“Scipio, Nasica” and the Advantage of an Ambiguous Name

22 05 2012

From the Doejo blog:

At a gallery in River North as I was reading Ramsin Canon’s “Scipio, Nasica,” I stood dazed, wondering if her road trip through Utah to find her real mother was fact or fiction—the accompanying art offered very cryptic clues. And after all, the only preface I heard of this show was that eight artists were paired with eight writers. But you didn’t know which came first, the writing or the design.

For the story and image, follow the jump.

I told him, You go to Utah to elope, or hide, or die. That’s the point of Utah. Quite literally, I pressed, catching a bit of momentum on the notion of a theme. Think about it. That’s why the Mormons invented Utah in the first place.

–Don’t say invented, he said, It’s cutesy.

Yes, he’s that distasteful. He says stuff like that, that he means, and that are true. He’s one of those.

Goddamnit, I said, deflating into the driver’s seat. It’s okay to be playful sometimes. The coolness police won’t evict you.

He asked if Utah even allows Jews. I told him that in Utah, Jews are considered gentiles, too.

–Huh, he said. That’s true isn’t it?

That made him feel better.

The drive from Los Angeles to Utah is vistas, postcard vistas, all the way through except for the depressing bit through Las Vegas. The only thing worse than driving through Las Vegas is stopping in Las Vegas. We were mostly silent on that stretch. Probably both of us were thinking about our only trip to Vegas as a couple, when I first met his parents and we got in a fight because he thought I was condescending to them. Not all Jews are intellectuals, he’d said, and I shouted back at him, declaring that I wasn’t going to sit in a buffet at the Pink Flamingo and be called an anti-Semite. When we realized half the dining room was staring at us, we both got up and shuffled out like two Vaudeville performers who’d misjudged their audience.

–I hate Vegas. We don’t need to stop, do we?

I told him we didn’t. We should try to drive straight through, all twelve hours. If we stop anywhere, it’s obviously going to be in Scipio, Utah, because I desperately want to know if it’s named after Scipio Africanus.
He cut me off.

–Do you need to stop, he asked. You know what I mean.

I just waved him off.

–We’re not going to Salt Lake City to elope, he said. We’re hiding then, right?

We’re not going to Salt Lake City at all, I confessed, because I had to, and because now he knew something was up. We’re going to Ogden. He just nodded. It bothered me that he didn’t ask any follow ups. It bothered me that he knew that I should be getting out and walking around every hour or so to work my legs. It bothered me that he guessed that I was suddenly, irrationally worried about dying. It bothered me that he wanted to be cool.

A deep vein clot can very suddenly move through your body and cause a stroke. It was very manageable, the doctor said, surprised that a nurse practitioner took the news so badly, but I should know the risk, particularly if I was planning on a pregnancy. This kind of clot was genetic, he said, do I have a family history of this kind of thing?
I wanted to tell him, but didn’t, was that my family history was more or less an envelope as a mother and a jokey gravestone as a father. My family history is out there somewhere past the desert, my personal history a series of family friend homes and anecdotes about a hilarious father who was always smiling until he wasn’t. What I did say was I don’t know, but not everyone’s family history is in their bloodstream, you know. Some people have alternative families. He nodded a pursed lip apology that felt more like, “You’re being an asshole,” which I was being.


He sensed me falling back. He nodded out the window towards the desert and mountains up ahead. –Why do you think Mormons would name a town after Scipio Africanus?

I don’t know, I said, Mormons were weird that way. Odd relationship to history. Maybe because he defeated Hannibal? Or, really, maybe it wasn’t Scipio Africanus; maybe it was Scipio Nasica. Nasica was a conservative consul who murdered his cousin Tiberius, because Tiberius was leading the plebians of Rome in a revolt against the conservative Senators who were gobbling up land in the provinces and importing slaves. Later he went into hiding and was poisoned by Tiberius’ loyalists at Pergamum. That’s kind of a Mormon story, right? If you think about it, it makes sense because at the time Scipio was considered a defender of the historical institutions of Rome and he was a member of the College of Pontiffs so he was actually representative of an ancient religious order. You could see Mormons respecting that.

