THURSDAY: Want to Know Why?


Copyright is held by the author.

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus,
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.

TURNING TOWARD me in bed, the naked dean dropped the pack of Marlboros on my chest and pointed to the three white words on the golden banner at the bottom of the Philip Morris logo: VENI, VIDI, VICI. “Translate this,” she commanded.



“Shouldn’t need to. That’s the most famous sentence in Classical Latin: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ Perhaps the perfect example of a tricolon, a sentence composed of three elements equivalent in length, structure, and rhythm—”

“Skip the lecture, professor,” she ordered. “Just tell me who said it.”

“My namesake,” I nodded toward the marble bust atop the pedestal past the foot of the bed.

“Your namesake? Caesar?”

Despite the order otherwise, her mispronunciation of the c as an s-sound drove me back into the lecture hall. After all, I had just compromised my moral principles to please her; I saw no need to compromise my academic principles, as well. The least she should be able to do was pronounce my name. “Actually, in Classical Latin, cs are pronounced like ks.”

“So it’s Kaiser, as in the roll?”

“So it’s Kaiser, as in the emperor,” I corrected. “And vs, such as the three alliterating letters in Caesar’s —” I paused to emphasize the proper pronunciation. “— famous phrase, are pronounced like ws.”

“So, the first of the three words in your namesake’s sentence, the one that translates to I came, would be pronounced . . .”


“How appropriate.” She giggled.

I sighed. “Well, there you have it. Without a fully staffed classics department, there’ll be no one to teach our undergraduates not only to accurately translate, but also to properly pronounce, the mottos on packs of cigarettes.” I reached down to open this particular pack.

She slapped my hand. “It’d probably be better to teach them to read the warning labels: ‘Smoking can damage the sperm and decreases fertility.’ And we wouldn’t want that.”

“We wouldn’t?”

“We wouldn’t.”

When the phone started to ring, it seemed the perfect time. I had done my duty for the classics department, of which I was the chairman — as well as the last tenured professor. Death or — worse — retirement had claimed all the rest, decimating the department over the course of a decade. My meeting with the dean, which had started honorably in her office on campus but ended dishonourably in my bedroom off campus, was my final effort to convince her to hire tenure-track replacements.

There is no perfect time, though, to receive the message I was about to from the police officer on the other end of the line.


Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus, advenio . . . frater,” I whispered as I emerged from the jetway into a skylighted atrium at PDX. “Over many peoples and over many seas carried, I arrive . . . brother.”

Through would’ve been the literal translation of per, of course, but, when he composed the opening lines of his legendary elegy after finally arriving at his brother’s far-off grave 2,000 years ago, Catullus couldn’t have anticipated the type of air travel that made over a better fit today. Even with that tweak, it was still a stretch on my part — my flight from Los Angeles to Portland hadn’t taken me over many seas. We weren’t even over one ocean that long.

Still, I had arrived to claim my brother’s cremains, which I had assumed would be — as those of Catullus’ sibling had been — mutam cinerem, silent ashes. When officers of the Portland Police Bureau had searched Forrest’s apartment following his suspected suicide, after all, they had found no note — leaving them no choice but to officially rule Forrest’s stepping in front of a light-rail train as an accident.

“An accident? Stepping in front of a train?” I had asked the officer on the other end of the line as the dean had silently slithered back into her clothes. “At night? When its lights were on? How could he not have seen it coming?”

“We believe that . . .” She had hesitated, a bit too melodramatically. “. . . That he was high at the time.”


“We found an emptied can of spray paint as well as a saturated rag in his apartment —”

“He was huffing?”

“Didn’t your brother have a history of addiction?”

“To narcotics, yes. But never to inhalants. That’s so, so . . . lower class.”

True, at the time of his death, Forrest had been merely a part-time employee at a bookstore — yes, Powell’s, of course, this is Portland we’re talking about — but I hadn’t realized his situation was so dire that he had resorted to inhaling the fumes from a 99-cent can of spray paint. He had been enrolling in creative writing courses at Portland State, so I had assumed he had been depending on financial aid to supplement his meager income. But why else would Forrest have had that can of spray paint? The officer assured me that nothing in his apartment had been spray-painted that particular colour. There had been no other explanation — certainly, Forrest hadn’t seemed to have left one.

But then, right before I had left for LAX, the envelope had arrived in the mail. There wasn’t a letter inside, as I had expected. There was, however, a folded map with the question Want to know why? scribbled next to the greeting Welcome to Powell’s City of Books printed at the top. Certain that this was where Forrest had left his suicide note, I frantically unfolded the map, which diagramed all four floors of Powell’s. I scrutinized it front and back, but there was no note. All he had done was draw an arrow pointing to a shelf in the mystery section and write down an author’s name and a title.

It wasn’t much, but my brother’s ashes weren’t as silent as I had assumed.


My brother and I had had different definitions of the classics. For me, that term meant Horace, Ovid, and Virgil; for him, Cain, Chandler, and Hammett. It was the latter’s name as well as the title of his most famous noir novel that Forrest had scrawled on the map of Powell’s: “Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon.”

