Featured Prose | March 15, 2016

What if the best way to win an argument was to pull a miniature Noam Chomsky out of your pocket and let him do the talking? Bar banter and speculative fiction meet in Carl S. Mumm’s story, our new web exclusive.

Carl S. Mumm has published fiction in the Idaho Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Black Warrior Review, Chelsea, Hawai’i Review and several other journals. In addition to writing short stories, he has recently completed a novel titled System Chain.


by Carl S. Mumm

“For example, let’s say the two of us started chatting at a party, a party for your Uncle Sebastian, say. You probably don’t have an Uncle Sebastian, though perhaps you wish you did, it being such an awesome name and all, but let’s assume you do and that we’re there with yellow cake, from a mix, on dense paper plates, holding plastic forks. We’d be poking at the cake, standing, probably, since all the reliable benches and chairs would have particular relatives and friends on them, and all the fold-up chairs from your garage would be strewn about the lawn more as a dare, really, than as a place to sit.”

Then this Tom guy puffed on his cigarette like it was fueling his rant.

All I’d wanted was a bourbon and a beer after a long day digging saguaro holes for the front yard of another new desert hotel I can’t afford to stay in. I like coming here after the sun goes down, sitting on the patio next to the prickly pear stand. That’s the best part of desert living, the nights, if you don’t mind the black widows, the scorpions and the tarantulas, and I like those things just fine.

What I don’t like, though, is for some jerkweed to seat himself at my table like he’d been invited and then start rambling, drawing on a butt like it was his mother’s tit.

“You with me so far?”

I grunted at this Tom guy, but not with enough hostility, apparently.

“So all right, it’s outside, say. We’re looking down at the tulips and Kentucky blue grass and other suburban trimmings, trying like hell not to make eye contact, sawing at the cake, maybe dipping forked bits of yellow cake in puddles of pus cream.”

“Pus cream? That something like—”

“Yeah, don’t get ahead of me. So then I might say something like ‘You know, this “ice cream” is probably at least thirty percent pus if the cow had mastitis, and that’s damn likely since most of the American milk supply has rBGH in it. Fact is, we’re probably consuming loads of antibiotics as a result of the mastitis, as well.’ Then there would be an awkward pause and I’d finally say, more under my breath than anything, ‘Sucks,’ or ‘Bummer, isn’t it?’ or more likely ‘Asshole bastards,’ because I say that a lot.”

“I’m sure you’re not alone.” I motioned at the waiter, but he wasn’t looking my way at all.

Tom laughed, dragged at his butt, and shot smoke out his nostrils. I’m not too fond of that smoking shit, but we were outside, so I couldn’t say anything.

“Anyway, I don’t really know you, but I predict that you might bristle at this point in the scenario, you know, at what I said about the pus cream.”

“That’s what you call ice cream, right?”

“Yeah, so hear me out: it’s a phenomenon that is quite common in Americans. Bristling, I mean. We bristle at all kinds of shit: when we get junk mail, when our paychecks are less than we had hoped for after FICA and taxes and dues and taxes on dues, when our girlfriends mack on some other denizen, and when anything at all makes us feel discomfiture. We really bristle at that last one. So, you being an American and odds being what they are, you might respond to me by saying something like: ‘That’s not true’ just because thinking about this stuff makes you uncomfortable. You might follow it with ‘They wouldn’t let that happen.’ And if you have the balls, you might even cap that off with something like ‘You’re full of shit,’ which would make me actually admire you just a little bit more than before. I don’t know why, though. I guess pugilism is just something we humans can’t help but be attracted to, especially the males of the species.”

Tom got all settled with his elbows on the table, shifting into the kind of position you’d get into if you were about to reveal something deep or secretive, his head lowered, eyes open wide. I didn’t want to hear whatever it was he was about to say, since I had known this guy for just five minutes at that point.

Tom lowered his voice. “It’s at about this time in the scenario that I would reach into my left shirt pocket, very gingerly, mind you, and pluck Noam Chomsky out of his hiding place and stand him up on my palm. And he’d take it from there, so I wouldn’t have to.” Tom pantomimed this whole thing as he spoke it.

