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Copyright © 1997 by David Sedaris
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
First eBook Edition: May 2009
Author's note: The events described in these stories are real. Other than the family members, the characters have fictitious names and identifying characteristics.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Holidays on Ice
I'm thinking of asking the servants to wax my change before placing it in the Chinese tank I keep on my dresser. It's important to have clean money — not new, but well maintained. That's one of the tenets of my church. It's not mine personally, but the one I attend with my family: the Cathedral of the Sparkling Nature. It's that immense Gothic building with the towers and bells and statues of common people poised to leap from the spires. They offer tours and there's an open house the first Sunday of every October. You should come! Just don't bring your camera, because the flash tends to spook the horses, which is a terrible threat to me and my parents, seeing as the reverend insists that we occupy the first pew. He rang us up not long ago, tipsy — he's a tippler — saying that our faces brought him closer to God. And it's true, we're terribly good-looking people. They're using my mother's profile on the new monorail token, and as for my father and me, the people at NASA want to design a lunar module based on the shape of our skulls. Our cheekbones are aeronautic and the clefts of our chins can hold up to three dozen BBs at a time. When asked, most people say that my greatest asset is my skin, which glows — it really does! I have to tie a sock over my eyes in order to fall asleep at night. Others like my eyes or my perfect, gleaming teeth, my thick head of hair or my imposing stature, but if you want my opinion, I think my most outstanding feature is my ability to accept a compliment.
Because we are so smart, my parents and I are able to see through people as if they were made of hard, clear plastic. We know what they look like naked and can see the desperate inner workings of their hearts, souls, and intestines. Someone might say, "How's it hangin', big guy," and I can smell his envy, his fumbling desire to win my good graces with a casual and inappropriate folksiness that turns my stomach with pity. How's it hanging, indeed. They know nothing about me and my way of life; and the world, you see, is filled with people like this.
Take, for example, the reverend, with his trembling hands and waxy jacket of skin. He's no more complex than one of those five-piece wooden puzzles given to idiots and school-children. He wants us to sit in the front row so we won't be a distraction to the other parishioners, who are always turning in their pews, craning their necks to admire our physical and spiritual beauty. They're enchanted by our breeding and want to see firsthand how we're coping with our tragedy. Everywhere we go, my parents and I are the center of attention. "It's them! Look, there's the son! Touch him, grab for his tie, a lock of his hair, anything!"
The reverend hoped that by delivering his sermon on horseback, he might regain a bit of attention for himself, but even with the lariat and his team of prancing Clydesdales, his plan has failed to work. At least with us seated in the front row, the congregation is finally facing forward, which is a step in the right direction. If it helps bring people closer to God, we'd be willing to perch on the pipe organ or lash ourselves to the original stainless-steel cross that hangs above the altar. We'd do just about anything because, despite our recent hardships, our first duty is to help others. The Inner City Picnic Fund, our Annual Headache Drive, the Polo Injury Wing at the local Memorial Hospital: we give unspeakable amounts to charity, but you'll never hear us talk about it. We give anonymously because the sackfuls of thank-you letters break our hearts with their clumsy handwriting and hopeless phonetic spelling. Word gets out that we're generous and good-looking, and before you know it our front gate will become a campsite for fashion editors and crippled children, who tend to ruin the grass with the pointy shanks of their crutches. No, we do what we can but with as little fanfare as possible. You won't find us waving from floats or marching alongside the Grand Pooh-bah, because that would only draw attention to ourselves. Oh, you see the hangers-on doing that sort of thing all the time, but it's cheap and foolish and one day they'll face the consequences of their folly. They're hungry for something they know nothing about, but we, we know all too well that the price of fame is the loss of privacy. Public displays of happiness only encourage the many kidnappers who prowl the leafy estates of our better neighborhoods.
