Another installment of Big Chief Tablet is now up on the Oxford American’s website: this one about guns, violence, nudity, and the Lord!
Another installment of Big Chief Tablet is now up on the Oxford American’s website: this one about guns, violence, nudity, and the Lord!
Big Chief’s January story can be found at the Oxford American; it’s called “Bring Me Some Tuba.” Bring it.
Let me just start by saying that I love my father very much; he really is a very decent man. In my lifetime he has volunteered with orphans, taught Sunday school, coached little league teams to district and state championships with minimal cheating, and, despite repeated threats to this effect, never actually took off his belt and whipped another man with it. He was always threatening to, particularly over matters of honor, such as the price of head gasket repair or the best place to obtain a largemouth bass in situ. Quite often he did his menacing over the telephone, which was best because we lived deep in a Mississippi wood and gasoline was far too expensive, even then, to burn driving around the countryside beating people just because they deserved it. It was more fiscally responsible to work out his anger by beating his sons, who could be located on foot.
Like I said, he was a decent man.
But I am not here to mourn for my youth, nor to accuse my father of domestic violence. No, that will come later, possibly after Christmas. I am here to discuss another, more pressing, concern. The time has come, on the eve of that sacred holy day when the great hero of mankind took corporeal form to right the wrongs of human history, to right a lesser wrong, to let the healing begin, perhaps by creating a fresh wound. As a wise man once said, you cannot make an omelet without publicly humiliating your loved ones.
You see, my father has a condition.
There is no name for this condition, and I am sure our nation’s richly endowed research foundations have more pressing infirmities to fund than this cryptic and nameless malady. One day, perhaps, there might be a Race For The Cure, or at the very least a well-organized car wash. But I dream.
What is this condition, you ask.
My father says things. Inappropriate things. To women.
I search my mind for an example, and lo! The mind reels at such rich troves of anecdote. Which precious bauble durst I choose? I feel like young Bilbo in Smaug’s golden grotto of dwarfish delights! Ah! And there it is, a gem for our narrative study:
It was five months ago, following a family funeral. We had gathered at the ancestral farm to mourn the passing of our patriarch. The great and august man was buried in the sacred earth of a North Mississippi hill, and we were back at the house disabusing ourselves of woolen slacks and hateful neckwear and preparing to baptize our heads in buckets of wine and Kentucky Fried Chicken, whence came a knock at the door. It was a family friend, bearing one such bucket. My grieving father met her at the screendoor and transformed instantly into a garrulous, chipper troll, which is his reaction to all but the homeliest women. Because he likes them, and likes speaking to them about their many physical attributes in a way that is not quite vulgar but rather endlessly suggestive. Also, he is honest with them. Which is perhaps worst of all, as there are many things to be towards a woman, but honest is best left to the Lord.
Pop remembered this woman from many moons ago and dressed her down with questions of family, engaging her with the intensity of a French furrier scrutinizing a fresh mink pelt. I remained in the hallway at a safe distance, as is always best in hostage situations. And then it happened, his comment.
"I believe you’ve gained some weight," he said to the nice woman who brought us food. The remark, as sudden and surprising as a summer tornado, sucked the air from the house. "Seem like your legs is thicker."
I peeked through the doorway to get a look at the poor woman, who’d believed she had come here to assuage the bereaved with battered meats, only to discover that it would be her, and her ample hocks, who got battered.
Later, after the woman had left and likely piloted her car into a nearby ravine, Mom said: “Why would you say such a thing?”
"What?" Pop said. "I like big legs."
Poor mother. She has her own private demons but is a dutiful and longsuffering wife. Pop is no philanderer; he simply treats women like Russian nesting dolls that must be pried, and opened, and pried, and opened, until there is nothing left but a restraining order. It is unclear how he ever convinced my mother to marry him, although there has been speculation that the deal involved a number of soul records and a carton of Winston Lights.
"I like you," he must have said. "You got big arms like what can hold a baby good."
She must have really wanted those cigarettes.
I can remember witnessing his perverse flattery from an early age, at churches and Christmas pageants and our nation’s many lovely Shoney’s franchises.
"Can I take your order?" the server would say. Her name was always something like Tina or Rhonda or Shirley, and she was always missing one of the more important teeth, but Pop didn’t seem to mind.
"Tina!" Pop would say. "Tina-Tina-Bo-Beena!"
"That’s what they call me," Tina says, smirking into her pad of tickets.
His right eyebrow would lift ever so gently, as if tugged by some lecherous puppeteer.
"Oh, I bet they call you all kinda things,” he says.
"What would you like to drank?" she says.
"I’ll have a sweet tea!" he says. "Sweet, sweet tea! Sweet, sweet chariot!" He then starts to sing the gospel tune in the voice of a drunken revivalist preacher. "Do you swing low, Tina Bo-Beena?”
When Tina departs to fetch drinks, Mom stares over the precipice of her menu and looks at Pop like he’s just ordered an appetizer of edible panties.
"You make me want to throw up," she says.
"Oh, hush," he says. "I’m just being friendly is all."
"She practically put her bosoms in your face," Mom says.
"I can’t help it where a woman wants to put her bosoms," he says.
"Between your dentures and her missing teeth, you two would make a lovely couple."
"You hear this, boys?" Pop says, but we don’t, because we are slowly sliding underneath the booth, in hopes that we can crawl under the breakfast buffet and live there until college.
When I was very young, Pop sometimes made me the messenger of his goodhearted misogyny, as he did one morning in first grade. My teacher was Mrs. Jones. It was widely known that all the dads believed her a fox, but this was because they only observed her from afar. Up close, she looked wild-eyed and tense, like Gertrude Stein during a Brazilian wax. Also, she was mean, brutal in her pedagogy. One morning, Pop took me to the dentist, and I was relieved for the brief, antemeridian respite from my teacher.
"Mrs. Jones thinks she’s cute, don’t she?" Pop asked in the car. I explained that I thought she was mean. "Well, you tell her if she’s mean to you, tell her I’ll take off my belt and give her a good whipping, hear."
Did he mean for me to tell her that, in exactly that way? Because that’s what I did, in front of everyone.
"Your father said WHAT?” she said, her red eyeballs swelling like a pair of overfilled kickballs.
"He said he wants to spank you," I said. The sickening feeling of knowing I’d said something uncouth rose up through my shoes and shorts and up over my shoulders like liquid sin. Is this how Pop felt when he said things to buxom, toothless servers? I didn’t think it was.
Moments like these, I think, are why God invented diarrhea, or some other reason to run screaming from a classroom.
"He was just being friendly", 7.5" x 7.5", acrylic on index, 2012, Katherine Sandoz
"A fool’s mouth is his destruction," says the writer of Proverbs, "and his lips are the snare of his soul." Sometimes, a fool’s mouth is his son’s destruction, as I learned with my father at fall festivals and football fundraisers. There we’d be, Styrofoam plates piled high with charity poultry, me sitting with cheerleaders in streetclothes and hoping to charm my way into someone’s heart, or at the very least, to learn the difference between bloomers and panties. Pop would amble up, grinning.
"How you fine ladies feeling?" he’d say. "With your hands?"
Everyone looked left and right and waited for someone else to yell rape.
"Oh, Coach Key, you’re so funny," they would say, lying. "How are you?"
"Me? Shoot. If I was any better, I’d have to be two people."
The whole “two people” thing sounded vaguely sexual, or at least vaguely biological, suggesting that Pop was about to undergo cellular mitosis right there in the school cafeteria. Having one of Pop was enough; having two might require me to move to Cuba, where government quotas prevented having two of anything, and often one.
"Your daddy’s so funny,” the cheerleaders would say.
"We plan to have him murdered after the rainy season," I would say.
As a result of his rambunctiousness, I spent high school and college finding ways not to bring girls home.
"Who are you seeing now?" Mom would ask. "Why can’t you bring her over for dinner?"
"She doesn’t eat," I would say.
"Oh, is she on a diet?"
"She has no mouth," I would say.
I knew this evasion wouldn’t work forever, though, as one cannot keep dating imaginary mouthless women without raising certain questions. Anyone I was going to marry would likely require a mouth and would need to reckon with my father. And then I met a girl with the prettiest mouth I had ever seen. I told her I liked her, and she didn’t call the police, and I decided she must be wed before coming to her senses.
"We have to meet her," Mom said.
"Of course," I said, reluctantly.
I knew it would be risky. Pop had not been around such a striking young woman for many years, and here she’d be, in his immediate line of sight, with a bellybutton ring and everything. And yet, at dinner, he was behaved, tame, almost soporific, as though mother had tranquilized him with Benadryl and a claw hammer. All was well. We married. But by the time of our first Thanksgiving, when they visited our miniature newlywed apartment, the antihistamines had worn off. We sat in our little shoebox living room and watched a Christmas movie. My wife returned with a bowl of popcorn and sat down, and I noticed Pop looking at her with that old Puppeteer grin.
"You know," he said to my young wife, "I think your thighs may be getting bigger."
When he said it, I coughed, and a kernel of corn lodged itself in the vestibule of my nasal cavity, preparing to rappel from my nostrils and subdue the man with a flash grenade. My wife’s eyelids appeared to have been removed, or perhaps burned off by the plasma rays emanating from her eyeball gelatin. I fully expected her to burst into tears and run from the room, but my wife was no crier. Instead, she looked at her new father-in-law in a way that indicated he might want to insert his head up a mule’s ass. Mom, compelled to say something nice, defended my wife’s thighs, which were, it should be noted, not large.
"I think she looks great!" Mom said.
"She does!" Pop said. "It’s a compliment. I like big thighs."
"I’m right here," she said.
"Can we please stop saying thighs?” I said.
"Haunches is what I mean," Pop said.
"She’s not a horse," I said.
My wife left the room.
"I’m sorry," I said later. "It’s just – he played football before helmets."
"Do you think my thighs are big?" she said.
I found it best to say nothing and instead focus on removing the popcorn from my Eustachian tubes.
Over the next few holidays, Pop said all sorts of obliquely untoward things to my wife and others in our general area of holiday mirth. One Christmas, babies were the rage: Would we be having some, and when, and why not right now, while we’re all here waiting? The implication was that my wife and I should lock ourselves in a hallway closet and not come out until there were at least three of us.
"Just whatever you do," Pop said, "I shonuff hope you don’t breastfeed it."
The alarums rang at the appearance of the word breastfeed, and I quickly called in a Code Red. “Let’s watch a bass fishing program!” I said. But my wife took the shiny bait.
"Nursing is the best thing you can do for a baby," she said.
"Please, no," I said.
A minor fracas broke out over the merits of synthetic versus natural fluids for the infant, and it became clear that my parents had read an article sometime in the early seventies explaining that breastfeeding was a primitive custom and that modern American mothers should instead nourish their young with Tang and Mr. Pibb.
"You people are crazy," my wife said.
