One night, a man wearing a poncho and sandals rings Eggers’s doorbell, and although Eggers is closer to the door, he makes Toph answer. “I’m not here,” he instructs his little brother, thinking that the man must be petitioning the neighborhood or trying to collect donations. When Toph opens the door, though, Eggers remembers that the man is Stephen, Toph’s new babysitter. A Berkeley student from England, Scotland, or Ireland—Eggers can’t remember—Stephen is a quiet man who “bores Toph to tears.” Nonetheless, Eggers is excited for a night of freedom, and tells Stephen he’ll be home by one in the morning, though he could be earlier. “Depends on what happens,” he says.
The chapters in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius aren’t dated, so Eggers relies upon his story itself to communicate the passage of time. Given that he and Beth didn’t feel comfortable getting a babysitter for Toph when they first moved to California, readers can reasonably assume that time has passed and that, after a period of committing himself fully to being Toph’s guardian, Eggers is tired of this kind of isolation and is ready to branch out and try to have a social life again.
Just as Eggers is driving around the corner, his excitement about going out turns into terror. “I become convinced, in a flash of pure truth-seeing—it happens every time I leave him anywhere—that Toph will be killed,” he writes. In his head, he runs through all the signs that Stephen is a sick, twisted murderer. “If something happens it’ll be my fault,” he notes. “The possibilities snap through my head like pedophilia flashcards—handcuffs, floorboards, clown suits, leather, videotape, duct tape, knives, bathtubs, refrigerators.” He contemplates turning around, but then he feels as if he has to keep going, thinking that “the risk is worth it.”
Once again, Eggers finds himself imagining the worst-case scenario. This time, his worries conflict with his desire to gain a modicum of “freedom” by going out for the evening. Of course, his fears are largely absurd, so much so that they almost take on a comedic element. As he pictures “clown suits” and the extremes of torture, readers are invited to see his worries for what they are: unrealistic projections.
Eggers thinks about being held accountable for leaving Toph with a murder. He imagines the questions he’d be asked in trial, providing a prospective transcript in which a questioner asks things like, “How did you come to meet this man, this baby-sitter?” and, “How long did your interview of him take?” He envisions himself saying, “Oh, you know, I just wanted to be out. I didn’t care much what we did. You have to understand that at that point I was getting out once a week, tops, maybe once every ten days.” He explains to the imagined jury his eagerness to hang out with friends, saying that normally the night would start at his friend Moodie’s apartment, where he would sit on the couch “savoring every minute, not knowing when it would come again.” Meanwhile, his friends would have “no idea what it meant to [him]” to be out.
As Eggers grapples with his guilt about leaving Toph behind, he considers the fact that his friends don’t understand what it means to him to be out with them. For him, even sitting on a couch with a beer and some friends is a thrilling luxury, something he’s rarely free to do. This is why he’s willing to put up with his fears about leaving Toph with a babysitter—his desire to socialize is so strong that he’s okay with putting himself in a stressful emotional state in order to go out and live the life of a young man in his twenties.
At the bar Eggers sits with his friends, most of whom he’s known since high school. More and more of his friends move to San Francisco each month, everyone wanting to be in the city “for no particular reason.” Eggers likes that his friends are here, since they are the “only ties” he and Toph—whom they’ve all known for a long time—have to Illinois. As such, Eggers tries to get them to come out to his house in Berkeley as often as possible, and many of them actually do visit quite frequently. Moodie, for example, sleeps on his couch roughly three nights per week. He and Eggers have been best friends since high school, having run a successful fake ID company. These days, they’ve started a freelance graphic design company in one of the rooms in Eggers’s house.
During this period, many young people moved to San Francisco, attracted to the city’s reputation as a vibrant and diverse place teeming with people in their twenties. Although Eggers relishes going out with his friends and experiencing what it feels like to be young in a city full of other young people, these outings no doubt make his life as someone with true responsibility feel all the more pronounced. Indeed, going out with friends provides a sharp contrast to his otherwise domestic life.
