the part about the study. The whole Kram family was severely influenced by independent studies. “And now they’re available in three festival rim designs,” I added, which was true.
Nitnarf said he wondered what my dad’s self-evaluation maintenance model would look like if he worked for Dixie instead.
I wondered why Danny had been arrested on the overpass that night instead of Chris. Danny said they both ran when they saw the police, but everyone knew my brother could run faster.
The Danny I knew would’ve smiled as the headlights approached, said “Gee, I sure hope no one throws Chris Minch in jail,” and disappeared into the night.
Why didn’t that happen, and what would it have changed? Nothing, maybe, or everything. In hindsight it’s hard to know.
I spelled people’s names backward so no one in my family would know who I was writing about in my stories. That’s how it started, anyway.
It started with that and my dad, Dan Ogden Sr. who over dinner one night casually mentioned that his name backward was Ned Gonad. That’s if you moved the space two places to the left like you do with the decimal point when converting percentages in math.
An anadrome is a word or phrase spelled backward. Some names are funny backward, but others are just kind of interesting. Nitnarf and I both liked Lorac, Evilo, Ande and Aron. Even Dirtsa had its charm.
Some anadromes spell actual words. In class junior year we had Yak, Noel, Nomad, Sinned and Teragram, to name a few. For last names there was Remark, Flow, Deer and Grub.
Teragram is the British word for megaton. A megaton is equal to a million tons. Of course poor Margaret was fat as a sow.
Nitnarf laughed so hard about Ned Gonad he gave himself a nosebleed and had to lie down on my bed while Astrid rinsed the blood from his shirt. Nitnarf was kind of fat, too. He was fat enough that no one expected him to play baseball but not enough to be compared to livestock.
I was crap at sports, and Tabitha spelled backward sounds like one of those Jewish ceremonies where someone’s goat gets killed.
A word or phrase can have many anagrams but only one anadrome. For example, there are 64 known anagrams for Mark Frantin, but Nitnarf Kram is the only anadrome.
No one in my family knew who I wrote about in my stories because no one ever read them, not even when I left my notebook sitting around the house in what some might consider an inviting manner.
Nitnarf said I should be happy about this. He said, “Privacy is an expression of respect, which reflects and affirms status divisions and insulates against dysfunctional knowledge.”
I told him the words I wrote were the only proof I had that I was alive. That’s what I was thinking, anyway. What I said was, “Nitnarf, sometimes you are a severe moron.”
Nitnarf was what people used to call nerdy and now call gay, not because nerdy and gay are the same thing but because they’re easily confused, especially by nerdy gay people.
They start off thinking they’re interested in jazz standards and theme parks only to realize later that what they really want is to have sex all the time with people of their own gender.
Case in point: Nitnarf Kram.
He knew every song Harold Arlen ever wrote and was crazy about Disneyland. He‘d been to the one in Anaheim six times and the one in Florida twice.
His favorite things were: costumes, dance numbers, castles, colorful lights, marshmallows on a stick, and the Matterhorn bobsled ride. In a word: gay.
He wanted to work at Disneyland when he grew up, but not like a greeter or ride operator.
He had it all planned. Short-term, he would double-major in psychology and engineering, ace the GRE and get into a top-five grad school. Long-term, he wanted to get a doctorate in human spatial behavior relative to theme park design, and work as an Imagineer for Disney.
My plan was to make it through high school without getting pregnant. This was hypothetically at odds with my other plan of getting the hell out of Penryn as fast as I could.
Even with the interstate just up the hill, the quickest exit out of town was through the adolescent uterus. At the first sign of fertilization, girls were shipped off to whichever distant relative had the slowest mail and least reliable phone connection.
I had an Uncle Bill in South Dakota I thought I might like. I’d never met him but every year for Christmas he sent me a subscription to National Geographic. I didn’t do much with it other than note that droopy genitals look basically the same the world over, but still. Just the idea that someone thought I might have an interest in the world was encouraging.
Nitnarf said my conflicting goals arose from unassimilated aspects of my own psyche resulting from the interplay of internalized social norms with externalized personal needs.
I said one anagram for Doctor Nitnarf Kram was Torn Roman Dickfart.
