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From The Vaults: Ley Fuck You

The following was one of two audition essays I wrote for Michael Lesy’s class at the beginning of my second year at Hampshire. (The other one was better, though what he saw in either I don’t know.) All names have been changed except mine. This one’s dedicated to everyone’s favorite bitter older student. See first comment for additional notes.

“Ley fuck you, frog!”

Wayne Durchkopf is not someone you want to take to Quebec with you, if you have any desire to speak French with francophone Canadians. As we sped past the wrinkled Sunday driver, who frowned angrily through the open window of his Buick, I thanked all listening powers that be that Wayne at least had enough sense to be civil to customs agents.

“Damned Canadian drivers.” Wayne aimed an abstractly sadistic half-smile at the yellow line rolling up the hill ahead of us. About an hour from Magog, Wayne had decided he was hungry, and thus justified in flinging any epithet he felt proper at cars in his way.

“How do you say fuck you?” Wayne did not, and does not, speak French, though he claims to want to learn. He was directing the question at the designated navigator, me.

Throwing the plastic-covered road atlas on the floor and pulling my knees to my chest to shift weight off my sore butt, I regarded Wayne for a moment before responding. He didn’t even glance at me to ask. I was a translator, no more; not good to look at, with my uncombed hair blowing out the window. Wayne’s sharp nose was still pointed ahead. The low afternoon sun poured through his slightly open mouth, which appeared ready to catch its next insult, grinning dog-like.

“I dunno. We didn’t learn stuff like that.”

“What good is French class if they don’t teach you how to swear?”

“I had a good French class. I went to a good school.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Miss I-Never-Saw-A-Black-Person-Until-I-Went-To-College. Miss Prep School.”

“Shut up. That’s what you think. OK, I dunno… nique-toi?”

A Jaguar passed us, entering the wrong lane of the two-lane road, its occupants apparently in a hurry to get to Lac Orford. “Hey, neek twa, frogs!” shouted Wayne to the rushing wind. “Look, Emmett, I talk French like them frogs!”

In the back seat of the Nova, Emmett raised his head from Tina’s lap. “Be bo bo,” he remarked, apropos of little. Tina blankly stroked his fine brown hair until he lay down again. Neither of them spoke French, either. When we crossed the border, all three of them became utterly dependent on me for food and lodging. Well, mostly dependent. Wayne claimed he could figure out what most road signs said. As we slipped into the outskirts of Magog, he read them aloud.

“It’s not hard to figure out what they mean. Terrain a camping– means a campground. We’ll keep that in mind for tonight, but we gotta get food first. Damn, I’m hungry. Ooh, there’s a place called New York Meat. Sound good to you kids?”

“Mmmm… meat,” echoed Emmett, dreamily.

“Wait, did we just pass through Magog entirely? Damn. How do we get back? OK, there’s a sign that says ‘Nord’– look on the map and see where Nord is, Gus. Gus, hurry up, get the map!”

“‘Nord’ means ‘north,’ Wayne.”

His mouth tightened in irritation. “Wise-ass. I knew that.” I sighed, and squinted through the dust-dazzling windshield. A sign swam up towards my vision like a message in a magic eight-ball. Magog– 14 Sud.

“Make a left, Wayne.”

“Are you sure? You haven’t shown me you’re any good with maps.”

“Just shut up. Go left.”

We found ourselves in Magog. New York Meats was our destination, despite my protests that I was trying to go vegetarian. By the restaurant’s knotty wood porch, they shoved me towards the bar. A brunette waitress, with bright eyes in a work-worn face and long, Formica-shiny fingernails, appeared at the portal with a tray of beers, chatting rapidly to a co-worker in the stretched, nasal vowel sounds Canadians apply to the French language.

“Bye, Gus.” Emmett had no qualms about abandoning me. “Go talk to that waitress– ask her what meats she recommends.”

“Oh, I’ll have the veal.” Wayne and Emmett laughed. Sidewalk diners in dark polo shirts looked at them askance. “Ask if we should seat ourselves.” I scuffed my shoes across the rough boards, heading for the dark mouth of the bar. My toe hit a knot-hole. I kept myself from falling; however, it seemed the verb “to sit” was jarred off some unused cusp of my brain at the same time. I froze on the lowest step of the stairs to the bar. The disheveled waitress towered over me, looking down over her meager breasts and a heavily laden tray.

“Allo,” she said, surprised.

“Salut,” I stuttered. “Est-ce qu’on peut–” I snapped my fingers as I searched for words– “se trouver un table ici?” There. At least it was all out: “Can we find ourselves a table here?” My mind instantly reviewed how many ways I could have unknowingly trod on the toes of idiom, and how many ways my tongue had slipped on the alien vowels, making a mockery of meaning. “Does one find oneself to be a table, here?” “Can we find ourselves at tables here?”

I quickly looked back to my companions, hoping they’d already seated themselves and pulled me from the wreck my tongue had made. They were, unfortunately, still standing. Wayne and Emmett appeared to be looking directly at the humidity; Tina was contemplating her sandal, shimmying absentmindedly.