I understood what he was saying. I dug holes in people’s yards for a living, but I went to college and I knew who Noam Chomsky was and shit. And even though I knew what he was talking about and I could follow his little reenactment just fine, I still didn’t know what the hell he meant. But I was keen to guess.

“You mean you’d start quoting Noam Chomsky?”

Tom shook his head emphatically. “No sir. When I say I’d take Noam Chomsky out of my pocket, I mean that quite literally. I recognize many of the things Noam says when he cites himself in his tiny voice, but I don’t have a small version of Hegemony or Survival or Chomsky on Anarchism in my pocket.”

Tom spoke very softly now, almost mouthing his words instead of saying them.

“Noam is actually buttoned away in my left shirt pocket, living, if I do say so, a very comfortable life.”

I guffawed pretty boisterously, I guess. Loud enough for that damn waiter to finally pay me some attention. I took advantage and ordered us a couple of beers. I mean, that Chomsky bit was a little offbeat, but it was worth a brew, anyway. I figured Tom would drink it, then go pester some other patsy.

Tom glared at me. “You don’t get me. I’m telling you that I’ve got Noam Chomsky, right here.” He patted the flap of his left breast pocket very carefully, as if he had a little derringer buttoned in there or something that he didn’t want anyone to know about.

“I get it,” I said. “It’s funny, Tom. ‘Man walks into a bar’ type of thing. Nice one.”


Tom hadn’t meant to yell like that. He looked all around because his outburst made most of the others on the patio jump and now they were glancing over at us. He nodded in response and smiled nervously. Then he leaned really close to me, so I could smell his stale beer and tobacco breath.

“You know what? I don’t care if you won’t believe me.”

Tom turned sideways and crossed his arms. He crossed his legs after that and focused on the metal tip of his boot, which he started bouncing out of agitation.

That’s all I needed. Clearly, Tom was unbalanced. I had just ordered a round with an insane man who I had just managed to piss off. It made me wonder if the guy didn’t really have a concealed pistol in his shirt pocket that he called Noam Chomsky. Maybe he wouldn’t even flinch at the idea of blowing my goddamn head off. These notions unsettled me a bit. I mean, it could have turned into a stalking situation, this Tom guy suckling upon my fear. Maybe he’d wait outside my house and waste me tomorrow morning or next week or whenever homicidal enthusiasts decide to do these things.

Anyway, after all that figuring, I decided it’d be wiser to smooth things over with this Tom guy, placate the miserable sonofabitch rather than looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.

“So what would Noam say if you brought him out right now?”

Tom pretended he didn’t hear me at first. The beers arrived then. He took one, tugged at it, darted his eyes at me for a second. Then he looked at his boot again and shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, Tom. What would he say? You brought it up. OK, let’s pretend we’re in the yard again with the ice cream, I mean pus cream, and I get all annoyed at what you said about rGBH.”

“rBGH. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Monsanto created it to increase milk production in a market drowning in milk. Can you believe that shit?”

“Right, rBGH. I’ve heard of it. So I’m all mad for whatever reason.”

Tom turned and made eye contact with me again. “Like I told you, I don’t know what he’d say, precisely. He says whatever he wants to, but when he does it, it always helps me out so I don’t have to deal with all the ignoramuses, myself. You follow me?”

“Sure. We could all use an advocate. And if you’re going to have someone fight your verbal battles, you can’t go wrong with Chomsky in your corner.”

Tom froze for a second, eyeballing me. “You making fun of me?”

“No, of course not. I’ve read some Chomsky. Not the linguistic material, but his political stuff.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. The guy is just incredible when he gets started.”

“And that voice, so level and matter-of-fact, no matter how caustic or radical he’s being. It makes you feel like you’re an imbecile for even considering disagreement.”

Tom studied me, no doubt trying to determine if my statements were meant as derision. I tried to look calm and trustworthy. I must have passed muster, because he appeared to relax at that point. That was a relief, but I also knew it meant I’d be enduring more of his prattle. Better than living in fear and getting my brains splattered by a bullet, I suppose.

Tom became animated again. He lit up another cigarette and sucked at it till it flared. “You know, one time I was in this very bar and some dickhead from Georgia with this really lethargic accent that only got slower with scotch tried to tell me that there weren’t any more white people in the South who would ever hold slaves if slavery were legal again. I shit you not. He said ‘Y’all should know that people have matured’ and he said it like that, with a t, ‘matured,’ like that.”