"Aint nothing will ruin a lady’s chest like giving a baby too much titty milk," Pop said.
Silent night, holy night.
I could see the disappointment in my wife’s face at having married into a family where the word titty could be passed around at Christmas dinner as freely as a basket of warm crescent rolls. She looked at me.
"He can’t help it," I said. "He grew up on a dairy, surrounded by animal teats."
"Teats is titties," Pop said.
"It’s all nipples, really," I said.
"What kind of people talk like this at the dinner table?" my wife said, looking at me. I hoped it was a rhetorical question, because I was having my own problems—not at home, during holidays, but at work, where a sort of verbal dysentery had begun to manifest itself.
"Morning!" a colleague would say in the hallway.
My brain, desiring both to say morning and hello, simply combined the two.
"Horny!" I would say, as they ran for the fire escape.
In elevators, I would find myself trying to be congenial but just being disturbing.
"Have we met?" I’d say to some attractive new colleague.
"Yes," she says. "I’m Katherine. We met last week. I never forget a face!"
"Oh, I forget faces all the time," I would say. "Actually, what I remember best are smells."
The elevator would lurch, slowly, giving us all plenty of time to smell one another.
Worst, though, were office kitchens, where I often stumbled upon nursing mothers heaving out their bosoms like sacks of English peas. It would be in these moments that I felt a natural kinship with my father. I would get so flustered, so desirous to fill the blank canvas of the moment with bright, colorful acrylics that I end up staring at the mother and saying something like, “I prefer skim!” or “He’s so cute, the part of his face that I can see!” or “Why do people say suck like it’s a bad thing?”
"A fool’s mouth", 7.5" x 7.5", acrylic on index, 2012, Katherine Sandoz
I kept my condition hidden from my wife for several years, until Sunday school one morning, when the word afterbirth came out of my mouth.
"It’s a disease," I explained. "It just came out."
“Afterbirth doesn’t just come out.”
"My brain picks its own words. I can’t control it."
I can’t even remember now why I said it. We had been discussing the Book of Ephesians, which contains almost no references to placental matter.
"Why do you do this?" she said.
What I want to say is: It’s the guileless, childlike part of my brain that desires to speak. The other part, the one designed to stop suspect words at the security gate of my mouth and request identification, is easily fooled by words like afterbirth.
"Let me see your papers," the security guard says.
"I have them here somewhere," afterbirth says, searching his pockets, then finding an old coupon for a Dairy Queen blizzard. “Here it is!” The security guard inspects it carefully, hands it back, waves afterbirth through.
Soon came other words and comments and remarks too delicate to mention, pouring forth from the wild cataract of my imprudent lips at dinner parties and staff meetings, on playgrounds and building tours.
What kinds of words, you ask.
Words like vulva.
Again, nothing you wouldn’t find in a high school health class, but still. Because now everybody’s thinking vulva, vulva, vulva.
"Stop," my wife now says, when it’s about to happen.
Sometimes, I can. Sometimes, I cannot. Because see, I have a condition. Like my father before me. And we are sorry. We are. I am. And I am sure Pop would be, had he not lost his conscience many years ago in a hunting accident. And while this disease disturbs our wives and ensnares our souls, as Solomon suggests, it also binds us together. Some people inherit land and bullion and horses, but not me. No, I have inherited the ability to say hemorrhoid at a baby shower.
Sometimes, I enjoy it. Because when it happens, it can be a magical moment. Everything stops, the bustle of polite quotidian life halts, manners give way to quietude, heaven and hell open up before us, the membrane pierced, the veil rent, nothing audible but the sound of shame and regret. And that’s what Christmas is all about. My parents will be here this week, for the holiday, and I am looking forward to what Pop might say. My wife has been losing weight and her jeans hang off her hips like old socks. Yesterday, she reached into a low cabinet, and I saw the crack of her bottom.
"You have to get that fixed before my father gets here," I said. "Maybe wear some pants with elastic."
Of course, we have three children now, and the presence of little girls has tamed Pop. He will watch cartoons with them, and they will entertain him with stories about unicorns marrying dinosaurs and living in castles made of candy. It will all be very clean and appropriate. He loves them very much, one can tell, and seems to have no desire to make uncouth remarks in their presence. And of course, they are happy and well-behaved children, which is likely a result of their frequent access to my wife’s nourishing teats. They seem to be turning out fine, or at least better than me. Like the wise man said, I can’t help it where a woman wants to put her bosoms.
As for me, I blame the Tang.
Picture it: You drive home from the grocery store, pull into your cul-de-sac, a short and quiet street. You like the way the afternoon sun casts across your cul-de-sac like the paradisiac light of some ambitious Netherlander’s painting. It is a modest street. Its homes are small. You like this, too. It makes you feel a slight moral superiority to those who have homes with closets. Your wife wants closets, dreams of them, asks for them for Christmas.
Why, you ask.
To put things, she says.
What kinds of things?
All kinds of things, she says.
The thing is, you have some insecurities about your property on the cul-de-sac. It is on the margins of middleclass respectability: Cute, yes. A porch, yes. Even trees and a park, right there. But you feel the neighborhood is only one or two rental agreements shy of Escape From New York anarchy. These renters come in, and these homes start to look like pornographic films and ritual murders are being filmed inside: the venetian blinds tattered, a front door that appears to have been clawed at by a large mammal, strange garbage by the roadside: empty boxes of Milwaukee’s Best, cartons of latex gloves, discarded tubs of what appears to be lizard food. These lizard people are up to no good, you fear.
Nevertheless, you like it here. It wants to be respectable, a verdant rung on the ladder from working prole to affluent burgher. And it will be good for your children, teaching them the virtues of simplicity, humility, and what sorts of trees to climb when chased by marginalized dogs.
When you pull into your cul-de-sac, you slow down, as you do not wish to run over Old Man Winter, an aged veteran who is blind and wanders into the street to gather tennis balls knocked over the fence from a nearby public court. He gathers these balls, which are the last remaining objects he can see besides the sun, and hands them out to the squirrels, whom he believes are children. He usually sits under the umbrella of large dogwoods purchased by his dead wife in the mists of prehistory from a mail-order catalog, which he speaks about with great awe.
It was a book full of trees, he says.
Amazing, you say.
In spring, the dogwoods bloom white and hang over his yard like a low cloudbank.
You are always concerned about running over Old Man Winter, as you do not wish to murder what is likely the last surviving infantryman of the Crimean War, whose name you do not even have the decency to know.
What’s your name again, you ask.
What’s that, he says.
Your name, you say.
Tennis balls, he says.
Your name, you say.
Dogwoods, he says.
This goes on.
But as you pass his humble estate today, you notice something strange: Old Man Winter is not there. Instead, there is a naked man fighting with one of the azaleas.
You pull into your driveway and look again.
He is not naked, just wearing flesh-colored shorts designed for a toddler. You park, and before you can get inside your house, the shirtless man is standing behind you.
I got a flare, he says.
You turn around.
A flour, the large woman behind him says.
They are in your yard. They are holding sheets of paper.
A flyer, you say. Oh.
I can do anything, he says. Trim, chop, lop, rake, dig. I can do it all.
He can do it all, the large woman says.
The man is what your father would describe as squirrelly. Like a squirrel, he jerks, frets, stiffens, shuddering in fleshy paroxysms the way most people do when attacked by the Holy Spirit. Like a squirrel, he wears no shirt and appears capable of climbing trees. Unlike a squirrel, he seems overly concerned with rubbing his nipples. Despite his smallness, his chest is thick, muscular. His abs, defined. He is ripped. He also appears coked to the gills. You have seen this type of man before, but cannot remember where. Ah, yes! Cops. The TV show.
The woman behind him worships a more endomorphic god. She explains that she is Old Man Winter’s granddaughter. She is a big gal, with the build of a large and talkative toad. Your eye is drawn to her hair, which can best be described as Thunderdome-era Tina Turner. It is red, and it swells up and out from her skull as though desiring to photosynthesize with the nearest available sunlight.
They speak to you, hand you a flare, and are gone.
I’m just glad we don’t live next to people like that, your wife says.
We’re very lucky, you say. We have good neighbors.
A few months later, you notice an ambulance in Old Man Winter’s driveway. Father Time has caught up with the man. They will saw him in half and count his rings. For a week, his family sits Shiva in the carport, which they have transformed into a saloon. He has fathered a tribe of excellent drinkers and smokers, who seem to find great pleasure in yelling at one another on a variety of topics, from the temperature of their beer to the proper usage of diapers, tongue rings, and Bowie knives.
You hide behind a tree and listen.
On the day after the funeral, you see Captain Squirrel and Lady Thunderdome carrying what appear to be laundry baskets full of garbage into the house.
What are they carrying, your wife says.
Their stuff, you say.
Oh no, she says.
Cars pack the dirt driveway, clog the street, park in front of your house. There’s something vaguely menacing about it, this excessive parking. They are blocking your view. Granted, it is merely a view of the other side of the street, which is generally of no interest.
You let it go.
And it continues.
And you know it is wrong, to want to firebomb the cars that obstruct your view.
I do not like this, your wife says, looking out the window.
Relax, you say. Show some Christian hospitality.
But really, you don’t like it, either, and you don’t like that you’re aware of your not liking it, which means you’re probably too weak to go through with any sort of firebombing plan. Your father was not so weak. Your father had a stick in the car just for hitting people.
Relax. You have no reasons for this anxiety. It’s just a vague unease, a thin intestinal miasma, about the cars, the people, the guttural bark inside the dark carport. It is only later, while cutting the grass like a dutiful burgher, that you notice, on your property, what appears to be the feces of a large mammal.
Your dread now has ambitions of rage.
You will do what you always do when you need to let off steam: a drum solo. But wait: someone is sitting on your drums. A small boy, maybe nine years old.
Who are you?
I’m a drummer, he says.
These drums are filled with magic and power, you say. What is your name?
Cody, he says. This is not his real name, but so very close.
The little towheaded boy seems nice enough, even though he touched your drums, which in an ideal world would result in his public execution. But you remember Christian charity and explain that you will give him lessons. First, though, he must answer questions.
How many of you are there, you ask.
Depends, he says. I got, like, four brothers and two sisters and three daddies.
That’s impossible, you say.
What does your momma do, you say.
She’s in the beauty school, he says. She can do hair pretty good.
Who pooped in my yard, you say.
It wasn’t me, he says.
After a brief drum lesson, Cody is released without formal charges.
"we have good neighbors," 9" x 8", mixed media on BFK, 2012, Katherine Sandoz
Later, at bedtime, you tamp down your anxieties, predicated on hearsay and dormant prejudices about shirtless people who touch their own nipples. You close your eyes and doubt the prudence of your decision to buy a modest home in a neighborhood that could, with one rogue family of squatters in a corner lot that anchors the southern boundary of the park from which this community draws its best hope for economic vitality, sink back into the chicken-fried mass of Poor Southern Whiteness.