When my sisters were taken, my father crumpled the ransom note and tossed it into the eternal flame that burns beside the mummified Pilgrim we keep in the dining hall of our summer home in Olfactory. We don't negotiate with criminals, because it's not in our character. Every now and then we think about my sisters and hope they're doing well, but we don't dwell upon the matter, as that only allows the kidnappers to win. My sisters are gone for the time being but, who knows, maybe they'll return someday, perhaps when they're older and have families of their own. In the meantime, I am left as the only child and heir to my parents' substantial fortune. Is it lonely? Sometimes. I've still got my mother and father and, of course, the servants, several of whom are extraordinarily clever despite their crooked teeth and lack of breeding. Why, just the other day I was in the stable with Duncan when…
"Oh, for God's sake," my mother said, tossing her wooden spoon into a cauldron of chipped-beef gravy. "Leave that goddamned cat alone before I claw you myself. It's bad enough you've got her tarted up like some two-dollar whore. Take that costume off her and turn her loose before she runs away just like the last one."
Adjusting my glasses with my one free hand, I reminded her that the last cat had been hit by a car.
"She did it on purpose," my mother said. "It was her only way out, and you drove her to it with your bullshit about eating prime rib with the Kennedys or whatever the hell it was you were yammering on about that day. Go on now, and let her loose. Then I want you to run out to the backyard and call your sisters out of that ditch. Find your father while you're at it. If he's not underneath his car, he's probably working on the septic tank. Tell them to get their asses to the table, or they'll be eating my goddamned fist for dinner."
It wasn't that we were poor. According to my parents, we were far from it, just not far enough from it to meet my needs. I wanted a home with a moat rather than a fence. In order to get a decent night's sleep, I needed an airport named in our honor.
"You're a snob," my mother would say. "That's your problem in a hard little nutshell. I grew up around people like you, and you know what? I couldn't stand them. Nobody could."
No matter what we had — the house, the cars, the vacations — it was never enough. Somewhere along the line a terrible mistake had been made. The life I'd been offered was completely unacceptable, but I never gave up hope that my real family might arrive at any moment, pressing the doorbell with their white-gloved fingers. "Oh, Lord Chisselchin," they'd cry, tossing their top hats in celebration, "thank God we've finally found you."
"It ain't going to happen," my mother said. "Believe me, if I was going to steal a baby, I would have taken one that didn't bust my ass every time I left my coat lying on the sofa. I don't know how it happened, but you're mine. If that's a big disappointment for you, just imagine what I must feel."
While my mother grocery-shopped, I would often loiter near the front of the store. It was my hope that some wealthy couple would stuff me into the trunk of their car. They might torture me for an hour or two, but after learning that I was good with an iron, surely they would remove my shackles and embrace me as one of their own.
"Any takers?" my mother would ask, wheeling her loaded grocery cart out into the parking lot.
"Don't you know any childless couples?" I'd ask. "Someone with a pool or a private jet?"
"If I did, you'd be the first one to know."
My displeasure intensified with the appearance of each new sister.
"You have how many children in your family?" the teachers would ask. "I'm guessing you must be Catholic, am I right?"
It seemed that every Christmas my mother was pregnant. The toilet was constantly filled with dirty diapers, and toddlers were forever padding into my bedroom, disturbing my seashell and wine-bottle collections.
I had no notion of the exact mechanics, but from over-hearing the neighbors, I understood that our large family had something to do with my mother's lack of control. It was her fault that we couldn't afford a summerhouse with bay windows and a cliffside tennis court. Rather than improve her social standing, she chose to spit out children, each one filthier than the last.
It wasn't until she announced her sixth pregnancy that I grasped the complexity of the situation. I caught her in the bedroom, crying in the middle of the afternoon.
"Are you sad because you haven't vacuumed the basement yet?" I asked. "I can do that for you if you want."
"I know you can," she said. "And I appreciate your offer. No, I'm sad because, shit, because I'm going to have a baby, but this is the last one, I swear. After this one I'll have the doctor tie my tubes and solder the knot just to make sure it'll never happen again."
I had no idea what she was talking about — a tube, a knot, a soldering gun — but I nodded my head as if she and I had just come to some sort of a private agreement that would later be finalized by a team of lawyers.