At the time, no one had the goal of not getting AIDS. It wasn’t even called that then. No one knew what it was, or that Nitnarf would come home from school with that instead of a Ph.D., or that he would die when he was 24.
I think we were all a little nervous when Chris and Danny took up rock climbing. Halfway through their senior year it had become suddenly popular for otherwise reasonable people to fall off cliffs and boulders and splatter all over the ground.
Nitnarf wondered if Danny was trying to create an illusion of control through his engagement in lifestyle activities with unknown variability in the distribution of outcomes.
I wondered if my brother was trying to kill Chris Minch.
Danny said when someone fell and splatted it was called a red smiley. One guidebook expressed the difficulty of various climbs in the number of red smileys recorded there.
Chris and Danny spent every spare minute on the steep slabs of granite around the quarry. They walked around all day even when they weren’t climbing with rope looped over their shoulders and carabiners clanking around their waists.
Nitnarf and I thought they looked both ridiculous and somewhat dashing. We thought using dead people as a unit of measurement was wrong but also funny.
I held my breath over spring break when they drove all night to Half Dome in Yosemite, but came home more or less unharmed, wearing T-shirts that said they made it to the top even though they didn’t.
There were zero red smileys recorded at the quarry and 48 at Half Dome.
They climbed every weekend leading up to graduation. None of the things Danny might have hoped wouldn’t happen to Chris Minch did happen, so I worried less about him over time.
Chris was headed to Stanford in the fall, and Danny had signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Las Colinas Agricultural College nearby. They planned to share an apartment.
Las Colinas wasn’t Danny’s first-choice school. I’m not sure it was his choice at all. His favorite teams were the Michigan Wolverines and Nittany Lions. Las Colinas was home of the Marching Artichokes.
After graduation, Chris was spending part of the summer with his grandparents in Switzerland. Danny had been invited. The airfare was supposed to be his graduation present from Astrid and Dan Sr., but that ended up going toward the ultimate douchemobile instead.
If Danny was bothered by the change in plans, he didn’t let on. He got a summer job building crates at the fruit shed like the whole thing was his idea. He kept his pitching arm in shape after work throwing beer bottles into the quarry.
The guidebook said the vast majority of red smileys were the result of one or more of the following factors: inexperience, solo climbing, and gravity.
Chris planned to spend a few days climbing around the base of the Matterhorn, which the guidebook said had a red smiley rating of 423.
Nitnarf said the causal factors were oversimplified and unsound. He said it isn’t gravity that kills people but the abrupt change in momentum when they hit the ground.
For purposes of comparison, if the guidebook rated the danger of fake mountains, which it didn’t, the Matterhorn bobsled ride in Disneyland would have had only two red smileys.
The first I would attribute to inexperience. It was a 16-year-old boy. The kid stood up in his seat when his bobsled reached the summit, no one knows why. His friends heard a thud, turned around, and he was gone.
The other was a 48-year-old woman. She was ejected from her bobsled on its way down the mountain and run over by the one behind her.
None of the red smiley factors seem to apply to her situation, except that she was alone. She was in a bobsled car by herself, so no one will ever know what happened.
I waited all these years to see if it would make sense to me, but it doesn’t. I still can’t piece it together. I don’t understand what a woman my age was doing in Disneyland in the first place, on the Matterhorn bobsled ride, alone.
Anyway, Chris Minch was inexperienced and climbing alone. No one saw it happen, but he fell off the face of the mountain, off the face of the earth.
I made it to graduation without getting pregnant. Astrid said it was “like immaculate conception, only in reverse,” which was funny but untrue. I left high school with a solid B average and my virginity formally intact.
Nitnarf had a full ride to everywhere but picked Berkeley to be close to home. His dad pulled some strings to get me into Davis and lined up a work-study gig to pay for it.
I was moving less than an hour away but that whole summer after high school felt like the last time for everything.
It was the last camping trip to Lake Spaulding, the last Fourth of July it was still okay to like sparklers. It was the last nights sleeping on the porch to escape the heat of the house, the broken hum of cars on the freeway singing me to sleep.
It was the last time Nitnarf and I read to each other all day at the edge of the quarry or drifted across the pond on inner tubes tied together, leaving twin trails behind us on the water’s cold skin.