You wake at midnight. In the distance, the canons boom.
What is that sound, your wife says.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
You go to the window, eager to espy these people launching field mortars into the park. But nothing, not even a flare. Dark.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
It happens every night for the next many nights. At midnight, and two, and four.
Your wife overheats. When her sleep is profaned by acts of wanton sonority, she grows fractious and unhinged and adopts the behavior of certain cave-dwelling Sméagols who have lost their preciouses.
I want to murder them, she says.
Go to sleep, you say.
You have to stop this, she says.
I’ll go talk to Jimmy, you say.
Jimmy is what you have been calling him, which is short for Jimmy Crack Corn, which is long for crack, which you are pretty sure he smokes.
You slink into the backyard and surveil across property lines in the dark with a headlamp and a stick for hitting people. You see what is happening. This is no mortar. These are doors. Doors that slam with great force. Sliding van doors, car doors, tailgates, shed doors, screen doors. The backdoor, in particular, slams with such booming fury that it sounds like someone is hurling manatee carcasses into the bed of a pickup.
Suddenly, a light.
You creep to the veil of bamboo and attempt to discern what unspeakable acts of horror are being wrought in this place. Grunting is audible. What is this? A meth lab? A manatee death camp? If they see you seeing them, will they murder you? Why are you wearing a headlamp, you idiot?
Stop it! This is no time for critical thinking!
The slamming continues. You must do something before your wife pours a bottle of Benadryl into her soul. In a burst of courage, you drop the stick and remove the headlamp and step around the bamboo curtain into the midnight gloaming. And there they are: Jimmy and his woman, him sweating like a can of beer, his square eyeglasses fogged up, searching through boxes with great violence the way foxes hunt for voles in fresh snow. They do not see you.
Evening, you say.
Here’s what happened: You apologized for your family’s vulgar habit of sleeping at night, while Lady Thunderdome belched out both an apology and what sounded like a whole onion, while Jimmy C.C. made some barking noises and rubbed his nipples like a magic lamp. You explain all this to your wife, who slams her head into the pillow in an effort to induce an aneurysm, which she believes may help her sleep.
It keeps happening, every night. The Battle of Verdun.
What are they doing, you think?
Drugs, she says.
They act just as unhinged during daylight, when Lady Thunderdome pilots her van like a banking jet, her regal mane attempting to escape its life of hairsprayed servitude through an open window. She rockets past her driveway and slingshots herself from the rounded end of the sac like the ships Freedom and Independence around the dark side of the moon in Armageddon and comes to a neck-breaking stop in front of our house. Then pulls up. Then back. Then up. Then back. Then into her driveway. Then out. Then in.
When she finally comes to a stop, Lady Thunderdome removes from the van a small, pale, thin baby that appears to be made of gray plastic. It does not cry, despite its recent jaunt in the G-force simulator. The baby just stares at you. It can see you watching it through the blinds. It is a Deliverance baby. It knows things.
You feel bad about thinking the baby should be in a remake of Deliverance and resolve to stop being so white and just talk to these people. Be a neighbor, Jesus. And then one Saturday, there he is, on the safe side of your picket fence, drinking a Miller Lite and staring at you like he’s got a secret and wants you to pay money for it.
Howdy, you say.
In a frightening burst, a barking animal rushes from amidst the piles of refuse in the carport, toward you. It is a wiener dog, a long turd of a pet the color of a bratwurst that has been grilled by the fires of Satan. It hates you. It barks with fury: deep, amplified, angry barks. You hate small dogs and greatly desire to see it carried off by a large raptor. The dog sticks its head through a gap in the pickets and barks again. It coughs. It yaks. It vomits.
I fed him a sirloin, Jimmy says, proudly.
The dog is now eating its own vomit six inches from your shoes.
And then, without warning, you have a perfectly normal conversation about lawnmowers and proper squat-thrust technique. These fears of yours are silly. He is just a workingman, and you are an assface. Sure, he doesn’t appear to own any shirts. So what? If you had a build like that, you’d be naked all the time, too. Sure, the last remaining possessions of Old Man Winter now lie in damp, exposed heaps around the yard, burgeoning cradles of life for unborn vermin and carrion birds. Sure, he seems to pepper his speech with halftruths, like the part about how he’s an entrepreneur or how he can get you a backhoe.
Why would I need a backhoe, you say.
To dig shit up, he says.
You really like the way Jimmy talks. It reminds you of Mississippi. It is hard to describe, something like the sound of a distant chainsaw pinched in a knot of pine. This is why you like him. And you resolve to continue liking him, which you do, until, midway through the conversation, when he explains what he’s about to do to the house.
We gonna make it a beauty parlor, he says.
Stunned, you nod and drift off into a nightmarish reverie where the cul-de-sac overflows with large, loud women and their skyward hair, pouring out of the front door of Old Man Winter’s home underneath a sign that reads Tina’s Kut n’Kurl or perhaps The Mane Event. It will be like Steel Magnolias, except where all the characters live in trailers and carry knives. You exit this hellish vision and catch Jimmy in the midst of his construction plans, which involve destroying most of the sixty-year-old azaleas and dogwoods that remain the property’s last redeeming feature.
Can you believe it, you say to your wife. A beauty parlor.
You try to forget ever selling this house to anybody but a meretricious slumlord. The property has already taken on a decidedly post-Katrina quality, rolls of sodden carpet leaning against trees, velour recliners exposed to the elements, dead sticks of furniture lazing in the sun like poisoned cows. You have seen cats and opossums fighting in the carport.
Can you believe it, you say again. But your wife has no time for this.
That dog attacked our children, she says.
You find your three-year-old in the bedroom, lying motionless like a wounded soldier and covered excessively in Dora the Explorer bandages.
You want to hate them.
Love thy neighbor as thyself. What does it even mean? And what if you hate yourself, too? Does it mean you make friends with a man who acts as though he has a head full of Bolivian Marching Powder? Is it wrong not to want the cul-de-sac sullied with beauty salons and fighting opossums? What would Jesus do? More importantly, What would your father do?
What he would do is he would shoot all the animals.
Also, he would not live here.
He prefers to live in the country, with deep stands of hardwoods between him and his neighbors, which make him feel better about shooting blindly in their direction. He has been known to shoot cats that venture onto his property and leave dusty feline prints on the glittering gunnels of various fishing boats. He is a brave man who stands up for what he believes in. And what he believes in is shooting cats. You have no such high ideals. You don’t even have a bass boat. You are a disgrace.
I could shoot the dog, you say.
Don’t be ridiculous, your wife says. You should shoot him.
It’ll be fine, you say. They won’t buy that house. Their family will kick them out.
I hope, she says.
It’s a nice little house. Somebody will buy it. Nice yard. Great trees.
A few mornings later, you wake to the sound of a chainsaw.
Dear Lord, you say.
Is that legal, someone says.
You are standing in the street, holding beers, trying not to stare at the rape of the natural world currently taking place in Old Man Winter’s yard. What you see is this: The lovely old unbroken stand of dogwoods, they are on fire.
The trees are on fire.
What’s he doing, someone says.
Destroying property values, someone else says.
Two unfortunate turns of events have precipitated this gathering of concerned homeowners in the street. First, the scorched earth that threatens to destroy your neighborhood, and second, the fact that Jimmy Crack Corn and Tina Turner have begun asking people for money. The story was that they’d just lost their debit card and just needed a little cash.
For what, do you think?
For crack, your wife suggests.
They lost their debit card a lot. At least once a week.
It was Tina who did the asking, their thinking, perhaps, that it would be easier to give money to the imminent valedictorian of the region’s most prestigious college of beauty, than to a man who operated his nipples like a pair of important toggle switches. The others are angry about this, but you withhold judgment, trying to remember what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth.
They have asked just about everyone on the sac, but not you.
This is bothersome. You wish to be asked for money. You desire this spiritual test. You don’t know what you will say. Yes, maybe. Or no. This is all so exciting!
But not the burning and the yard. This is not exciting. This is dangerous and sad and is starting to feel like a John Steinbeck novel and may end with someone beating Jimmy to death with his chainsaw.
Look at him, they say.
He has felled two or three dogwoods already and has begun pulling azaleas out of the earth with his truck, leaving nothing but a row of divots like shallow baby graves. The corpses are heaped on hazardous bonfires in the yard, around the stumps of the felled trees, on which Jimmy has also dumped clothes and other garbage. The corner lot now looks more like a scene from Platoon, with smoke and flame and death and shirtless people with lit cigarettes in need of showers and education.
Somebody should say something, someone says. About the yard. About the money.
Everybody looks at you. You live next to him. You are the one who talks to him. The others drift back to their own yards, where they hose down their roofs in case of stray cinders. You are left alone, staring, wondering what to say, when Jimmy sees you.
They were all so pretty, you say.
They’re pretty dead, he says. Ha ha!
He looks happy, destroying life. The work suits him and his jolting gestures—the yanking and plucking and sawing and burning and running around the yard like a prairie dog who has eaten a mescaline-filled beetle.
But he does not seem high when he comes to your door a week later, asking for money.
It is ten o’clock.
Your wife jumps.
It’s him, she says. Do not give him drug money.
What if they need food, you say.
She runs to the back of the house.
The last time someone knocked on your father’s door at ten o’clock, he threatened to pour gasoline on them and see what would happen. You open the door and don’t even have the decency to have a bottle of lighter fluid. At first, you don’t recognize Jimmy, because he is wearing a shirt, which makes you mistake him for a perfectly normal human being. But also, he looks dejected and deflated.
Evening, he says.
Here it comes.
He needs fifty dollars, he says. For supplies.
You wish to say yes, to give freely. You also wish to say no, because you have a mortgage and Jimmy Crack Corn is a shiftless, freeloading joblot. The virtues of Christian charity and American self-reliance war within your doubt-wracked breast.
So instead, you ask: What kinds of supplies?
His story lacks a unity of theme, although it experiments playfully with narrative structure and involves many incongruous references to banks, checks, paydays, President Obama, University of Georgia football, and the murder of his father during a home invasion sometime during the Johnson Administration. When the monologue finds its unruly terminus, far off its supply route, you are chagrined to announce that you carry no cash.
In this modern age, you say.
Right, he says. And is gone.
You are torn. On one hand, you feel pity for this man. On the other, wrath.
Here is a man living in a free house who has farmed out most of his children to various scorned lovers and distant kin and who spends his jobless days setting the cul-de-sac on fire and his nights preparing for the South American tour of Stomp while your wife contemplates murder under a threadbare comforter. It’s time for a confrontation. Somebody needs to have a talk with this man. A real come-to-Jesus. Teach a man to fish, all that. It will be a cathartic, cleansing moment.
You will say: Hey, man. Are you okay?
And: Why do you keep lying about money?
And: If you build a beauty parlor here, I will beat you to death with a shovel.
And: At least stop burning the aerosol cans. The explosions are scaring the children.