Neither of our definitions seemed shared, however, by the sculptor of The Pillar of Books at the newer, nicer entrance to Powell’s City of Books — the one that faces Portland’s trendy Pearl District. The pillar is composed of a sculpted pile of eight tomes, their titles carved into the sandstone in the original languages in which they were respectively published. Admittedly, my Ancient Greek is slightly rusty, so I had a little difficulty translating the title of The Odyssey; I had no difficulty, however, with the Classical Latin tetracolon spaced across the four faces of the cubic base of the pillar: COEME LIBRUM, LEGE LIBRUM, CARPE LIBRUM, VENDE LIBRUM. “Buy the book, read the book, enjoy the book, sell the book,” I muttered.

Pulling my brother’s hand-annotated map out of my pants pocket, I figured it was my duty to complete at least the first two of those steps: to buy and to read a book. Considering the circumstances, however, I doubted that I would enjoy what I read.

On the specified shelf in the mystery section, I found a single secondhand copy of The Maltese Falcon. The bookmark that directed my attention to the first page of the seventeenth chapter was secondhand, as well — a repurposed receipt of some sort.

Intrigued, I started to read the first couple paragraphs on the page. “Carrying the parcel lightly under his arm, walking briskly, with only the ceaseless shifting of his eyes to denote wariness, Spade went, partly by way of an alley and a narrow court, from his office building to Kearney and Post Streets, where he hailed a passing taxicab.”

As I read, I tried to imagine Forrest dressed-up in Sam Spade’s snap-brim fedora and trench coat; I wondered if he had seen himself that way. In one of our last email exchanges, he had cited the recent Akashic collection Portland Noir as one of his inspirations for registering for his first fiction-writing workshop.

“The taxicab carried him to the Pickwick Stage terminal in Fifth Street. He checked the bird at the parcel room there . . . ,” I stopped reading and started reevaluating the bookmark Forrest had left in The Maltese Falcon.

It was an Amtrak parcel check receipt from Union Station, dated the day of Forrest’s death.


It doesn’t translate, the English slogan in neon at the top of the Romanesque Revival clock tower of Union Station: GO BY TRAIN. Seems simple enough, I know, and the go and the by are. The difficulty is the train, which wasn’t invented until the 19th century. True, the term locomotive was assembled from the Classical Latin loco — “from a place” — and the Medieval Latin motivus — “causing motion,” but that’s a mere neologism. Yet trying to force-fit an actual Classical Latin term would wind up as ridiculous as that t-shirt that less serious scholars used to sport at academic conventions: CUM CATAPULTAE PROSCRIPTAE, ERUNT TUM SOLI PROSCRIPT CATAPULTAS HABEBUNT. “When catapults are outlawed,” I sighed, “only outlaws will have catapults.”

The terms at the Amtrak parcel check counter inside the station, at least, were uncomplicated: $3 for each day that had passed since Forrest had dropped off whatever was attached to the other half of the perforated receipt he had slipped into The Maltese Falcon. I should have come to do my brotherly duty more promptly; this transaction wiped out almost all the cash in my wallet.

As an additional tribute to Hammett’s masterpiece, Forrest had put together a package that matched the description of its titular treasure: “a brown-paper-wrapped parcel bound with thin rope.” Slumping on one of the wooden benches in the lobby, I fumbled with the knot in the rope for almost a minute. Ripping the brown paper from the package, I revealed a reused pink pastry box from a doughnut shop — yes, Voodoo, of course, this is Portland we’re talking about.

Inside the box was another map — not of the City of Books this time, but of the City of Roses. Of the entire City of Portland. On it, Forrest had drawn another arrow. This time, it pointed to the complicated intersection of Interstate Avenue and Russell Street. On the map, it looked a little like the overlapping leather straps of a Roman sandal.

I had never seen this intersection before, yet the names of its cross streets were engraved in my memory from my conversation with the police officer who had called to report Forrest’s apparent accident.

The intersection of Interstate and Russell, the one Forrest pointed out on the map, was next to the light-rail track where he had been hit by the train.

My brother’s death had not been an accident.


What does one see, when he visits the site of his brother’s death?

I saw the blackberry brambles lining Interstate Avenue, the thorny tangles stripped of fruit.

I saw the fluff from the dogwoods along the Willamette River, which snowed down in what, as autumn nears, one is supposed to interpret as a sign of new life. But, to me, it was a sign of death.

Because, most of all, I saw the ghost bike — that now-common memorial to a deceased cyclist. Spray-painted white and chained to a post, its triangle of tubes framed a sign listing a name, a date, and a URL leading to an article in The Oregonian.

It was spray-painted white.

I could’ve read the police report, found out the colour of the spray paint that the can discovered in Forrest’s apartment had held.

I could’ve read the newspaper article, found out the circumstances of the actual accident that had happened at this intersection.

But I didn’t need to. Because I knew what they would have said, the police report and the newspaper article. Because I recognized the handwriting on the sign on the ghost bike. After all, I had two recent samples of it in my pocket — on the maps of Powell’s and of Portland. 

What does one say, when he visits the site of his brother’s death?

I said nothing.

I didn’t recite the rest of Catullus CI although I had memorized it for this trip. In truth, it was impossible to translate that legendary elegy an exceptional poet wrote when he visited the site of his brother’s death more than 2,000 years ago. Not because I couldn’t have found the words in Modern English to express what Catullus was attempting to write in Classical Latin. His last line, “Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale” is simple enough: “And forever, brother, hail and farewell.”

No, I didn’t recite the rest of it because, as exceptional a poet as Catullus was, he hadn’t found the words either.

I said nothing because . . . because the grief felt at the site of your brother’s death?

It doesn’t translate into words, in any language — ancient or modern.

It doesn’t translate.

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