A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 5 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 4 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem
Read it online here:

Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

And, after the insipid triumphalist overture of music and video and prancing androgynous spandex, when the orcas finally entered the arena and began their leaping, SeaWorld was overwritten by their absolute and devastating presence. By their act of stitching two realms together, sky and water, merely for the delight of a stadium full of children—children who, in response, leaped, too, and vibrated in their seats, and gurgled incoherently, practically speaking in tongues. Other kids, older and more intrepid than his own, raced down to the plastic barrier to be splashed, to stand with their arms flapping. The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelly eyes, were God’s glorious lethal clowns. Their plush muscular bodies were the most unashamed things Pending Vegan had ever seen. Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer.

—-Jonathan Lethem, Pending Vegan

A few years ago, my son Lee and I went down to the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater to see a new musical, The Fortress of Solitude, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous novel. It was Pay What You Can Night (pretty much the only way I can see quality live theater on an ongoing basis) – which is cool, though what we saw was essentially a dress rehearsal open to the public. Because of this, there was a bit of confusion and we discovered that our assigned seats weren’t there (the Wyly is infinitely reconfigurable and they had configured our seats out of existence). No problem, the box office had alternate seats which were better anyway (not that the Wyly has any bad seats) – we were placed in a line of vacant seats right up front. Two men sat next to us at the last minute.

The play was excellent, very enjoyable. I never read the novel, so I don’t know if it followed or did justice, but as a night of live musical entertainment, it fit the playbill. As the play ended, the man sitting next to Lee started asking him a series of questions, “Did you like the musical?” “What songs did you like?” – the inquiry seemed more pointed than curious. I looked at the man and at the Playbill folder in my hand and realized this was the author (of the play, not Jonathan Lethem, alas). The idea was to premiere the musical in the hinterlands (Dallas), iron out the rough spots, them move to Off Broadway (Public Theater) then, eventually, to the Great White Way.

It looks like the momentum has stalled and it probably never will make it to Broadway… but at least I saw it.

Today’s story, also by Jonathan Lethem, is a chronicle of a family’s trip to Sea World in San Diego. The protagonist is struggling with a sudden attack of giving a damn about animals and, possibly more importantly, just now coming off his prescription to anti-depressants. His doctor warns him he might, “see bums and pickpockets.” Worried that he might hallucinate, the doctor assures him that he won’t imagine them, he may simply notice them.

I, of course, have been to Sea World (the San Antonio version) with unruly children a couple of times. I dealt with it a little bit differently than the father in the story – I didn’t think about it. It was a day for the kids and all I was responsible for was trying my best they didn’t get eaten by sharks or destroy an expensive exhibit. All other thoughts were put on hold.

For about a quarter century.


In the interview below, Lethem says, “I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.” When I first read this I disagreed – I couldn’t think of any story ideas from SeaWorld.

Then I remembered seeing the Shamu show one year. The Orca wasn’t in a good mood and basically stayed at the bottom of his tank and refused to do any tricks. He was the male in the pod and the two females were in the lake outside of the arena. They kept surfacing and making these loud sounds. There is no doubt they were laughing at him.

The neoprene-wet-suited show people tried to get on with the act. They even brought a volunteer from the audience out to try and coax him into getting to work. I thought, “Man, if I had a humiliated, cranky, and uncooperative killer whale at the bottom of a tank, the last thing I’d want to do is lean out and wiggle a fish over him.”

Hmmm. I guess that is an idea for a story.

Interview with Jonathan Lethem about this story:

This week’s story, “Pending Vegan,” follows one family, a husband and wife and their four-year-old twin daughters, on a trip to San Diego’s SeaWorld. When did you start thinking about using SeaWorld as the setting for a story? Did you ever consider inventing the theme park and fictionalizing everything, or was it important that the story be set in a real place?

This story really began with a class I taught, called Animals in Literature. I assigned Jack London, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Olaf Stapledon, Lydia Millet, J. R. Ackerley, and a bunch of other stuff, including some essays and theory. (Animals are actually pretty “hot” in theory now.) In the spirit of due diligence, I also read a bunch of animal-rights and vegan manifestos, which is how I blundered into the realm of “Fear of the Animal Planet” and so forth—books I purchased, and which sit staring at me from the shelf, even if I failed to assign them or, in many cases, even to read them. I suppose some of this bad faith leaked into the characters: What would it be to think you’ve gone about halfway, or not even halfway, down some irreversible ethical path, then got stuck there?