And: It would be fine if you burned the dog.
Your wife takes to locking the screen door on the porch, which would prevent Jimmy C.C. from knocking, but it does not, because one night, there comes a knocking on the window.
They are knocking on the window, your wife says. She is highly upset.
It is time.
Tell him, your wife says. No more.
You stand. You open the door, the screen door. But, no: It is Lady Thunderdome. She drops on you a sad tale about—actually, this is quite amazing—a lost debit card.
For what, you say.
For diapers, she says.
Damn you, woman!
Thirty seconds later, you are shoving into her hands the legal tender of Huggies, which you offer in lieu of U.S. currency or actual crack. She is not expecting this and seems very disappointed, inspecting the diapers a bit too closely, assessing their potential as barter goods.
She marches back into the night.
Moments like these make you wonder: Are you a good neighbor? Are you a jackass?
And then, they disappeared.
They did not move, no. Their injured cars remained, three in all, furred in thickening coats of pollen and ash, but it was a haunted house. Cody and the Fake Baby disappeared, too. Rumors spread. They would be evicted, kicked out, a splinter in the Old Man Winter family tree. Strange cars were seen. A crime scene van, they said, on a Sunday morning. Crimes against humanity or specific people, it is unclear.
Soon, weeds choke up through the baby graves. Remnants of azalea rootstems shoot up springlike, green as new money, challenging the weeds for attention and staying, for the time being, the building of anything as ridiculous as a beauty parlor. The concrete column of a birdbath juts into the sky, bathless. The garbage and black sooty heaps remain cancerous, threatening to darken everything and further diminish your hopes of selling, moving to a neighborhood where people have the decency to hate one another in a gentler, more respectful way.
But at least it’s quieter, you think.
Your wife has calmed down. She was recently moved by an encounter with a missionary to a Filipino island who spoke of maggots in her cupboards and dusky Dickensian children in need of shoes.
It gives you perspective, your wife says.
I suppose, you say.
I want to be a missionary, your wife says.
We are, you say. We’re just really bad at it.
She is sleeping better now, and when bouts of thunderous cannonade commence in the dark of night, as they sometimes still do, she no longer wakes up. She has a new migraine pill that induces a coma. It is better this way, your wife on drugs.
Jimmy remains elusive. Occasionally, you think you see him, at night.
And then you see it, one dark autumn evening, the distant and growing flame. Another fire in the front yard, high and proud and bright as a column of midnight sun, and before it stands a shirtless squirrel-man holding something flat and square and large. He lifts it high over his bespectacled head, his eyes blazing with two lesser fires, and throws the thing through the curtain of flame. It is a sofa cushion.
Children, in many ways, are like cancer. Meaning, I never thought much about them until they happened to me. The idea of “a child” and “children”—these were but platonic notions that hovered in the foggy ether of the rear parlors of my brain, somewhere near other concepts that had nothing to do with me, like “malaria” and “Pinterest.” When my first good friend had a baby, I didn’t even know what to say.
"It’s a girl!" he said.
"Wow," I said. "I just bought some new socks."
Friends would get married and have babies, but hearing the news produced no intellectual effect. It was like hearing about a new memoir by the daughter of a dead celebrity whose movies I had never seen. So what? I knew that babies were, prima facie, good, like peace treaties between warring tribes on distant continents were good, or like innovations in trash-bag durability were good.
And then, I got some babies of my own. And one thing I learned about babies is: When you have them, people will ask you about them.
"How are the kids?" they will say.
"Fine," I will say. Because that’s what we do. We lie.
Because sometimes, it’s not fine. Sometimes, it’s like riding a Greyhound bus across the country with tiny people from the state hospital who have the same last name as you and are very likable but also want to bite you and pee on your suitcase. And you can’t get off the bus until it stops, eighteen to twenty years from now. But you can’t say that. You have to keep lying. Because you have to keep making babies, so society’s adults can have something to take pictures of besides the ocean.
Sometimes, my childless friends will want to know what it’s like to have children.
"I mean, what’s it like, anyway?" they ask, with a cadaverous smile, the way you ask somebody what it’s like to date a girl with no arms. It’s a sick question, designed to make themselves feel better about their life choices. "Do you like it?” they ask. “Is it fun?”
Ours may be one of the first generations in the history of human breeding to ask such a question. I can think of a hundred good reasons to make a baby, but liking it is not one. I don’t like having children any more than I like having cartilage. A blessing? Totally. But so is cartilage. One helps me walk and play squash, if such a desire should come over me. The other one poops on my floor.
We started potty training our first daughter when she was still a year old. I cannot explain why we started so young, other than to say my wife needed a hobby. I insisted she take up gardening, but she insisted on turning our daughter’s gastrointestinal tract into her private workspace. My wife led me to believe that learning to use a toilet before age two would be something along the lines of memorizing the periodic table or the Chinese alphabet.
"But she seems so young," I said.
"She’s very advanced," my wife said, noting with pride the child’s ability to bark like a dog on command.
This is parenting. This is how it happens.
We asked around, did our due diligence. Some said to go for it. Force it. Incentivize it. These friends came from the school of parenting that strongly inveighs against the commodification of youth and believes that any capitulation to the needs of the young will end Western Civilization and reduce our nation to something resembling an early Charlton Heston film. Others told us to let the child decide when she wants to use the toilet. Just let it happen, they said, which seems the very opposite of what you want to do with poop. These are the same people who allow their young to nurse sup at the mother teat until graduate school.
The most normal friends suggested we buy a small, colorful, cartoonish children’s potty. The ones with the pictures of princesses on them, they said. This seemed a brilliant idea, because I was sure my daughter wanted nothing more than an opportunity to defecate on her favorite mermaid.
"Ariel!" she would say.
"I know!" I will say. "Now poop on her. Do it."
I laughed about this, but not my wife. No. She would not laugh for the next four years. Because potty training is an endless campaign against the inevitability of the gastrointestinal tract and the deep Freudian fears of the young, a war fought with love, and prayer, and sullied brown hands, and Skittles, which my wife poured into a mason jar.
"What are those for?" I said.
"One Skittle for teetee and two for a stinky," she said.
"I’m not saying stinky. It’s crap. It’s turd. It’s stool."
"From now on, it’s stinky.”
"Stinky!" our daughter said, holding her nose. At twenty months, she was roughly the size of garden gnome, with a nebula of curly brown hair spiraling out from her head in every available direction, which made her look not unlike a walking toilet brush. A dirty one.
"Stinky! That’s right!" my wife said, handing her a Skittle.
The training started on a Monday and consisted of the following:
I received calls and updates throughout Day One. The first came in at 11:00 a.m., when my wife reported that the child had urinated in every room of the house and was now hiding underneath one of the beds. She’d been wearing, for the first time ever, what are called “big-girl panties,” which is, I believe, the technical term for what I like to call “underwear filled with urine.” By the end of Day Two, most of the house was covered in sheets, towels, and other textiles in various yellows and browns. But it worked. I came home and—wonder of wonders!—heard the sound of nearby tinkling. It was the child, on the adult toilet, in the act of voluntary micturition. Day Two, people. It was such a glorious moment, everybody had a Skittle. That night, I dreamt that every poop that had ever been pooped in the world was represented by a single Skittle, and the jar reached up to heaven. It was big and wide and pretty, a jar of joy.
"What about number two?" I asked the next morning.
"Oh, that’ll happen soon," she said.
And she said it with such confidence, such hope.
Over the next few months, the child pooped in all the closets. She pooped in her room, our room, the guest room, the living room—but not the bathroom. She did all her urinating during the day, in the toilet, Curious George panties pushed carelessly around her dangling ankles; but her poo, like the nine-banded armadillo and certain species of wombat, was nocturnal. Only at night, when her rectum was cocooned in the palliative barrier of absorbent garments, would her gastrointestinal tract release its malodorous bounty.
She would find a dark place somewhere in the house. We would hear her talking through walls, and we would smell her pooping through walls.
"Who’s she talking to?" my wife said.
"The dark lord she serves," I said.
She would poo and then just keep talking, possibly to the poo, because she loved it and was not ready to say goodbye. Sometimes, she loved it so much that she wanted to keep it inside her, compelling my wife to feed the child various accelerants designed to loosen the bowels. Every morning and night, the woman stood in the kitchen and mixed liquids and powders like a medieval apothecary, shaking and stirring and talking to herself. She poured these tonics into our child, whose bowels soon opened like the Grand Coulee Dam. Around suppertime, the child would begin to hold herself in unusual ways, grasping the front of her crotch with one hand and the back of it with the other, as though trying to lift her entire body off the ground and throw herself out the window.
"Let’s go POTTY!" my harried wife would say a bit too loudly, smiling a bit too brightly, as is the customary practice of the clinically insane.
"No," the child would say. "No! No! No! NOOOOOOO!"
It was not an angry kind of No. It was the kind of No you hear when you ask someone if you can throw them into an active volcano. My wife fetched her tools, most notably an enema the size of a large handgun, while I chased the child, picked her up, carried her to the toilet.
"We don’t want to throw you in the toilet,” I said. “Unless it will help you poop.”
"Stop scaring her!" my wife said.
Please note, dear reader, that I was not the one holding a turkey baster full of nitroglycerin.
Eventually, I’d put down the incontinent child and watch her run around the house frantically, looking under things, as though she had lost a precious jewel, or her mind. I was confused. It seems so natural: You eat, you form waste, your body and gravity have a meeting, come up with a simple plan, a location, perhaps some light reading material and a candle for illumination, olfactory coverage, and mood. Nature runs the meeting. You are merely attending, participating. After all, your attendance is required. You could call in sick, and the meeting would be rescheduled. You cannot get out of the meeting.
"We really need to have this meeting," Nature says.
"I’ll be here all day," Gravity says.
"She can’t keep putting this off," Nature says.
And that was the problem with the child. She became so distressed at the Jungian horror of the toilet bowl that she lost the ability to go anywhere: the toilet, her pull-up, the closet. She kept rescheduling the meeting, until it was no longer going to just be a meeting. Human resources would have to be there. Security would be called. To prepare for this explosive day, my wife became an ethnographer of the body’s lower functions, studying the child, making fieldnotes.
"She’s got to go," she would say, marking the calendar.
"How can you tell?"
The child would be walking very slowly and sort of leaning back, the way some people approach limbo poles or hurricanes. “It’s been five days since she went.”
"The toilet will not eat you," my wife said to the child.
"But if you don’t give it your stinky," I said. "It will come into your room at night and take it from your bottom with a fork."
The child cried, ran away.
I just didn’t understand. She was smart. She could read chapter books. She could recite creeds dating to the late Roman era. She understood the Dewey Decimal System.
Sometimes, if we were lucky, nature blindsided the child with a surprise emergency meeting that she could not postpone. We’d be in the front yard playing and she would grow quiet and sidle under one of the tall camellias by the front porch and squat down and do it right there like a war vet.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Doing a stinky in the garden," she said.