Eggers’s friend John gets him a beer. “John is broken and I’ve known him forever,” Eggers writes. Their parents were friends in Illinois, which is why they’ve always been close. But there’s also something else that ties them together: John’s parents are also dead. His mother died of cancer when he was in high school, and his father died when he was in college. Since then, John has been depressed. Now, in the bar, he asks Eggers how Toph is doing. “Fine,” Eggers replies, thinking of “pliers” and “handcuffs” and other terrifying possibilities. “Where is he?” John asks, and Eggers explains that he’s at home with Stephen. After this conversation, Eggers begins to feel disappointed in the night, thinking, “I’ve risked everything for this?”
John is someone who can relate to Eggers on a certain level. At the same time, though, their experiences with parental death are still quite different, since John’s parents didn’t die within 32 days of one another, and John doesn’t have to care for a younger sibling. On another note, Eggers’s disappointment that the night isn’t more rewarding is a testament to just how much he looks forward to evenings like this one. Although he and his friend are having what seems to be a perfectly good time, his expectations for such activities are unrealistically high because of how rarely he gets to leave the house.
Eggers wants something “huge” to happen, thinking, “We should all be armed and taking over small countries. Or rioting. Or no: an orgy. There should be an orgy.” This, he thinks, would make the night “worthwhile.” Instead, though, everyone just stands around, which Eggers finds “obscene.” As he thinks this, another friend approaches and asks him about Toph, saying, “Where is he, anyway?” Eggers wonders why he has been asked this question twice in the same night. It has, he realizes, become “a sort of required question, but with no internal logic.” Why, he wonders, do his friends want to ask him about where his brother is when he’s “out trying to drink and incite orgies”?
For the most part, Eggers’s friends most likely ask him where Toph is because it’s one of the only questions about his brother they can think to ask. The question itself is pointless and requires no external knowledge or the ability to understand what it’s like to raise a child. This is why his friends constantly ask it—they want to appear sensitive to Eggers’s situation as a guardian, but they don’t know how to relate to this experience.
To escape his friend’s annoying question, Eggers goes to the bathroom, where he shuts himself in a stall to avoid a man who’s peeing in the sink. He then finds himself staring at a sticker he made, which has been pasted to the stall’s door: “SCREW THOSE IDIOTS” it says at the top. Underneath this line, it reads: “MIGHT MAGAZINE.” Moodie and Eggers designed these stickers and gave them to their friends last month as a way of promoting their new magazine. Now, though, Eggers realizes the phrasing makes it seem like the sticker is instructing people to “screw” Might magazine itself. Eggers is mortified—they’ve already printed 500 of these stickers.
This is the first instance in which Eggers mentions Might magazine, an irreverent independent publication that he founded and that ran for several years in the mid 1990s. His involvement with the magazine is important to track as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius progresses, since it showcases his attempt to establish his professional identity, which is often at odds with itself. In this moment, it’s evident that Eggers and Moodie want to project an anti-establishment ethos, one that suggests that anyone not involved with Might is an “idiot.”
When Eggers returns from the bathroom, another friend approaches him and asks about Toph. This friend doesn’t know Toph quite as well, asking what his name is and then—predictably—asking where he is. Fed up, Eggers tells her he hasn’t seen Toph “in weeks” because he “took off one day” to hitchhike “around the country.” His friend is shocked. “Yeah, it’s fucked up,” Eggers says. “It’s partly my fault, I guess,” he adds, going on to say that he shouldn’t have let Toph bring a gun to school. He says that he told Toph he could play with his gun in the house and in the neighborhood, but that he couldn’t bring it to school. “Wait,” his friend interrupts. “He has a gun?” “Of course, sure,” Eggers replies, pushing on to tell her that Toph shot another kid.
When Eggers tells this ridiculous story to this unwitting woman, it’s clear that he’s tired of his friends treating him differently because he’s a guardian. He feels like no one else has to field such banal questions while drinking at bars, so he resents having to answer these questions himself. Of course, his friends only want to show him that they’re interested in his life, but the way they talk about Toph feels similar to the conversation Eggers had with the overly concerned mother at the open house. As such, he finally decides to have some fun by spinning an absurd tale that makes him seem like a terrible caretaker.