The waitress looked at me, bemused, as if I’d stated the obvious. “Ouaaais… asseyez-vous!” (“Suuure! Sit down!”) She breezed down the hall, calling to a friend. I returned to my mute caravan.

“I messed that up bad, but she said get a table.”

Wayne had one of his rare compassionate moments. “I’m sure you did fine.” In the same breath, with the same unfazed expression: “All right, kids, let’s eat. I’m starved.”

We chose a table outside, and I nervously flipped open the slick, laminated menu, hoping to catch more holes in my vocabulary before I fell into them. Did I remember how to say spoon? Emmett was missing his… What was an “aubergine,” again?

“Gus, calm down.” Easygoing Emmett was clearly worried about my state of agitation. His usually smiling mouth was flat, set. “I’m sure you did fine.”

“No, you don’t understand– I had seven years of French; I should know how to ask to be seated by now! Where’d she go, anyway? I thought she told us to choose a table…”

It took her fifteen minutes to get to us, perhaps due to other business, but I couldn’t help but think that she was really snubbing us for being anglophones; I have no feeling yet for how the politics of language and culture work up there. Still, I mustered the courage to order for Emmett and Wayne.

“Numero quatre, s’il vous plait, avec bacon, et le special de jour.” (Number four, please, with bacon; also the special of the day.) Again, she looked at me as if I was asking something too ridiculously simple to be possible.

“Le numero quatre avec bacon, et le special?”


A bunch of laughing teenage girls passed with a rumble of rollerblades on the broken pavement, sending Wayne into a spasm of rubbernecking. “Oo, Emmett, check it– they were hot!” I missed the waitress’ response.


“Deux numeros quatre?” (Two number fours?)

“Non! Non, non, non, attends…”

It seemed the two plates I had requested were identical. She rolled her eyes, then retook the whole order, this time in English. “Anything else?”

“Redemption!” The word popped up in my mind, and flung itself at the gate to my voice box, taking friends with it. “Bring redemption! Recognize that I’m almost fluent! Acknowledge that I make sense! Tell me I speak like a little Parisian, the way Madame Terzi used to! For God’s sake, just speak to me for one second more! Take me from the company of these illiterate goons! Keep my brain limber! Save me!”

But trying to voice all that was like trying to funnel the contents of a firehose through the eye of a needle. What came out instead was just wrong. “Un thé glacé, s’il te plait. Je m’excuse– je suis americain; je suivis un course de français depuis sept ans.”

And what she understood, I realized a second later as she raised her plucked eyebrows in surprise, was even farther from the plea I wanted to make. “An iced tea, please, my friend. I excuse myself– I am a (male) American; I followed a journey of French for seven years.”

“Oh, very good!” she exclaimed, a bit sarcastically; tucked our order into her apron, whisked the menus off the table, and strode into the depths of the kitchen again, reappearing only to bring our meals. I buried my head in my arms. I am sure the only words she left with were these: les americains laids. Ugly Americans.

We paid our bill and left. Coming out of Magog, Wayne ignored me and took a wrong turn again. He was forced to hang a U, much to the annoyance of three cars behind us, whose drivers had apparently been waiting to pass this slow Yank, this blithering Mass-hole. A man in a blue Honda yelled something unkind, his words leaving a searing streak in the air behind his car. Wayne, forgetting my uncouth suggestion, returned to his original slur, flinging it into the oncoming Canadian night.

“Ley fuck you!”


  1. gus wrote:

    How exactly was it crucial?

    I’m working on a little retrospective about Lesy, inspired by all the recent alumn contact. Boy, is my take on that experience ever different since those days when I decided to quote some really angry Sylvia Plath to him. I do still think, however, that at some auspicious moment — possibly when he retires? — we should all of us get together and put together a book with anecdotes about him. 32 Short Films about Michael Lesy. Maybe we could pitch it to Ira Glass for a full episode of This American Life. I think it’s a good theme: it’s not so much about Lesy as it is about writing, and Great Men, and stuff like that.

    Friday, September 20, 2002 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  2. My favorite Lesy moment:

    Once I mentioned to him that I had bought his book “Rescues”. When he asked me where I had bought it, I responded truthfully: Buck a Book, the remainder superstore in Cambridge.

    The sad look on his face- now THERE’S an American classic.

    Amazon lists 9 works- 6 OOP, 1 pending. Hard to see why National Pliberal Radio would be interested in a “cult” author. He’s only interesting because he’s the only really confrontational faculty member at HC, and he’s confrontational because it isn’t hard to be a big man to a bunch of insecure 19-year-olds. He does get props for teaching nonfiction rather than fiction. Also, he has good taste in course readings. I never was a big believer in the cult of Lesy. Colorful character? Sure. Inspriational leader? No.

    Friday, September 20, 2002 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  3. gus wrote:

    Well, Ira Glass thinks he’s God. Anecdotally, Glass has been known to get misty-eyed even when speaking to kids who mention they have taken his class.

    Saturday, September 21, 2002 at 2:32 am | Permalink
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