The neighbors across the street stared from their porch, judging.
"She’s very advanced," I said.
"How did you potty train me?" I asked my mother on the phone one day.
"Actually, I never did," she said.
I thought about it. Was it true? Had I potty trained myself? Was I truly an autodidactic defecator? I thought back to 1978. The Carter Administration. The Camp David Accords. Grease. Inflation. There was a party, I remember. We had guests, people in the house. The Bee Gees were there, on the stereo, wafting through the air, wanting to know how deep our love was. Also wafting through the air: an odd smell.
I know your eyes in the morning sun,
I feel you touch me in the pouring rain,
And the moment that you wander far from me,
I wanna feel you in my arms again.
I did not understand who The Bee Gees were singing this to, but I felt it was a perfect expression of the love I felt for my feces. Because I did not want it to wander far from me.
And you come to me on a summer breeze,
Keep me warm in your love and then you softly leave,
And it’s me you need to show:
How deep is your love?
The song swelled, as did my colon. I gave in to the feeling and immediately became aware that something bad had happened. I locked the door. I was not sure what I could do, there in my room, with a locked door. My only real option was to bury myself in the toy box and hope that my family moved to a new house. Mom knocked. She tried the door and became frantic, as all mothers do with locked doors.
"What are you doing in there?" she said.
"I’m in here, pooping on myself," was not an option. So I did what anybody does when a frantic person is trying to knock down a locked door while you’re emptying your bowels: I climbed out the window.
How deep is your love?
I really need to learn,
'Cause were living in a world of fools,
Breaking us down,
When they all should let us be.
We belong to you and me.
"How deep is your love?", 8.5" x 11", mixed media, October 2012 (Katherine Sandoz)
I hit the hot grass and looked both ways. Should I run away? Should I dig a hole to China, as I’d heard was possible? Should I dig a hole for my stool, which jangled in my shorts like a smuggled gem?
Ah, yes, I thought. I should check the mail.
"What have you done?" they would say.
"Look!" I would say. "The new Sears catalog!"
After walking in the midsummer heat, I knew it was going to take more than toilet paper to clean me. It might take a garden hose, perhaps some sort of heated cauldron, perhaps all three of the Brothers Gibb working in harmony. I walked back into the house, past our guests, down the hall. I knew what to do. I would wrap my brown underwear in the mail and place them somewhere innocuous, like behind the television. Nobody would suspect a thing. They would just think Mom was making her goulash.
This war of attrition—my wife and I unshakable in our resolve to carry this campaign to its deadly end, the child entrenched in the defilade of her own colon—was suddenly altered when the child started pooping directly onto the floor.
We were not expecting that.
My wife had said that the child would grow to hate the feeling of her own poo next to her skin. That this natural maturing would be our ally.
"She will hate the way it feels," she said, "and will start going in the potty."
The child, though, was smart. She was nimble of finger, good with a button. She simply removed her pants and deposited the thing on the floor. She was sending us a message. The message was: “Clean up on aisle two.”
Let me tell you something. Poop smells bad wherever it is, but when it’s just laying there on the floor like a dead squirrel it does a whole other thing to your nose, gets into your brain, makes you want to hurt people. It infected my wife’s brain, I know that. Made her crazy. She’d get this wild look in her eye, surrounded by various anal creams and ointments, glycerin suppositories and laxatives, fibrous hardeners and softeners, rubber gloves and trash bags and spray bottles of antibacterial cleansers and bleach and gasoline, towels, buckets, mops, masks, anger. My wife had become a witch, a practitioner of the dark sorcery of intestinal science.
"Are you okay?" I would ask.
"Do you smell something?" she would say. " I smell something."
"I think it’s you," I would say. "You haven’t showered in three days."
"I’m waiting for her stinky. I know it’s coming."
She would be looking out the window, up into the sky, as though it was coming by air. When it finally did drop, I would offer to clean it up, but the wife refused, entering the bedroom with her gear and closing the door and alternately retching, gagging, cursing her offspring, gagging, cursing her own gag reflex, and then retching some more.
"Breathe through your mouth," I said, from the safety of the hallway. "Let me know if you need some help." I explained that she should call me, as I would be at the airport, leaving the country.
If the floor was unavailable, the child would poop in the bathtub. The wife would scream. The child would scream. I would run into the kitchen and return with a weapon.
"What’s that?" she said.
"A slotted spoon," I said. "It’s perfect."
"But we use it for English peas," she said.
"I hate English peas."
And so I would use the sterling slotted serving spoon to fish out the intruder while my wife disinfected the tub with the diligence of a serial murderer, scrubbing and boiling bath toys with a dangerous fire in her eyes. She wanted to boil everything: the toys, the house, our daughter.
"You would make a great murderer," I said.
Sometimes, my wife was not a murderer, but a midwife.
I would get calls at work.
"It’s been a week. A week,” my wife said.
In the background, I could hear the child, alternately laughing at Bugs Bunny and then screaming in horror at her impacted bowels.
"Ha ha, mommy! Daffy Duck is funny!" she said. And then: "Ahhhh! Help! Ahhhh!"
"Is someone sawing her legs off?" I asked.
"It’s been like this all day," she said.
The kid’s dung had hardened into the density of an adobe brick, and she would lie on the floor, in my wife’s arms, as though in labor, pushing, pushing, screaming, sweating, grappling onto my wife’s neck for support, the baby turd beginning to crown, and then pouring forth into the world.
Sometimes, it would be big. Very big.
"How does that even fit inside her?" I said.
"That’s at least a foot long," my wife said.
"I’ve seen adult ferrets smaller than that," I said.
"We should name it."
"We should take a picture of it."
She got out her camera. I told my wife to put a dollar bill beside it, for scale. So future generations would know what happened here.
Seasons passed, more babies were born. There were now two little girls. And then three. They kept on coming, and they kept on giving birth to adult ferrets in and around my house. We long ago stopped caring. In time, my wife voluntarily disarmed, reducing her arsenal to one product: The Fleet Pedia-Lax Liquid Glycerin Suppository with Child Rectal Applicator. If it sounds like a machine designed to destroy families, it is.
My wife calls it Special Cream. I simply call it the Ass Grenade. If ever you are walking by our house and hear what sounds like the interrogation of terrorist detainees by rogue Federal agents, fear not. There are no terrorists here. It is only my wife, sitting on top of one of my naked children on the floor of the bathroom, injecting a medicinal payload into its tailpipe and lying about how it won’t hurt a bit.
"You should work for the government," I said. "Any government."
The Fleet box features a happy penguin, with great big distended penguin eyeballs, as though he has just smoked PCP or unexpectedly sat upon the rectal applicator. In the right light, the penguin looks upset, possibly wrathful. My children know and fear this penguin. In fact, thanks to my wife’s regular invasions of their bodies with Fleet products, they now fear all flightless birds.
We can never go to the zoo again. Thank you, Fleet.
The oldest one—the one who long ago seemed so advanced—she is better now. One day, it just happened. I had stolen a quiet moment away from my family in the bathtub, which is the only place in our small house where one can read a book without being molested with questions about snacks, and the child—now more of a kid—entered.
I closed my book and sank deeper into the water.
"Hi," she said.
"Hello," I said.
We have one bathroom. I should have said that already. It brings us all closer. Physically, I mean. She closed the curtain between us. I continued to read. I was in the middle of Heart of Darkness, reading of Kurtz and his primitives and the savage horror of it all. I heard the kid mount the toilet, and then a gentle grunt, and the pas de deux of tinkle and plop, followed by the encore of smell.
"Wow," I said, trying not to breathe from behind the veil. "You did it."
"Don’t talk to me," she said.
"Thank you for doing it so closely to my face."
"Mom!" she said, sounding far too old. "Come here and wipe me."
My wife entered, wiped. I laid quietly behind the screen, like Conrad’s young Marlow on strange waters, among stranger smells. The kid left. I pulled back the curtain.
"Hi," I said to my wife.
"I’d love to have just one day," my wife said. "Just one day where I didn’t get someone else’s shit on my hands."
"I like it when you cuss."
"Shit," she said.
"Let it out," I said.
"Shit," she said.
"We call it stinky now,” I said. “Somebody told me that once.”
Nobody tells you this about marriage. That you will love your wife, and she will love you back, and you will journey together on the Greyhound of your shared life to the ends of dark continents only you can know, and your love will bring life into the world, a whole new person, whole busses full of people who share your name and imperfections and who will love you, and hug you, and shit on your floor, and in your garden, and in the same bathtub where you choose to read the works of Joseph Conrad, in this same inland sea where so many historic turds first sailed, because it’s the only bathroom in the house, and you’re all in it together, the bathroom, the bus, the cruising yawl of Nellie up the Congo or whatever this thing is supposed to be, this life, and all you have at the end of it is a question:
How deep is your love?
I really need to learn,
'Cause were living in a world of fools,
Breaking us down,
When they all should let us be.
If you don’t believe me, come see for yourself. My wife has a cabinet full of penguins, and she is not afraid to use them. If you ask real nice, she might even make English peas.
A few years ago, I decided it would be fun to go to a prayer breakfast. Have you heard of these? Everybody’s doing them. Republicans do them because that’s when all their constituents are awake, Democrats because that’s when all theirs are asleep. They have small ones in small towns for Rotarians and large ones in large towns for presidential candidates. I had been invited to other prayer breakfasts in the past, but always declined, leery of any event that sought to put two perfectly fine things together and ruin both, like “Tupperware” and “Party” or “the Captain” and “Tennille.”
The practice appears to have its roots in the Old Testament, when the Israelites were instructed to make a sacrifice every morning, in preparation for the day’s smitings. In the Middle Ages, the practice of predawn prayer was carried on by monkish folk, who prayed for something new to eat besides warm water. And it continues today, where we prostrate ourselves to the Lord God Almighty in close proximity to serving tubs of powdered eggs and sausage patties of such orthodox shape and size they must have been stamped out of a steel press somewhere deep in the Guangdong Province.
I prefer to pray alone, unless I am inside a fiery aircraft with other people. I’m just not very good at it. I try to pray before at least one meal a day, but not in public. My wife knew a family who stood up and held hands and loudly sang the doxology at places like Outback Steakhouse. I love Jesus as much as the next guy, but such a thing would inspire me, I think, to throw a Bloomin’ Onion at those people.
Occasionally, I try to pray for sick people and hurt people, but almost never when those prayers are requested on Facebook.
“Prayers comin’ your way!”
“Praying now, girl!”
“Getting my prayer on!”
I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it doth. It doth a lot. It seems to cheapen the whole act of divine petition. It’s just too personal a thing to be putting out there on what amounts to a digital bridge overpass. I am sorry your cousin’s step-mom’s little teacup poodle has cancer of the face. Really, I am. But I am not going to lift Tiny’s name up in prayer. I don’t even know Tiny. I don’t even know your cousin. I really don’t even know you.