"I can do this one more time but I'm going to need your help." She was still crying in a desperate, sloppy kind of way, but it didn't embarrass me or make me afraid. Watching her slender hands positioned like a curtain over her face, I understood that she needed more than just a volunteer maid. And, oh, I would be that person. A listener, a financial advisor, even a friend: I swore to be all those things and more in exchange for twenty dollars and a written guarantee that I would always have my own private bedroom. That's how devoted I was. And knowing what a good deal she was getting, my mother dried her face and went off in search of her pocketbook.
a plague of tics
When the teacher asked if she might visit with my mother, I touched my nose eight times to the surface of my desk.
"May I take that as a 'yes'?" she asked.
According to her calculations, I had left my chair twenty-eight times that day. "You're up and down like a flea. I turn my back for two minutes and there you are with your tongue pressed against that light switch. Maybe they do that where you come from, but here in my classroom we don't leave our seats and lick things whenever we please. That is Miss Chest-nut's light switch, and she likes to keep it dry. Would you like me to come over to your house and put my tongue on your light switches? Well, would you?"
I tried to picture her in action, but my shoe was calling. Take me off, it whispered. Tap my heel against your forehead three times. Do it now, quick, no one will notice.
"Well?" Miss Chestnut raised her faint, penciled eye-brows. "I'm asking you a question. Would you or would you not want me licking the light switches in your house?"
I slipped off my shoe, pretending to examine the imprint on the heel.
"You're going to hit yourself over the head with that shoe, aren't you?"
It wasn't "hitting," it was tapping; but still, how had she known what I was about to do?
"Heel marks all over your forehead," she said, answering my silent question.
"You should take a look in the mirror sometime. Shoes are dirty things. We wear them on our feet to protect ourselves against the soil. It's not healthy to hit ourselves over the head with shoes, is it?"
I guessed that it was not.
"Guess? This is not a game to be guessed at. I don't 'guess' that it's dangerous to run into traffic with a paper sack over my head. There's no guesswork involved. These things are facts, not riddles." She sat at her desk, continuing her lecture as she penned a brief letter. "I'd like to have a word with your mother. You do have one, don't you? I'm assuming you weren't raised by animals. Is she blind, your mother? Can she see the way you behave, or do you reserve your antics exclusively for Miss Chestnut?" She handed me the folded slip of paper. "You may go now, and on your way out the door I'm asking you please not to bathe my light switch with your germ-ridden tongue. It's had a long day; we both have."
It was a short distance from the school to our rented house, no more than six hundred and thirty-seven steps, and on a good day I could make the trip in an hour, pausing every few feet to tongue a mailbox or touch whichever single leaf or blade of grass demanded my attention. If I were to lose count of my steps, I'd have to return to the school and begin again. "Back so soon?" the janitor would ask. "You just can't get enough of this place, can you?"
He had it all wrong. I wanted to be at home more than anything, it was getting there that was the problem. I might touch the telephone pole at step three hundred and fourteen and then, fifteen paces later, worry that I hadn't touched it in exactly the right spot. It needed to be touched again. I'd let my mind wander for one brief moment and then doubt had set in, causing me to question not just the telephone pole but also the lawn ornament back at step two hundred and nineteen. I'd have to go back and lick that concrete mushroom one more time, hoping its guardian wouldn't once again rush from her house shouting, "Get your face out of my toad-stool!" It might be raining or maybe I had to go to the bath-room, but running home was not an option. This was a long and complicated process that demanded an oppressive attention to detail. It wasn't that I enjoyed pressing my nose against the scalding hood of a parked car — pleasure had nothing to do with it. A person had to do these things because nothing was worse than the anguish of not doing them. Bypass that mailbox and my brain would never for one moment let me forget it. I might be sitting at the dinner table, daring myself not to think about it, and the thought would revisit my mind. Don't think about it. But it would already be too late and I knew then exactly what I had to do. Excusing myself to go to the bathroom, I'd walk out the front door and return to that mailbox, not just touching but jabbing, practically pounding on the thing because I thought I hated it so much. What I really hated, of course, was my mind. There must have been an off switch somewhere, but I was damned if I could find it.