Of course all this remained inchoate until suddenly I visited SeaWorld. I can’t imagine anyone setting a story there who hadn’t visited. (I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.) Long ago, I’d have been certain to disguise it as “Fathomverse,” or “Poseidon’s Playhouse,” or “Orcasm,” or something. But that wouldn’t really be likely to fool anyone, would it? A lot of fiction—most?—derives some of its effects, and energy, from its hybrid nature: half documentary, or half confession or argument or whatever, and full of references outside itself, whether obvious to the reader or not. I’ve made my peace with this. Besides, I’d have had to give up “Sea World, Eat World.”

The story’s protagonist, Paul Espeseth, is going through a crisis of sorts, which he has hidden from both his family and his shrink. He’s renamed himself Pending Vegan as a way of acknowledging his increasing uneasiness with the relationship between man and beast, yet he’s acutely aware of his daughters’ ability to reconcile “their native animal-love and the pleasures of eating.” What’s it like to imagine a child’s version of the animal world versus an adult’s?

Forget “animal world” —what about just “world”? Where’s the script for breaking the news, to a kid, of reality’s roaring wackness? Its moral bankruptcy? Imagine a scene from the breakfast table with a six-year-old listening to an NPR report on the firing of nine air-force commanders over cheating on the tests to qualify as officers for oversight of nuclear missiles.
Six-year-old: “What did they cheat on?”
Father (already in trouble): “Well, see, they were in, like, ‘soldier school’…”
Six-year-old: “Don’t they know it was wrong?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “What are nuclear missiles?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “Why would they cheat? Don’t they want to be good at fighting?”
Father (suddenly impassioned, intense): “Well, actually, the reason this matters so much is that nuclear missiles are these weapons we don’t want anyone ever to use…” (He stops at brink of disaster.)
Six-year old: “—?!?—”
Father: “Uh, eat your pineapple.”
Six-year old: “My teacher told me that pineapple was bad for your skin.”
Father (with relief): “She’s definitely wrong.”

A dog bounds into the story in its final page. It’s not the first time dogs have shown up in your work (“Ava’s Apartment,” for example, an excerpt we published from your novel “Chronic City,” features a memorable three-legged dog). Do dogs hold a particular place in your imagination? Can you imagine a cat exercising as much power?

Cat person or dog person? Funny about that. I grew up with cats; I’m more familiar with them, more fond of them, and I identify with them more. My parents bred Siamese cats for a while, and in a lot of baby pictures I’m seen swimming in a mass of kittens. Dogs were in stories, first: “Nobody’s Boy,” “The Incredible Journey,” Jack London’s and—especially—Albert Payson Terhune’s work. I was probably the last boy in the history of boys to drink deep at the well of “Lad: A Dog” and “His Dog.” Meanwhile, real dogs terrified me. This lasted a while. Even after we got a dog, other people’s dogs terrified me. I was 33clear to me. As in the case of my character, dogs are a problem I can’t solve; they throw me back into the question of self and other. For a writer, that’s good. Writing a story about a cat would be like writing a story about my arm or my ear.

—- Interview with Jonathan Lethem in The New Yorker

The Wyly Theater.

Veggie Garden

The other day I went out to eat at the Suma Veggie Cafe near my house.

While I was checking on the web I found a web page for the Veggie Garden – another similar restaurant on Arapaho Road – the same street as the Veggie Cafe. This one is only about a mile to the west. As a matter of fact, for most of the day I thought they were the same restaurant. Luckily, they have pretty much the same hours, menu, and prices, so I was still good to go.

When I first wrote my blog entry, I actually called it Veggie Garden, and it wasn’t until I posted the picture of the place that I realized my mistake. Search and replace is your friend.

Today(Sunday) I had an hour or so before the library opened so I decided to try out the other Vegetarian option.

Veggie Garden is located in another rundown strip on Arapaho road, just west of Highway 75 and the Richardson Library and City Government complex. Araphaho makes an irregular jog to the north at that point and the area is crowded with inexpensive strips that have attracted a number of diverse businesses. The economy has cut through these like a scythe, but there are a few still open. I’ve been to the Salvadorian Pupuseria, but there is a well-known Brazilian restaurant hiding out, along with I Gemelli Italian Ristorante, Olive Lebanese Fusion, Mexican (with the interesting name “Holy Frijoles”), Kasra Persian, and the Peace Pipe Hookah Lounge, with the interesting looking “House of Poets” next door (that is a place I have to check out). In a more ordinary vein, there is an excellent burger place plus the usual bunch of fast-food choices and auto-parts stores. There’s even a car wash called the “Rubber Ducky,” a coin shop, and an inline Hockey Arena.

This is what I found in one drive-through. Obviously, this is an area worth a little more exploration. I think I need to have a plan and write about it. Stick around.