Anne Lamott has famously said that there really are only two prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me.” To that list, I would like to add, “Stop it, stop it, stop it.” And also, “Die, Tiny, die.”
And that is why, ultimately, I decided to attend the Men’s Prayer Breakfast. I needed help. I needed to pray better. I needed to eat many pancakes.
It was a halcyon spring morning as I pulled up to the Savannah Golf Club, the oldest such organization in America, they say, carved out of coastal pastures sometime right after the American Revolution, their muskets beaten into five-irons. Georgia is proud of its Irish blood, but Savannah is animated by the blood of Scots. It is they who brought golf and Calvinism to Savannah. And both, it seems, require very little but patience, as well as a great deal of property.
The breakfast was part of our church’s Missions Conference, an annual event where we bring missionaries from distant pagan lands like Kenya and the University of Georgia to hear harrowing tales of degradation and offer thanksgiving to the Lord for letting us live in Savannah. The theme of the conference was “Declaring the Mystery of Christ,” which seemed odd, as we Presbyterians generally don’t like mystery. We don’t like not knowing things, and we don’t like God not knowing things, which is why we love the idea of predestination.
I walked through the clubhouse and wandered for a bit, a desert pilgrim in the sprawling complex, feeling my way down carpeted hallways and across darkened ballroom dance floors where, in the gloaming, there appeared pictures of happy leprechauns pinned to the wall, in preparation for Savannah’s annual celebration of high blood-alcohol levels. Finally, I heard the delicate murmur of Protestants and joined the body.
The dining room was disappointing. I had been hoping for rich mahoganies—mantles of Georgia granite, pocket doors of rare curly pine, perhaps a roomful of mink-oiled club chairs that once proudly bore the heft of statesmen and generals—but the low-ceilinged hall was suffused in the deadly pallor of fluorescence, with walls of drab eggshell white and the sort of dark green carpet best suited to camouflaging blood and vomit in the hallways of Holiday Inns.
I sat down at an empty table near the front and was soon joined by two or three acquaintances. Everything was very hushed, without even the merest provocation of feelings. Because feelings, as any Calvinist knows, can lead to all sorts of disturbing behaviors, like laughter and eating candy. We are a stoic people. But I was hoping for something different today, I didn’t know what. Joy, perhaps. Enlightenment.
We shuffled the length of the buffet, scooped eggs and hash and ungodly piles of flaccid pork the color of a lung onto heavy industrial china. The place smelled of Sterno.
“A lovely spread, this.”
Everything was so grave. I’d experienced more joy at the burial of a puppy.
We chewed quietly and obediently as speakers slouched toward the podium. They were all good and intelligent people, doctors of divinity, speakers of German, readers of Hebrew, and I was eager to hear their imaginative extrapolations of the glorious inscrutability of Christological mystery. But instead, they spoke like physicians delivering bad news about our moles.
“Speak the mystery of Christ,” Saint Paul says, and “walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.”
I heard no time-redeeming talk. What I heard sounded more like theological dissertations on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the unwinding spool of the world, this very Calvinist proposition that entropy rules the day and everything is always worse than it was and never as bad as it’s going to be very soon. And also, that we are all extremely, utterly, horribly depraved human beings, all of us. I like the idea of human depravity—really, it explains so much—but it’s not a breakfast-friendly doctrine.
Is this what I’ve come here for? To hear nineteenth-century rhetoricians declaim the world’s depravity from a podium while flanked by vistas of Lowcountry grandeur on a swath of land that cannot be walked except by private invitation? I’d have thought somebody might get up there and at least thank Jesus for inventing the Federal Reserve and economies of scale. I closed my eyes and prayed for salvation.
I wondered, What do black people do at prayer breakfasts? It’d be louder. There’d probably be a band. It would not seem like a puppy had died. This was confirmed later, on the Internet, as I watched what at least one black church prayer breakfast looked like. It looked…well, maybe fun’s not the right word, but lively. All the praying had live musical accompaniment, including a nice little lady tucked into a corner behind an electric piano and a man in a black leather blazer sitting at one of the breakfast tables just like the other diners, except wearing a saxophone. Sometimes he played, sometimes he ate. Another man sang his prayers, which made them more interesting, but not as interesting as the large wooden crucifix that was stuck to his collarbone at an awkward angle, as though it had become lodged in his neck during a hurricane. Sometimes, it was hard to tell what they were praying. At one point, it sounded very much like one lady with a microphone said, “O, God, we ask you to have your baby. O, God, go behind these prison walls today. Oh, touch my nose and bacon.”
It made me wish I had gone to that prayer breakfast. They didn’t sound grave at all; heck, they sounded funky.
And then, at our own lily-white breakfast, as the too-sober speaking was over and the praying about to begin, things really did get funky.
The way it started was a minister named Bill came to the podium. Bill (not his name) is a spry old Yank and liable to say anything. He is, for example, the only pastor I’ve ever heard use the phrase rectal procedure in a sermon. He’s that uncle giving the wedding toast who suddenly reaches toward his cat’s fungal infection for an instructive metaphor. But what comes out of his mouth now is no metaphor, but rather an exhortation to kneel.
“The praying shall commence, brothers,” he said, “if everyone could take a knee.”
I was shocked.
Kneeling is supposed to be an affront to good Calvinists, an illicit flirtation of body with spirit. I was raised in a safety-first worship environment: hands to yourself, no sudden movements, no eye contact (also good advice for the castrating of bulls and moving through neighborhoods with possible gang activity). I’d been at this church for a few years and had never seen any proclivity to Popish kneeling. And so it was quite astonishing to see all these joyless Presbyterian men descend to the floor. Before I could even disappear the last plug of sausage from its fatty puddle, the room had emptied as suddenly as a classroom in a tornado drill.
I pushed back my chair as Bill, hiding on the floor behind the lectern, began inviting us to take various prayer assignations. Tom would pray for this, Eddie for that, etc. Voices called out from under the tables, as though trapped under rubble. I sank to the floor, to this unpadded carpet, and wished I had thought to wear more comfortable pants. I had just eaten enough delicious breakfast meat to fill a colonial schooner, and now my khakis conformed to my gut with the dedication of a Danskin leotard.
So there I was, kneeling in my tight pants, eyes closed.
That’s when I remembered about my seasonal vertigo, which causes me to fall over unless my body is lashed to a post. I tried not to open my eyes, but suddenly felt as though the table was rushing to meet my forehead. This would not work, so I grabbed a knee, in the parlance of the football coach, one patella on the floor, one up high. This was a problem, too, because now I found myself in a position not unlike the Archangel Tebow after a successful two-point conversion.
I grabbed the chair next, setting my elbows down on its cushion, hooking my hands into the curlicue struts of its back—a position that was perfectly comfortable, except that it looked as though I was now making love to the furniture.
I’d been to Episcopalian churches where they knelt so much it’d make a man bring a bottle of Dramamine to church; I seemed to remember something about crushed velvet benches. Looking around, though, I saw no benches. The only thing I saw was two or three ancient presbyters who were incapable of kneeling and had thrown themselves prostrate over their plates. I thought some of them might actually be sleeping. I thought one or two might actually be dead.
The praying had long since begun, but I could hear none of it.
In a sudden resignation of will, I settled back into the sitting position commonly known as “Indian-style,” at which point my right kneecap made a sound like a heavy glass paperweight falling onto a concrete floor. I wanted to fall to the floor and scream, but did not. I considered praying for the ability to learn to walk again, but did not.
“Getting my prayer on!” 7.5” x 9”, acrylic on BFK, Namaste, 2012 (Katherine Sandoz)
Suddenly, I threw myself down into Child’s Pose, a yoga position once practiced in an acting class. For those unfamiliar with the many asanas, this position is better known to physicians as the Fetal Position and among yoga instructors as The Best Position for the Fat People. It almost worked, too, but the pressure on my knee was so great that I catapulted myself onto all fours, like an animal, or one of those women on TV who have their babies on the bathroom floor. O, God, we ask you to have your baby.
I started rocking, praying silently that the praying would end.
“Help me, Jesus,” I said, just like that old woman, rocking, swaying, gently moaning. If anyone had been watching, I am sure I would have been excommunicated.
And then, the praying was over.
We stood, and I pulled myself to an unsteady upright position. Congregations of bones could be heard cracking, returning to their appropriate offices within the body. Boys who had come with their fathers yawned, stretched. The elders, laid across their plates like the victims of stroke, rose from the dead. We barely spoke as we filed out, across the empty country-club dance floor and past the green paper imps on the wall.
Lots of muffled prayers were prayed that morning on that floor, but I heard none of them and am not sure if anyone declared the mystery of Christ, as was promised. The real mystery was these Calvinists, and why Jesus doesn’t just go ahead and smite me now.
I thought of all the sonic waves of all the world’s prayers ricocheting around the planet like a swarm of locusts, uttered up from the mouths of demented peoples who were lying, sitting, kneeling, walking, running, dancing on platforms with crucifixes lodged in their collarbones. I thought some of those prayers were probably necessary, and that really I have had a very good life, and that I am a terrible human being.
But then, any good Calvinist knows that.
It was, without a doubt, the most traumatic year of my long and happy education. There was heartbreak, and sin, and remonstrance, and lunchroom brawling, and nakedness, and public discipline, and the fabrication of lies, and the making of much macaroni-themed art. I had not known that kindergarten would be so difficult. It was the spring of 1981, and I was just ready for it all to end. Perhaps that’s why the question posed by the teacher was so vexing.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Mrs. Stock said, writing it on the board.
It’s a hateful question cloaked in whimsy, the sort of prompt that goads children out of fairy tales and into vocational programs, a query rubber-stamped into the curriculum by the sad bureaucratic offspring of John Dewey. I can think of many better questions, designed to teach the marshaling of evidence and to avail itself of the fantastical synaptic behaviors that belong only to children, questions like: Does God have to brush his teeth? What color unicorn flies fastest? And, can we ever be friends with sharks?
But no, we don’t ask children to paint pictures of what words do at night, when no one is talking, or to determine how many pieces of chalk can fit inside a beaver dam. Instead, we ask children to brainstorm ideas for their college-admission essay.
When Mrs. Stock asked us what we wanted to be, everyone was terribly confused. I looked around at my classmates, who stared dully at the board as though suffering from severe head trauma. It was hard to know if they were puzzled or just thick. It was a public school.
I was disappointed at my parents for sending me here. Mom taught at a private academy, and I longed to walk those polished hallways, where students had names like Candy and Duncan and wore exciting tartans and plaids. At my government school, though, argyle was a death sentence. The mongrels would eat it off you on the playground. It was bad enough that I carried a briefcase, which was my way of letting people know I was serious about education.
"What was in that briefcase?" you ask.
Hopes and dreams, that’s what.