I didn't remember things being this way back north. Our family had been transferred from Endicott, New York, to Raleigh, North Carolina. That was the word used by the people at IBM, transferred. A new home was under construction, but until it was finished we were confined to a rental property built to resemble a plantation house. The building sat in a treeless, balding yard, its white columns promising a majesty the interior failed to deliver. The front door opened onto a dark, narrow hallway lined with bedrooms not much larger than the mattresses that furnished them. Our kitchen was located on the second floor, alongside the living room, its picture window offering a view of the cinder-block wall built to hold back the tide of mud generated by the neighboring dirt mound.
"Our own little corner of hell," my mother said, fanning herself with one of the shingles littering the front yard.
Depressing as it was, arriving at the front stoop of the house meant that I had completed the first leg of that bitter-tasting journey to my bedroom. Once home I would touch the front door seven times with each elbow, a task made more difficult if there was someone else around. "Why don't you try the knob," my sister Lisa would say. "That's what the rest of us do, and it seems to work for us." Inside the house there were switches and doorstops to be acknowledged. My bedroom was right there off the hallway, but first I had business to tend to. After kissing the fourth, eighth, and twelfth carpeted stair, I wiped the cat hair off my lips and proceeded to the kitchen, where I was commanded to stroke the burners of the stove, press my nose against the refrigerator door, and arrange the percolator, toaster, and blender into a straight row. After making my rounds of the living room, it was time to kneel beside the banister and blindly jab a butter knife in the direction of my favorite electrical socket. There were bulbs to lick and bathroom faucets to test before finally I was free to enter my bedroom, where I would carefully align the objects on my dresser, lick the corners of my metal desk, and lie upon my bed, rocking back and forth and thinking of what an odd woman she was, my third-grade teacher, Miss Chestnut. Why come here and lick my switches when she never used the one she had? Maybe she was drunk.
Her note had asked if she might visit our home in order to discuss what she referred to as my "special problems."
"Have you been leaving your seat to lick the light switch?" my mother asked. She placed the letter upon the table and lit a cigarette.
"Once or twice," I said.
"Once or twice what? Every half hour? Every ten minutes?"
"I don't know," I lied. "Who's counting?"
"Well, your goddamned math teacher, for one. That's her job, to count. What, do you think she's not going to notice?"
"Notice what?" It never failed to amaze me that people might notice these things. Because my actions were so intensely private, I had always assumed they were somehow invisible. When cornered, I demanded that the witness had been mistaken.
"What do you mean, 'notice what?' I got a phone call just this afternoon from that lady up the street, that Mrs. Keening, the one with the twins. She says she caught you in her front yard, down on your hands and knees kissing the evening edition of her newspaper."
"I wasn't kissing it. I was just trying to read the headline."
"And you had to get that close? Maybe we need to get you some stronger glasses."
"Well, maybe we do," I said.
"And I suppose this Miss…" My mother unfolded the letter and studied the signature. "This Miss Chestnut is mistaken, too? Is that what you're trying to tell me? Maybe she has you confused with the other boy who leaves his seat to lick the pencil sharpener or touch the flag or whatever the hell it is you do the moment her back is turned?"
"That's very likely," I said. "She's old. There are spots on her hands."
"How many?" my mother asked.
On the afternoon that Miss Chestnut arrived for her visit, I was in my bedroom, rocking. Unlike the obsessive counting and touching, rocking was not a mandatory duty but a voluntary and highly pleasurable exercise. It was my hobby, and there was nothing else I would rather do. The point was not to rock oneself to sleep: This was not a step toward some greater goal. It was the goal itself. The perpetual movement freed my mind, allowing me to mull things over and construct elaborately detailed fantasies. Toss in a radio, and I was content to rock until three or four o'clock in the morning, listening to the hit parade and discovering that each and every song was about me. I might have to listen two or three hundred times to the same song, but sooner or later its private message would reveal itself. Because it was pleasant and relaxing, my rocking was bound to be tripped up, most often by my brain, which refused to allow me more than ten consecutive minutes of happiness. At the opening chords of my current favorite song, a voice would whisper, Shouldn't you be upstairs making sure there are really one hundred and fourteen peppercorns left in that small ceramic jar? And, hey, while you're up there, you might want to check the iron and make sure it's not setting fire to the baby's bedroom. The list of demands would grow by the moment. What about that television antenna? Is it still set into that perfect V, or has one of your sisters destroyed its integrity. You know, I was just wondering how tightly the lid is screwed onto that mayonnaise jar. Let's have a look, shall we?