–It was named after a guy called Scipio Kenner, he said, dragging his finger across the screen of his phone, And it was named before the Mormons showed up.

Goddamnit. Just play along.

–Ogden, he said. Are we staying? You think you could just give up California and live in Utah? Utah?

Why not? Maybe. The big sky, mountains, we could live for cheap. We hate all our friends anyway, and your family is all the way back in Chicago, what difference is it for them if you’re in Utah or LA?

–So we’re not eloping, and we’re not hiding. What’s in Ogden, Utah?

I couldn’t keep my eye on the road. When you drive through deserts, and mountains, you start to get angry at the car, for pulling you through, for whipping everything past you. For its cruel momentum through these arterials, for getting you to the end with only superficial appreciation of the lush on the way.


–You did not think this through. You know Wikipedia exists, right?

He had a point. For some reason, I’d always assumed Ogden was a small town, that I could walk into the local diner and ask the big-haired, mousey woman slinging hash if she–knew my mommy, I guess?

‘You know Wikipedia exists, right?’ Fuck you.

Nevertheless, he had a point.

–Let’s start with what you know.

I thought there’d be a diner, I thought I could just ask for her by name. She wasn’t in the yellow pages, but, you know, a lot of people aren’t necessarily listed. He pointed out that Denny’s wasn’t exactly a small town diner, and the tiny Laotian man reading a hunting magazine behind the counter didn’t seem like a town flibbertigibbet.

–When was the last time you heard from her?

Heard from her? Heard from her is just an envelope containing her regards for not inviting my dad to her remarriage when I was still a toddler, platitudes strung together into a yawning half apology more stinging because completely unaware of its bare cruelty.

–Baby, he said, becoming suddenly tender, trying not to sound condescending, and kind of succeeding. What did you think was going to happen? You were going to walk into a place and ask if at any point in the last thirty-three years they’ve known a Linda Radek?

Well, when you put it that way. I stared at the menu as an evasive move. He was still staring at me. He wanted to ask a follow up.

–What’s up? Really?

Before I could answer, the tiny Laotian man had wandered over and, leaning on the counter and flipping over our coffee cups, smiled a tobacco-y smile.

“Did you say Linda Radek?”

–No. Fucking. Way.

I had to smile.


Maybe that wasn’t her dog, I screamed. Maybe that wasn’t a dog.

–Are you crazy? That was a dog! You hit that dog!

I wasn’t going that fast! Maybe it wasn’t hers?

–Whose else would it be? We have to stop! Oh Jesus, she’s running off the porch.

Jesus. What do we do, what do we do?

–Stop! Stop the car! Jesus Christ—

Is she shouting?

–Yes she’s shouting!

Maybe she didn’t know it was us?

–Didn’t…how many cars you think come down this dirt road? How many run over her dog!?

Maybe it wasn’t her dog!

–Well, it was a dog in her vicinity. Jesus, you have to stop. She’s getting on an ATV.

An ATV? Maybe it’s not her! Does she look like me?

–This is the only house for miles–look baby you’re going to have to commit one way or another. Either floor it the hell out of here or stop and explain!

Ok—ok—ok—fuck it I’m going! I’m going! Fuck it! Fuck her and her dog!

–Shit, she’s hell on that ATV!

I rolled down the window. I told the woman on the ATV to fuck herself. I crushed the accelerator, held it to the floor, smothered it, and the dust kicked up and tires screamed and we were gone and the woman on the ATV was smoked into nothingness and we were gone, we were gone.


At a real small town diner, the Patriot Diner in Scipio, he said he could see living in a town like this. Close to mountains, to the national park, to skiing. Maybe we’d stop here forever, and tell the locals all about Scipio Africanus and Scipio Nasica and laugh secretly about the time I killed my mom’s dog.

He slurped his strawberry shake. He really meant it, about staying in Scipio.

–I know you know, it’s not the end of the world, not at all. Medication, exercise. So what’s up? Why’d you need this trip? What’s with the up-and-run?

I didn’t need it. I don’t know. Just felt like going to Ogden, Utah, was the right thing to do.



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