I loved school. I loved homework. I loved raising my hand. I dreamt of having my right arm surgically replaced by the rigid limb of a mannequin. For this, they mocked me. They called me a goober. But I did not take up arms against them. Instead, I prayed that God would afflict their rectums with boils.
My only comforts that year, besides high marks, were women. As soon as our neighborhood was wired for cable, all the girls started removing their clothes. Jenny Barndollar, a strange visage of a girl—with a pageboy and big marmoset eyes and the libido of a thirty-year-old divorcée—kept trying to show her private real estate to me during recess.
"Like on TV," she said.
"Fine," I said.
But I couldn’t look. I was eyeballing my furtive mistress across the playground, lust of my lunchbox, Salome of snacktime: Mrs. Jeannie Stock. It didn’t matter that she was my teacher. A woman like this could make public education bearable. My love started at the ankles. Could such a bronze uniformity be natural, or was that pantyhose? I reached out during naptime to feel the truth on the tips of my fingers, but she stepped out of reach.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"I must have been dreaming," I whispered.
The legs carried themselves into her pleated wool skirt and up to a tight Victorian blouse with a high ruffled collar that forked out from the valley of her bosom like the roaring cataracts of El Dorado. A pair of prodigious eyeglasses asserted themselves from her elfin nose as though ripped from the Hale Telescope and held in place by magic. Her cheeks were as freckled as a Robin’s egg, and atop her face rose an impressive dome of permanent curls that coalesced into an impregnable helmet, as though designed by that great romantic R. Buckminster Fuller.
We schooled one another in the arts of love.
"Get drawing, you people!" she said.
It seemed like all the boys wanted to be astronauts. So banal, so prosaic! Days before, we’d plowed into the cafetorium to witness the first orbital flight of a U.S. Space Shuttle. Of course these dullards wanted to be astronauts. If we had watched the Super Bowl, they would have wanted to be footballs.
I drew a picture of myself making love to Mrs. Stock, even though I did not yet understand the mechanics of it. All I knew, based on several episodes of Guiding Light, was that sex seemed to involve a great deal of licking a woman’s face in various locations around large hospitals.
"Interesting," she said. "What are you doing in this picture?"
"Nothing," I said, and tore it up.
Ideas and vocations exploded around me like meteors across the moon. Cowboys, pilots, nurses, gymnasts, etc., etc., etc. Vomit.
I drew myself standing in front of a great square of black.
"What’s that?" someone asked.
"He wants to be on TV," they said.
"A weatherman?" they said.
"No, a movie star!"
"It’s me in front of a chalkboard," I said.
"Boys aren’t teachers," they said.
They were right. What would I tell my father? He was a hoss of a man, a football coach, a layer of asphalt, the kind of man who would doubt the masculinity of anyone caught wearing an oven mitt on purpose. Telling him I wanted to be a teacher would be like telling him I wanted to spend the rest of my life making AIDS quilts.
"He wants to be a lady when he grows up!" they said.
All I wanted when I grew up was to be in school all day, every day. But nearly all the adults at Crump Road Elementary School had mammary glands. I had no role models. The only adult male I could see was the janitor.
And so, I drew a picture of myself as a tall black man. That would shut them the hell up.
"Did you finally decide on something?" Mrs. Stock said, as we formed a line. I took the rearguard, heaving her heady odors into my nasal cavity, the alchemical effluvium of perfume and unwashed children who have soiled themselves throughout the day. We started to file out. I stopped.
"I’ve decided to become a black man," I said, proud.
"That’s just plain silly," she said.
I told her I wanted a hug. This is a woman who would hug a sack of pig intestines if she thought it might comfort some hurt child. But no.
"I don’t hug silly boys," she said.
It was different after that. We grew apart, as lovers often do, and I turned my uninspired affections back on Jenny Barndollar. We groped and held hands and played at kissing. The pictures stayed on the wall, policemen and ballerinas, tacked in the corner like icons, a hack altar to the idolatrous god of education.
"I like your picture," Jenny said. "I think you’ll make a great black man one day."
"Oh, shut up," I said.
I stopped caring. My handwriting turned primitive. I drew only pictures of tragedy: dead pets, bleeding trees, burning houses. I mixed with the wrong crowd. We explored the furthest reaches of the playground and played doctor. We sharpened popsicle sticks into shivs and extorted milk from the smallest among us. Then, matters came to a head. It was snacktime. I had a baggie full of potato chips. I sat with my crew of ruffians, Tiffany Mashburn and Steven Christmas. To my left, though, was Robbie Wood, a large squinty-eyed turd with a cube-shaped head like Baby Frankenstein who was always stealing other people’s food.
"Hey, Robbie just stole one of your chips," Tiffany said.
"Hit him!" Steven said. "I dare you!”
"He won’t hit me," Robbie said. "He’s just an old black man."
I looked up at Baby Frankenstein, taller than me, and saw a lone fragment of chip on his nose. Who knows what great power possessed me to do it? What I did was extend my fist toward his loutish face in a powerfully straight jab, propelling him off his seat and onto the floor, followed by his carton of chocolate milk, now pouring over him in pools of sweet brown blood. Shocked, I froze in a martial tableau, my right arm still suspended in midair, a sort of tenuous Black Power salute.
The cafetorium roared in wonder and applause and cries of distress and accusation. In a flash, I was flying through the air. Someone carried me like a sack of laundry through the crowd. It was Mrs. Stock.
She tore through snakes of queued children, and my feet didn’t touch floor until we reached the office. The principal, a nice lady, tried to look stern, but could not strike fear into a pair of buttocks that had already been whipped by a leather belt held by a man the size of a Soviet tank. She swung and missed and her glasses fell off, eyes bugged out. I cried, to make her feel better.
This ended things for all time with Mrs. Stock. Her Victorian blouse stiffened with annulment, her geodesic mane into an impenetrable equation. She smiled at me, but tight-lipped and grim, a death mask. I slouched toward May, a rough beast hoping to die in the deserts of summer, bereft of the love of the only teacher I’d ever had. That’s what I really wanted to be, a teacher. Why hadn’t I just said so? I wanted to stand at the board and declaim secret truths with art. Unlike today, when children must take prerequisites at a community college to enter kindergarten, we had arrived on the first day of school rather helpless. But now, we had control: of ourselves, our handwriting, our bladders.
On the last day of class, they piled the whole school into the cafetorium again. All were happy. Playful fracas broke out in the bathrooms. Older kids with braces injected their tongues into the scaffolding of one another’s mouths. Blurs of boys cut through the hallways, little girls choreographed joyful dances to inspire final jealousies. I sat in the middle of the assembly, despondent driftwood in a sea of ecstasy. I just wanted to go home.
The lights dimmed and there she was, Mrs. Stock, on the stage. There were awards, she explained, and as the kindergarten teacher, she was first.
"We only have one award to give out," she said. It was called the Citizenship Award, in recognition of something she called "student character." We were shocked. Why hadn’t we been told? We’d have done things differently. We’d have behaved, cared.
"And this award goes to…Miss Jenny Barndollar!" Jenny’s mouth fell open, and so did ours. She was the closest thing in kindergarten to a slut. Jenny ran to the stage. But it was not over. "And the young man receiving our Citizenship Award this year is—"
She called my name. What? My classmates high-fived and hugged me, even Baby Frankenstein. What was happening?
"Come on up, Mr. Key!"
I floated through the awards ceremony, drunk with achievement. They had cheered for me. They applauded. What a glorious place, this school. I wanted to move in, to never leave.
An hour later, we lined up in our classroom for the very last time. Again, I worked my way to the rear of the queue. Finally, we were alone. Mrs. Stock handed me my Citizenship Award for the second time that day, sealed for parental review. I slipped the certificate inside my briefcase.
"I always knew you were special," she said.
"But why?" I asked. I baited her to praise. I needed it.
"It’s that briefcase," she said. "It makes you look like a little teacher."
She kissed me on the cheek and sent me packing. Glory. I walked home two feet off the sidewalk. It was hot, and the Memphian summer had descended like the armpit of God.
The briefcase was heavy, and I emptied it into the gutter, saving only my award, which I tucked under my shirt for protection. I missed school already, my teacher, my friends. I should not have treated my classmates so cruelly. I wished for them good and happy lives, and I regretted praying for their anal discomfort. And I walked home with my empty briefcase, full of nothing but hopes and dreams.
Recently, I was trying to remember the vows of my wedding. I don’t recall much from that day, owing to fatigue and the residual effects of enough English beer to have tanned three or four beaver pelts. There were several cakes, I remember, and roses the color of butter, and my wife looked prettier than Grace Kelly. I found this quite disturbing, as it occurred to me that women who look like Grace Kelly generally do not stay married to men who look like me, unless we own small aircraft.
Yet I do recall our uttering something about sickness and health. These were my thoughts, nine years later, as I lied on the couch and took abuse from my wife.
“You’re not sick,” Princess Grace said.
“I am,” I said. “I might die.”
“Your back hurts,” she said. “It’s not like you have cancer.”
"You promised to tend my infirmities."
“Yeah, well try giving birth to three children.”
Princess Grace is always doing this, reminding me that she thrust three live human people through a hole in her crotch. She seems angry about it, reminding me that I’m the one who put them there. (“Where else was I supposed to put them?” I always ask.)
Apparently, the very fact of childbirth should preclude all pain-related complaining by all men for all time. I could have my arms ripped off by the world’s largest gorilla and she would say, “At least it was quick. Try taking thirty hours to pass a watermelon out of your birth canal with no medication.” But I cannot hear her, because the gorilla is beating me to death with my own arms.
I don’t know how it happened: I simply woke one morning and was unable to stand fully upright. It felt as though the brisket of my lower back had been broiled in a still-warm oven. I pulled myself to a hunched position and hobbled to the kitchen, leading with my head.
“Oh, please,” Princess Grace said. “You’re so weak.”
“No, it really hurts this time,” I said.
I cataloged my most ambitious movements of the day before. There was the small box (lifted), the flight of stairs (climbed), and the BMX bike that I appropriated from a neighborhood boy, in order to demonstrate for the crowd of curious children how legends are made (ramped). Sensations rushed back, of this moment, when I launched from the homemade ramp’s zenith amid dropped jaws and willed my body and the bike into flight. Yet, just as my rear wheel left the earth, I recall receiving a message from my lower back that indicated caution and horror, a neural communiqué hushed by the endorphins of ramp glory and the cheers of neighborhood children—until now, the following morning, when I received a new message from my back, in the form of a letter of resignation.
I did not remind Princess Grace of the bicycle incident, as it would only be catalogued in the evidence room of her memory for future depositions and prosecutions. Instead, I lowered myself to a supine position in hopes of having gravity collaborate with the wood flooring to help straighten me out.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said, stepping over me to fetch her coffee. “You’ll be fine.”
“All I am to you is a speed bump.”