I was looking back at things even as they were happening and already they were losing their shape. I couldn’t figure out how we’d gotten here from there, and the future was a bright gaping hole.
Here’s what I wouldn’t like about falling off a cliff and dying, other than a) falling off a cliff, and b) dying: the backwardness. The not being able to see what’s coming. The abrupt change in momentum sneaking up from behind.
Danny decided to skip Las Colinas and stay on at the packing shed where they paid 80 cents a crate and didn’t care when he built them. He worked late at night after the heat broke and everyone was gone.
He used to let Nitnarf and me ride the conveyor belts from the railway platforms in back, up and around the darkened rafters and down to the sorting stations below. We giggled like little kids when we dropped into the bins, our mouths dry with fruit dust.
But after Chris died, Danny didn’t open the gate when we knocked, and I almost never saw him, even when we still lived at home. If we ran into each other in the hall or coming out of the bathroom, he stopped and closed his eyes, like there was nothing left in the world he needed to see.
Hits a Cracking Homer is one anagram for Marching Artichokes. If you think about it, not really what a pitcher wants to hear.
Nitnarf said grief could mimic antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive, but Danny’s was compounded by the ambiguity of his loss.
I said, “Nitnarf, just this one time can you use words that actually mean something?” “He’s sad that no one knows he’s sad,” Nitnarf said. “Kind of like you.”
For Nitnarf’s last birthday, there was a surprise party at my place in Sacramento. We came home from a doctor’s appointment with sobering news about T-cells, and Astrid and Dan Sr. jumped out from behind the furniture with cake and presents like everyone does.
To clarify: I was the one surprised.
I had my suspicions that Nitnarf had engineered the whole thing. Let’s just say pink chiffon cake with pistachio mint frosting was not an obvious choice.
My parents had started helping out after Nitnarf moved in. Professor Kram had taken a job at Colorado State, and he and his wife moved 15 hours east on I-80 not long after their son had been diagnosed.
Danny had moved away, too, years ago. He worked at an RV plant down by Laughlin somewhere and called home once in a while to say everything was just fine.
Mrs. Kram had sent Nitnarf a book that encouraged him to accept the things that happened in his life without actually saying what they were, not that I blamed her. Dying people are a bitch to shop for. I ended up giving him my favorite thing in the world, the logic being that I would get it back in a few months anyway, which I did.
It was an old book called Scrambles Amongst The Alps In The Years 1860-69, written by the adventurer Edward Whymper. Chris Minch had wrapped it in brown grocery paper and left it for me under the porch before he went to Switzerland.
It’s about all the different mountains the writer had climbed in the Alps. Mont Pelvoux, Mont Cenis, Mont Blanc. All the big ones, the book said, except the Matterhorn.
By 1865 there’d been hundreds of attempts but no one had made it to the top. The writer himself had tried six times, “driven,” he wrote, “by those mysterious impulses which cause man to peer into the unknown.”
I have a hard enough time just peering into the known. I am, after all, a woman who has lived her whole life in love with a boy who fell off a mountain, and no matter how many times I look back, I still can’t see it coming. It’s a shock every time I think of it. Every time the air dissolves around me until it’s all I can do to breathe.
Chris had underlined the part where Whymper finally made it to the top: “The world was at our feet, the Matterhorn conquered! Hurrah!”
Then, tragedy. During the descent, an inexperienced climber lost his footing, upended the guide below him, and their weight together pulled two more men off the mountain. Those four fell, while three others clung to the rock face. All seven were tied together.
What happened next depends on who you ask. When I read the story to Nitnarf that night, he said the rapid elongation caused by the dynamic load far exceeded the rope’s spring rate. Whymper said the rope broke.
Either way, I think about what that felt like, the sudden release, the weight falling away, the simultaneous realization of survival and its cost.
When he turned around, Whymper saw the fallen climbers slide down the glacier on their backs, head first, looking up at him without making a sound.
“I have known joys too great to be described in words,” he wrote, “and griefs upon which I do not dare to dwell. But every night, do you understand, I see my comrades disappear into the silence. There I shall always see them.”