Veggie Garden

Veggie Garden. The parking lot is full of a lot of very aggressive sounding parking signs.

Not surprisingly, it was very similar to the Veggie Cafe. A small buffet offering Vegetarian versions of standard Asian dishes. This one was a little more intent on duplicating the taste of meat dishes – for example some of the dishes were labeled as “chicken” or “beef” though they were made of tofu or other soy.

I like it, the service was friendly and very good (no table piled with papers, no grumpy owner). I guess, to sum up:

Advantages of Veggie Garden

  • Friendly Service
  • More ordinary tasting food
  • Closer to the library
  • Better beverage selection

Advantages of Veggie Cafe

  • Slightly more adventurous food
  • Closer to my house
  • Very slightly better prices
  • Parking is less of a hassle

The same:

  • Decor (not very good)
  • Customers (interesting and diverse)
  • General idea/concept
  • Everything else

Are two choices better than one? Why eat meat again?

Suma Veggie Cafe

I remember when we first thought about moving from Mesquite to Richardson. When was that? Seven years ago? I had found this little worn-lookng neighborhood while walking the Owens and Duck Creek trails down from the YMCA at Collins and Plano roads while Nick was in a swimming club there. It wasn’t long before we were looking at specific houses. I didn’t know much of anything about this area – so I drove and walked around the place a bit.

One question I had was if it was possible/easy to walk/ride a bike from the nearest DART station at Arapaho and Central to the neighborhood. By odometer, it was what? Two point six miles? That’s a bit long for a walk, but an easy bike ride. In measuring the route, I found a little restaurant that looked intriguing along the way. A big sign proclaimed Suma Veggie Cafe. It was nestled into a little cheap strip along Arapaho road. Next door was a Subway, then a nail salon, a few mysterious doors, and then the other end held a big, brassy Texas Bar-B-Que.


The Veggie Cafe on Arapaho in Richardson

Veggie Cafe on one end… Bar-B-Que on the other. Well, this strip had the bases covered. I figured I could walk or ride my bike home from the DART station and stop off and get something to eat halfway, take a break. Some days the Bar-B-Que would be in order, or sometimes I could get a sandwich….

But it was the Veggie Cafe that caught my eye. From the sunsetting street it seemed a bright expansive friendly place. I made a note to eat there as soon as I could.

It took seven years.

Today I puttered around the house and once my chores were at a good stopping point (they are never finished) I decided to go get something to eat at the Veggie Cafe. I have no idea why I decided to go there today, except that I’m tired of the same old stuff and am trying my best to think of something, anything new or a tiny bit different.

I checked a website and found they have a Vegan Buffet from eleven to three on Saturdays – that’s the ticket.

The place is smaller that I thought it was when viewed from the street. It is exactly half the size – the back wall is mirrored. Its décor is pretty much standard for family owned Asian restaurants in strip centers that are getting a bit long in the tooth.

One unique feature is a prime table near the front that has been given over to newspapers, a steel water-bottle, books, ledgers, cups of pens and scissors, notebooks, mail in several languages and the other usual flotsam and jetsam that a small business generates. I guess a place this small doesn’t sport an office for the paperwork – it’s odd to see it all piled up front. From reading reviews it appears there is often a grumpy owner at this spot – but he didn’t show today.

There is a huge portrait of the supreme master on the wall behind the register and a big gold smiling Buddha beside.

The buffet was fairly small, which I see as a good thing. A huge buffet, groaning under the weight of a hundred steam tables may look good, but you know that stuff has been out there a long time. I like a small selection of dishes, brought out fresh and continuously.

Veggie Cafe

The humble interior. The buffet says All Vegan (click to enlarge)

I can’t really say the place was really good but… I really enjoyed it.

What did I eat? I have no idea. There was something with tofu, something with those little corns, some cabbage in some sort of a curry sauce, a stir fry with something very tasty and completely unidentifiable, oh, and some tempura vegetables – broccoli and something else.

Would you like it? I don’t know. Probably not. The other customers were very eclectic – a young skinny pierced couple, she had bright purple hair – when I arrived they were talking to another illustrated woman who was expounding upon the evil of foie gras. There were some families, a few small groups of various cultural background, and a strange quiet frumpy older man by himself with an odd look on his face (I guess that made two of us).

I thought of the difference between an odd neighborhood place like this and a focus grouped cookie cutter chain casual dining chain. The biggest difference is in the customers – though it’s hard to put your finger on the disparity. Like the restaurant itself, the customers were all a little quiet, a little ragged, more familiar than fashionable.

I want to go back. I won’t wait seven years.