I would be just on the edge of truly enjoying myself, this close to breaking the song's complex code, when my thoughts would get in the way. The trick was to bide my time until the record was no longer my favorite, to wait until it had slipped from its number-one position on the charts and fool my mind into believing I no longer cared.
I was coming to terms with "The Shadow of Your Smile" when Miss Chestnut arrived. She rang the bell, and I cracked open my bedroom door, watching as my mother invited her in.
"You'll have to forgive me for these boxes." My mother flicked her cigarette out the door and into the littered yard. "They're filled with crap, every last one of them, but God forbid we throw anything away. Oh no, we can't do that! My husband's saved it all: every last Green Stamp and coupon, every outgrown bathing suit and scrap of linoleum, it's all right here along with the rocks and knotted sticks he swears look just like his old department head or associate district manager or some goddamned thing." She mopped at her forehead with a wadded paper towel. "Anyway, to hell with it. You look like I need a drink, scotch all right?"
Miss Chestnut's eyes brightened. "I really shouldn't but, oh, why not?" She followed my mother up the stairs. "Just a drop with ice, no water."
I tried rocking in bed, but the sound of laughter drew me to the top of the landing, where from my vantage point behind an oversized wardrobe box, I watched the two women discuss my behavior.
"Oh, you mean the touching," my mother said. She studied the ashtray that sat before her on the table, narrowing her eyes much like a cat catching sight of a squirrel. Her look of fixed concentration suggested that nothing else mattered. Time had stopped, and she was deaf to the sounds of the rattling fan and my sisters' squabbling out in the driveway. She opened her mouth just slightly, running her tongue over her upper lip, and then she inched forward, her index finger prodding the ashtray as though it were a sleeping thing she was trying to wake. I had never seen myself in action, but a sharp, stinging sense of recognition told me that my mother's impersonation had been accurate.
"Priceless!" Miss Chestnut laughed, clasping her hands in delight. "Oh, that's very good, you've captured him perfectly. Bravo, I give you an A-plus."
"God only knows where he gets it from," my mother said. "He's probably down in his room right this minute, counting his eyelashes or gnawing at the pulls on his dresser. One, two o'clock in the morning and he'll still be at it, rattling around the house to poke the laundry hamper or press his face against the refrigerator door. The kid's wound too tight, but he'll come out of it. So, what do you say, another scotch, Katherine?"
Now she was Katherine. Another few drinks and she'd probably be joining us for our summer vacation. How easy it was for adults to bond over a second round of cocktails. I returned to my bed, cranking up the radio so as not to be distracted by the sound of their cackling. Because Miss Chest-nut was here in my home, I knew it was only a matter of time before the voices would order me to enter the kitchen and make a spectacle of myself. Maybe I'd have to suck on the broom handle or stand on the table to touch the overhead light fixture, but whatever was demanded of me, I had no choice but to do it. The song that played on the radio posed no challenge whatsoever, the lyric as clear as if I'd written it myself. "Well, I think I'm going out of my head," the man sang, "yes, I think I'm going out of my head."
Following Miss Chestnut's visit, my father attempted to cure me with a series of threats. "You touch your nose to that windshield one more time and I'll guarantee you'll wish you hadn't," he said driving home from the grocery store with a lapful of rejected, out-of-state coupons. It was virtually impossible for me to ride in the passenger seat of a car and not press my nose against the windshield, and now that the activity had been forbidden, I wanted it more than anything. I tried closing my eyes, hoping that might eliminate my desire, but found myself thinking that perhaps he was the one who should close his eyes. So what if I wanted to touch my nose to the windshield? Who was it hurting? Why was it that he could repeatedly worry his change and bite his lower lip without the threat of punishment? My mother smoked and Miss Chestnut massaged her waist twenty, thirty times a day — and here I
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