“Naturally I took away Toph’s gun privileges,” Eggers continues, “and of course beat him within an inch of his life, so zealously that something snapped in his leg somewhere, a tendon maybe, and he fell to the floor, squealed like a pig, couldn’t get up, had to be taken to the emergency room.” He tells his friend that the police arrived and questioned him about Toph’s leg, and as she listens with wide eyes, he says, “You wouldn’t believe what people will believe once they know our story. They’re ready for anything, basically—will believe anything, because they’ve been thrown off-balance, are still wondering if any of this is true, our story in general, but aren’t sure and are terrified of offending us.” His friend doesn’t pick up on what he’s saying, so he concludes his story, saying that Toph took off as soon as he got off crutches.
At the end of this conversation, Eggers puts his finger on why his friends’ questions about Toph annoy him so much. They aren’t genuine questions, he suggests, because he could answer with anything and his friends would still believe him without hesitation. As such, the conversations he has with them about Toph are essentially pointless. Everyone, he notes, is too afraid of “offending” him, so they treat him delicately. And because he resents this special treatment—which reminds him that he’s different than everyone else his age—he has decided to trick this woman into believing a ludicrous story.
Finding the bar boring, Eggers drives to a friend’s house, hoping she’ll invite him in. When he arrives, though, her house is dark, so he drives to a bar where another female friend works, but he doesn’t have his ID so the bouncer doesn’t let him in. As such, he calls his friend Meredith and asks if she wants to meet up. She accepts his invitation and they go to a club where they drink heavily and dance, eventually feeling attracted to one another even though they’ve always just been friends.
In this section, Eggers tries to get rid of his restless feeling, wanting badly to make his night out worth the stress and worry that comes along with leaving Toph. More specifically, he seems to want to spend time with a woman, most likely hoping to have a sexual experience. This kind of physical connection with someone his own age is what he most lacks because of his role as a guardian.
Leaving the club, Eggers and Meredith go to the beach, where they sit in the sand and talk about their ambitions. Meredith works in film production and wants to be “making movies” and “producing more and better” material. Her excitement about her job inspires Eggers to talk about Might magazine, which he frames as something that will “tear the world down to its foundations” and then build it up again. They both speak with great enthusiasm about making the world more “just and equal.” Eggers claims that Might will “inspire millions to greatness,” and they both start describing the ideal project, using words like “raceless,” “genderless,” “youth,” “strength,” “rebirth,” “oceans,” “fire,” “sex,” and then—all at once—they’re kissing and leaning backward onto the cold sand, feeling that sex will make them “more powerful.”
When Eggers and Meredith talk about their ambitions, they find themselves enticed by their own idealistic ideas. This is a mark of their youthfulness, since it’s not uncommon for people in their early twenties to want to reimagine and rebuild the world. Many people in their twenties are smart enough and ambitious enough to recognize the things in the world that need improvement, but they haven’t yet been discouraged by failure and apathy. For Eggers and Meredith, this kind of talk turns pointedly sexual, as they both revel in their youthful worldviews.
As Eggers and Meredith start having sex, a group of teenagers approaches them. “Because I’m stupid I assume they’re from Mexico,” Eggers notes. Surrounded, he can’t tell how many people are in this group. “Where’s your pants, stud?” one says. Wrapping himself in a towel, Eggers stands, but someone whips a handful of sand in his eyes. As he stumbles, several girls push Meredith as she sits there trying to cover up her body. “Get the fuck away!” Eggers yells. The group laughs, but then Meredith says, “Why don’t you just leave us the fuck alone?” After a pause, one of them says, “Okay, let’s go.” As the group retreats, one of them—a short guy who seems to be the leader of the group—turns around and says, “Hey listen, man, we was just goofing around. Sorry.”
At this point in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the way Eggers handles the issue of identity is worth examining. At the outset of this scene, he states that he assumes this group of rowdy teenagers is “from Mexico” because he’s “stupid.” This suggests that he’s aware of the unfortunate fact that he has made an assumption about them based on very little information. Indeed, there’s no denying that Eggers’s initial reaction is to jump to conclusions about these teenagers’ nationality. Worse, it seems likely that his generalization is based on a negative stereotype he associates with Mexicans, since he seems to associate their nationality with the fact that he feels threatened by them.