“What did you tell him? That there are more slaves in the world now than ever before in history?”

“No, the asshole bastard wasn’t about to hear anything I had to say.”

Tom tilted toward me again. I managed to evade the reek of his breath this time.

“So I unbuttoned my pocket and got hold of Noam just under the arms—he prefers it that way—and placed him on my hand.” Tom pantomimed the actions as he had done earlier.

“Does he always just stand there?”

“He sits sometimes.”

“On your hand? In a lotus position or something?”

“Of course not. He brings out a chair when he feels it’s necessary. He’s got an old-fashion paisley green recliner with wings and a linen doily at the top for his head.”

“He’s got a little chair in there?”

“Why wouldn’t he? That’s where he lives.”

“Good point. Go on.”

“So this Southern guy is staring at Chomsky standing on my hand, and the guy’s mouth just twitches and his eyes bug out like he’s on a bad acid trip or something.”

Tom started to snicker at what must have seemed like a memory to him, so I joined in a little. Then I asked “So how tall is he, anyway?”

“Oh, I’d say the sombitch was six-two, six-three. Big guy.”

“No, not the mature Georgian gentleman. Chomsky.”

“Oh, Noam? He’s maybe three inches, four, tops.”

Now, I realized at the time that I was just going along with this loon so he wouldn’t shoot me later, but I just had to delve into the details a little. I mean, this Tom guy obviously believed what he was saying, so it’s only natural for me to want to understand the logic of his universe, isn’t it?

“How’d he get that way? So small, I mean. Did he fall into a toxic coal slurry? Have one too many X-rays?”

Tom furrowed his brow. “How the hell am I supposed to know?” he barked.

I held up my hands. “Sorry, I was just curious. Because if you’ve got Noam Chomsky in there, and if he’s just a few inches tall, something had to get him that way. Just curious, is all.”

“Are you going to allow me to continue? Because this was classic Chomsky.”

“Why don’t you bring Noam out and have him finish the story? I’d love to say hello. Buy him a mint julep or something.”

Tom narrowed his eyes at me. “I don’t just drag the man out whenever someone wants to see him. We have an understanding: I respect his privacy as much as possible, and every now and then, when the situation warrants it, I bring him out so he can earn his keep.”

“How do you feed him? What do you do, drop peanuts in there every once in a while?”

“Look, the man isn’t an elephant. He’s a human being, for Christ’s sake! He isn’t some sideshow act, juggling and balancing crap on his nose. He’s the greatest, most quoted intellectual in the world. Why would I haul him out just to satisfy your whim?”

“OK, fine. Don’t bring him out, then.”

“Peanuts my ass.”

“Again, I apologize for the interruptions. Please, continue with your story.”

Tom fell right back into narrative mode, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to work the guy up or anything.

“So this Georgian guy freaks, and we go through the whole thing with him being nonplussed at seeing this little man standing on my palm. Then the second shockwave hits about it being Noam Chomsky. Everyone knows who he is, even if they haven’t read him. You wouldn’t think so, but they do.”

“Of course they do.”

“Yeah, so I relax, the burden being lifted off my ass, which is what Noam does for me, like I said. He makes it so I don’t have to engage in endless debate with all these denizens, you know?”

“He takes over for you.”

“Right. So Noam tells the guy he’s full of shit.”

“Really? That’s what he said? ‘You’re full of shit’?”

“No. He said it in his own specific idiom, turning his hand at the wrist as he spoke, voice all monotones and even.”

“What was he wearing?”

“Who, Chomsky or this Georgian guy?”

“Chomsky, what was Chomsky wearing?”

“Oh, you know, that bulky Irish blue-gray wool sweater he has. And, I don’t know, maybe brown slacks, kind of comfortable looking shoes, no wingtips or anything.”

“That sounds about right.”

“Yeah, he likes to be at ease. Nothing fancy. So anyway, he says to the guy ‘The nature of humans allows all kinds of behavior. Every one of us, under some circumstances, could be a gas chamber attendant or a saint.’”

“He really said that?”

“Yeah, and you should’ve seen this guy. He was all put off and wanted to argue, but Noam wasn’t going to take any crap. He made this hulking Georgian guy look like he was five inches tall.”

“That’s still taller than Noam.” Tom looked at me, perplexed. “You said Chomsky was three or four inches tall, so if this guy were—”

“Yeah, OK, you know what I mean. Two inches tall, then. Anyway, Chomsky cut him right down to size.”

I have to admit that at that point I was kind of digging these little scenes Tom was painting. The booze might have had something to do with it, I guess.

“That’s a good one,” I said. “What do you think would happen if your Noam Chomsky went up against the real one?”

Tom cocked an eyebrow at me. I think he believed his forehead, in general, was much more expressive than it really was. “What do you mean ‘real one’? I’ve got the real one. Are you implying that I have some kind of forgery? A counterfeit Chomsky?”

“Yeah, I guess I was sort of saying that. That was stupid of me, sorry.”

“Damn straight you’re sorry. What kind of asshole bastard do you think I am?”

“That’s right!” I was starting to feel a little giddy at that point, and really thought I was playing along with light-hearted banter. “What kind of idiot do I take me for?”

Well, that was enough for Tom. He popped right out of his chair, pulled his arm back, and clocked me good, right smack in the nose. I was so damned surprised that I didn’t do a thing to stop it. I saw his big mitt closing on my face, but I froze up, as if I were conducting a scientific study of it or something.

The blow made me tumble over backwards in my chair, and I rapped my skull hard on the ceramic tiles. My fighting instincts kicked in then and I knew I had to get to my feet, because if I were as insane as Tom, I would have started kicking my ribs in at that point to keep me recumbent. He’d thought of it faster, though. I felt those metal tips dent my side once, twice, three times before I managed to grab hold of his foot so he couldn’t loose it on me again.

For some reason, my latching onto his boot was unanticipated by Tom. He stumbled around, cursing and muttering. I kept tight custody of his boot, not wanting it to add to the aches in my side. My face was just numb. That wouldn’t start hurting till the next day, after the bruises bloomed.

All of a sudden, Tom pulled his leg back to escape and he slipped clean out of his boot. That made him fall flat on his ass. He looked foolish as hell, too, and Tom knew it.

By this time, all the people on the patio had determined we were more intriguing than their own conversations and there I was, on my side by the prickly pear stand, arms still wrapped around Tom’s boot. Everyone was waiting to see how it’d all turn out.

I don’t know why I did what I did next. Maybe it was because Tom looked all red in the face, more from embarrassment at being the center of attention rather than from any anger against me. It was a gamble or maybe just foolhardiness on my part, but I deduced at that point that it was more likely Tom housed Chomsky in his shirt pocket than a derringer or brass knuckles or shuriken or some other damn thing. Besides, once I saw him blushing over there, what else could I do but exploit it?

I yelled into the hollow of his boot: “Who you got in here, then, Tom? If you’ve got Noam Chomsky in your pocket, then who’s in here? Hello? Oh look!” I pretended to see something on the insole. People were laughing now, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the show. I could see Tom squirming in humiliation.

“Stop it,” he whispered at me. The guy had just sucker punched me and now he was pleading. Can you beat that?

I just shouted more vehemently into the boot. “Oh, who’s this? Cornel West relaxing in the mini hot tub? Ralph Nader on a wee StairMaster? Come on out, guys!”

This really amused the patio crowd. They must have known about this Tom guy. He probably sat at each of their tables on previous occasions, plaguing them with cigarette smoke, foul breath, and interminable twaddle.

Tom got up, and I stood with him so he couldn’t gain advantage.

Instead of attacking, he pointed at me with a trembling finger and said: “All right. You’re going to have to eat that boot now.”

“You mean this boot?” I held it out to him. “I wouldn’t want to destroy the habitat of—”

“Enough!” he roared. He held one hand flat and unbuttoned his left shirt pocket with the other.

My most recent figuring about what this guy would and wouldn’t do struck me as wildly miscalculated at that moment. Sure as hell, I thought, he was going to yank a little pistol out of that pocket and really lay on some hurt.

But he didn’t.