The teenagers walk away, but Eggers can’t find his wallet, so he chases them and accuses them of stealing. They insist they didn’t rob him, but he says, “Before you came and started fucking with us, I had a fucking wallet. Then you come and start fucking with us, and now I don’t have a fucking wallet. And that’s all the fucking cops need to know.” There’s a pause, and Eggers thinks, “The cops. My cops.” He then forces the teenagers to come back and help him look in the sand for his wallet. As they do so, the short one says again that they didn’t do anything. “Who do you think the cops are gonna believe?” Eggers asks. “Two regular people sitting on the beach, or you people?” He adds: “I don’t know what your status is with green cards and everything, but this could get really fucking ugly.”
When Eggers thinks about the police, he feels as if they exist to help him, not these teenagers. Having categorized them based on a broad and negative conception of what it means to be Mexican, Eggers makes unfair assumptions about these teens. If they were white, it seems, he would be less likely to treat them with such animosity. This is made painfully obvious when he references their “status” with “green cards,” a comment indicating that he wants to use their immigration statuses against them, though for all he knows these teenagers could be lifelong American citizens.
Finally, Eggers decides to “throw out [his] last ace,” saying, “This was my goddamn dad’s wallet you stole. And my dad just died. It’s all I have of his.” This, Eggers notes, is true. Even so, the teenagers don’t find the wallet, and the short one reiterates that they didn’t take it. As such, Eggers marches them back to the parking lot to what he thinks is a payphone, though he discovers it’s only a box on a telephone pole. He tells the teenagers to follow him as they cross the highway and walk until they find a phone, but suddenly they surround him. They take swings at him, but he dodges them until one of them kicks him in the crotch and he falls to the ground while they run away, jumping into two cars and speeding away while he tries to memorize their license plates.
Eggers’s comment about his father is an example of how he leverages the tragedy of his past. Although he normally doesn’t like it when people treat him differently just because both his parents are dead, in this moment of anger he uses this to his advantage, trying to guilt these teenagers—who were, it seems, only horsing around—into confessing to a crime they most likely didn’t commit. This is an important moment to remember as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius progresses, as Eggers becomes increasingly aware—and self-conscious—of how he exploits his tragic story in order to get what he wants.
Eggers and Meredith find a pay phone and call the police, who come and listen to Eggers’s repeat what he thinks has happened. He emphasizes that the teenagers were Mexican and that they took his wallet. Within four minutes, the police officer tells them that another officer has stopped a car that might belong to the suspects. He drives Eggers and Meredith to identify the driver and passengers, but they aren’t even remotely similar to the teenagers. Not only is their car not the same, but they don’t look at all like the teens. “I’m positive they were Mexican. This’s definitely not the right car,” Eggers says.
Unfortunately, Eggers can’t let go of the idea that the teenagers who bothered him and Meredith were Mexican. What started as a mere assumption has now become, in Eggers mind, a fact, as he confidently informs the police that the kids were Mexican. Of course, readers should note that there is a degree of self-awareness in Eggers’s depiction of this story, though it’s difficult to say how much he’s in control of the ways he approaches his implicit biases. Nonetheless, the simple fact that he relates this story—which makes him look racist or, at the very least, insensitive—without hesitation suggests that it is part of his project to examine himself in a critical, honest manner.
Meredith and Eggers are relatively silent on the way home. Eggers drops her off and then makes his way back to Berkeley, nodding off several times as he drives and thinking about how much he wants to take revenge on the group of teenagers. As he approaches his house, he thinks again about all the terrible things Stephen has probably done to Toph. Inside, though, he finds Toph asleep on the couch. After he sends Stephen home, Eggers goes into his bedroom and finds his wallet sitting on the dresser.
The conclusion of Eggers’s night out shows him that his worries are rarely rational. First, he sees that Toph is safe and that his projections of the worst-case scenario were unfounded. Second, he realizes that his assumption that the group of teenagers stole his wallet was completely unfair. In this case, his worry was based on nothing but an unexamined prejudice of Latino teenagers.