He dipped two fingers into his pocket and scooped out this tiny man by gripping him beneath the arms. Then he placed him on his outstretched palm.

I thought it might have been a doll or maybe a mouse or something onto which my brain was projecting a diminutive human image, so I approached. Closer inspection revealed it to be none other than Noam Chomsky, wearing the same blue Irish wool sweater Tom had spoken of earlier.

“How can that… I mean, how can you—be you?” I stammered.

The great miniaturized linguist appeared weary. Tom had obviously recalled Chomsky at an inopportune moment, perhaps mid-sentence in yet another volume of excoriating social criticism.

The tiny Chomsky locked eyes with me and spoke:

“Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries.” His voice was quite audible, for some reason. Perhaps he had some kind of wireless amplification system down there in Tom’s pocket, next to the rest of his furniture. “When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.”

Tom cracked a smug smile, exposing his brown teeth. “I told you. I told you he was in there.” He nodded at the great scholar in his palm. “Go on. Tell him some more.”

Before he continued, Noam winced. Whether it was from Tom’s halitosis or the volume differential of the bastard’s voice, given his relative size, I can’t be sure. “Willingness to be puzzled by what seem to be obvious truths is the first step towards gaining understanding of how the world works.”

Tom straightened. “How awesome is he?”

“Of course he is,” I whispered, more to myself than anyone else. “He’s Noam Chomsky.”

Noam turned to me then. “If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I’m a professor at MIT, that’s nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it.”

Noam beckoned me closer with a wheeling forearm. I bent down, assuming he wished to share something in private. He covered what must have been a microphone on the collar of his sweater with his hand.

“I’m a prisoner,” he whispered. “If you have any amount of decency at all, please facilitate my escape.” He displayed no emotion, but I detected a subtle sincerity that I’d heard him employ in online lectures. “I’ve been detained here for months, and there are so many things I still wish to do in my life.”

“What do you want me to do?” I said, realizing too late that Tom could hear me.

“Don’t be obsessed with tactics but with purpose,” Noam responded. “Tactics have a half life.”

I felt Tom’s suspicion looming over me.

“What’s Noam saying? Why is he talking in your ear?”

That’s when I stepped back, wound up, and slammed Tom’s boot heel into his face. That distracted Tom enough so that I was able to snatch Noam from his palm with my other hand, drop the boot, turn, and run like a rousted rabbit into the bar.

I sidled between tables to get to the front door. On my way out, I almost trampled our waiter. He stepped aside with aplomb, expertly balancing the beer bottles and shots on his tray to avoid spillage. I felt Noam in my hand and realized I was squeezing too hard from all the excitement. I loosened my grip, took out my wallet with the other hand, and managed to drop a twenty onto the waiter’s tray. I don’t know why I did that. All of me wanted to get the hell out of that dive.

By the time I got into my car, Tom was staggering onto the gravel parking lot, his hand clapped over one eye. I don’t know what he was screaming at me, some invective or other.

The engine started, no problem, and we were gone. I steered awkwardly with one hand, holding Noam in the other, and we raced into the darkness.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Marginally,” Noam replied.

Tearing down that empty street, a new feeling struck me, a sense of relief, for sure, but also a glimpse into my own future, and for once in my miserable life, looking forward seemed less bleak than looking back. For in my hand was perhaps the most intelligent man on the planet—in my hand.

I looked down at Noam, and he knew. It must have been painted all over my face.

“You rescued me because Tom was wrong to keep me, correct?”

If I nodded in agreement at that point, it might not have been very convincing.

Noam’s voice rose with a trace of urgency now. “I must ask you to recall the principle of universality: if an action is right or wrong for others, it is right or wrong for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of right or wrong, good or evil.”

A fat grin stretched across my face at that point. Though I didn’t intend it, such an expression writ so large overhead must have been intimidating to Noam.

He gave it one last try. “There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster.’ Instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. It is probable that the most inhuman monsters, even the Himmlers and the Mengeles, convince themselves that they are engaged in noble and courageous acts.”

All I could do was shake my head at that point. Chomsky was everything Tom said he would be and more.

I let the wheel go free for a few seconds, unbuttoned my left shirt pocket, and lowered Noam inside.