I laid there for the remainder of the morning, until she and the children departed for school. They mostly ignored me, although one of my daughters used me as a sort of park bench, sitting on me to eat her breakfast.
Finally alone, I pulled myself to a hunchbacked position, dressed in great agony the way I imagine Yoda must have, and mounted the Vespa for what turned out to be a tortuous commute through the mid-century neighborhoods of Savannah. I moved slowly, feebly throughout Arnold Hall, where I work, and no one said a thing, except for a colleague who noticed my limping. He sidled up to me, smiling, as though possessing a secret.
“I’ve got two words for you,” he said. “Horse liniment.”
I thanked him and made a mental note to start bringing a handgun to work. I limped on, until something worse happened during my afternoon lecture, as I rhapsodized to a classroom about Aristotle’s use of the topography metaphor in Rhetoric.
“Think of the human mind as a map,” I said, arms outstretched. Then, something snapped, as though a distant bridge were slowly giving way, and it struck me that the bridge was nearby, and that it was the meat and bones and cartilaginous substances of my back, and that I was going to die.
“Oh, no,” I said, falling to my knees in a dramatic, Game of Thronesy-type flourish. But nobody came to my aid, as they were all resting, studying the insides of their eyelid skin.
“What seems to be the problem?” my internist asked, as he settled himself onto a stool.
He has the build and disposition of a gentle, unassuming superhero: broad shoulders and thick arms and trim waist of a man who would probably look entirely normal driving a Jeep without a shirt. He’s not a large man, but everything about him screams fitness, protein shakes, and the dedicated consumption of legumes. He’s in his forties, I’d bet, with a model-worthy head of silvery hair that seems to have no plans for retreating into the interior of his scalp. He is, in short, exactly the kind of man you hope will be your doctor, if you are an emotionally scarred woman between the ages of twenty and seventy who has no qualms about removing her clothes in front of Captain America.
As for me, I don’t mind disrobing in front of him, because I like to believe he has a tortured inner life that the horror of my nakedness cannot match.
“It’s my back, doc,” I said.
“Take off your shirt for me,” he said.
The next few minutes progressed like many of my best high-school dates, with a great deal of touching, bending, and whimpering. It was an awkward moment, also, because Dr. America and I frequent the same café, where I am usually in the corner, brooding, thinking of myself as a visage of controlled existentiality, as though I am prefiguring the dark Kierkegaardian voids of my own and many other possible lives. And perhaps I appear to be that. But when Dr. America enters, he knows about things that others do not, like the rash. This was the reason for my last visit, before the back thing. And so, when others observe me at the café, they might think writer. When he sees me, he thinks ointment. And now, he’s also going to think weak.
“What’s wrong with me?” I said.
I secretly hoped it was something debilitating. A simple back injury would be enfeebling, emasculating, but there could be great glory and riches in a disease requiring a wheelchair. Something permanent, but not terminal, a malady that might lead to a career in motivational speechmaking and the lucrative field of disease memoirs.
“I don’t know how to say it,” Dr. America said. “You need to strengthen your core.” He swept his hand across the snug, tailored waist of his shirt, where his carbon-fiber abs lay dormant for weekend display on various beaches. He explained, as gently as he could, that my only malady was frailty. “You need to workout,” he said. “Nothing too rigorous. Just the occasional crunch. Do you know the crunch?” I explained that I was the kind of man who prefers to use crunch as a verb or an adjective, but he only smiled the smug smile of those who feast on ambrosia from the navels of Polynesian virgins. “I’m going to give you some exercises. Very basic,” he said. “It won’t even feel like you’re working out.”
He handed me a printout of an illustrated elderly man in various postures, mostly on his back and mostly looking dead.
“What’d he say?” my wife asked.
“What’d who say?”
She rolled her eyes. Princess Grace has elevated eye-rolling to an art that can only be practiced by the demon-possessed and various dark wizards of irony. The iris goes up and all but disappears under a lid that flutters like a windblown sheet of paper under the burden of a commemorative paperweight. I have tried to imitate this maneuver, to show her how attractive it makes her look, and came near to severing my optic nerve.
The princess, and the fruit of our loins.
“Are you crippled? Is it a disease?” she said.
I wanted to lie, to invent something, a rare ailment not yet searchable on WebMD, but I decided not to deceive my wife. It would be too much work and might require the remembering of conversations, a responsibility I long ago delegated to her.
“It’s my muscles,” I said.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Apparently I don’t have any.”
“So I guess you have to start working out.”
“I already walk.”
“Walking is not hard,” she said.
“It is if you don’t have any muscles.”
You could tell she did not think any of this was very serious, that it was nothing compared to having an angry opposable-thumped biped scraping the inner walls of one’s pelvis in preparation for effacement and cervical dilation.
“I have a prescription,” I said, holding it up as evidence. She took it.
“This is just Aleve,” she said.
“I have to get physical therapy,” I said. This was no joke, I explained. There might be war veterans there, and others who have overcome impossible odds and been featured in local newspapers for their demonstrations of courage. She gave me a look that suggested the newspaper industry had no interest in my story.
I went to physical therapy and briefly believed it was the wrong location, as the room looked like something from the earlier scenes of Awakenings, when everyone is drooling, and I noted that many of the patients were old enough to have been veterans in any number of nineteenth-century wars. My therapy consisted of being rolled around like a ball of frozen dough and then being attached to a car battery.
“I didn’t know we still electrocuted people like this,” I said to my therapist, who said nothing. As the energy pinched and washed through my core, I noted with sadness that here I was, not yet forty, and needing to be electrified so that I might regain the ability to walk upright.
“How was it?” Princess Grace asked, as I positioned myself on all fours on the bed, attempting to practice one of the therapeutic poses suggested by Dr. America. The wrinkled man in the picture appeared to be imitating a male dog in the act of urination, and I could not get it right.
“They electrocuted me,” I said, lifting my right leg into the air.
“Oh,” she said. “I used to get that done all the time in ballet.”
“Of course you did.”
“It always felt good to me,” she said. “Warm, like a massage.”
The woman gave no quarter to any of my disease-based fantasies, and demanded to know why I was acting like a dog. “I’m strengthening my core,” I said.
“Please, not on the bed.”
In time, after I suggested having her bathe me, she assented that yes, it was possible, perhaps, that I might be in something resembling pain. She did her duty, opening my beers for me, assisting me into the rocking chair, as though I were a tribal elder, where the children poked me with wooden spoons to see if I was alive. She even presented me with a gift.
“What’s that?” I said.
“You’re an old-timer now!” my five-year-old said, taking the cane from my lap and wielding it like a broadsword. She held it high over my head, about to put me out of my misery.
“Yeah,” the three-year-old said. “You’re our grandfather now.”
I watched Princess Grace going about her day, preparing dinner, carrying out the bag of garbage I can no longer carry, seeing to the needs of the younglings. The woman has looked twenty years old since she was fifteen and still does. I have always seemed much too old for her, with my premature baldness and high Gold Toe socks and love of pudding. And now, as in all May-September marriages that last, she has become my nurse.
It’s difficult to know how long this will go on, whether my core will ever be strengthened by the Congress of the Urinating Dog. But I care not. It is pleasing to watch my child bride make good on her promises. I wanted to ask her if she would go fetch me a bottle of horse liniment, but I didn’t want her thinking me feeble of body and mind.
“Is this what it will be like when we’re old?” I asked.
“You are old,” she said, as the grandchildren flogged one another with my cane.
“Tell me you love me,” I said.
“You love me,” she said.
“I do, I do.”
It’s easy to like Savannah. I’ve lived here years now and keep finding reasons to stay. I love the history that lives in the bones of the buildings, the iron and granite and gray brick that stir the spirit into visions of early American grandeur and ensures that those who live outside of downtown feel shame about our low ceilings and modern HVAC systems. I love the squares, those mannerly adumbrations of sun and rain that enchant, soothe, and disorient tourists, tempting them into lives of homelessness and palm-frond crafts.
I love the city’s size, too, large enough to feel cosmopolitan, but small enough to make it possible to see someone you know every time you’re out at dinner and have had enough liquor to say embarrassing things about a failed relationship with a parent. Which brings me to the city’s finest quality: the people. Savannahians are indeed as friendly as Southerners elsewhere, but there’s something special about Savannah folks. Be they Christian or Jew, pagan or pure as the driven Flannery, you can bet that a Savannahian is emotionally disturbed in some irreversible way. This applies to newcomers, too. Within a year or two of moving to Savannah, even healthy people from places like Cleveland turn crazy and start wearing bowties.
Yet, for all there is to love about this city (tall churches, short fences, live oaks, dead heroes, etc. etc.), there’s one thing that begs not to be loved. And so, as we Savannahians so often do when rushing to a garden party, finding ourselves tracing the ancient route of a Habersham Street square behind a creeping trolley packed with slackjawed, windbreakered Ohioans, I must veer from this pleasant tour of our city’s more wondrous facets and turn down the alleyway of concern.
This matter, I must say, has caused my family great distress, ruined friendships, destroyed professional alliances, infected our theologies of love and neighborliness, reduced my cul-de-sac to a seething confederacy of distrust. I speak here of the tragedy we call the Low-country boil, that sacred fête of Savannah springs and summers where shrimp and sausage fraternize with corn and potatoes in a large pot. I come not to bury the boil, but simply to make a small request for something I have come to expect from almost all of my meals: which is to say, flavor. I am quite embarrassed to say it, but the precious Low-country boil simply has none.
In my very first year here, I was invited to attend a boil. I was thrilled to sup with a respected native, eager to sample the local provender. I already knew what to expect, as I come from Mississippi, where we host crawfish boils in spring, similar to the Low-country boil except with more violence and fewer napkins.
On the day of the boil, I walked into my new friend’s backyard, through columns of steam and past vaporous open coolers of beer, and pulled myself belly-up to a folding table.
“Dig in!” he said.
I peeled the first few shrimp and tossed them in the old gullet. Strange, I thought. The texture and temperature were fine, but they tasted like nothing, not even shrimp. I checked my mouth to make sure my tongue was still in it.
As a guest, I did not wish to insult my host’s food preparation, and so I veiled my attempts to look for salt or Tabasco or perhaps a small dish of beach sand that might add some flavor. I looked up and down the table, pretending to look for a friend.
“Who are you looking for?” my host asked, sitting beside me now and eating handfuls of shrimp like Junior Mints.
“Salt,” I said. “Salty, I mean. Old Salty Tompkins. He coming?”
“Never heard of him.”
I moved on to the boiled potatoes that sat drying on the obituary page. At our Mississippi crawfish boils, the potatoes are little atomic fireballs that remove the enamel of teeth and make people question the divinity of Elvis. And so, I bit into this Low-country potato with the gusto I normally reserve for doughnuts, eager for a taste explosion. But the soft root was tepid, a zero. I held it up in my hand, this tuber that suddenly felt very Colonial, something I could imagine General Oglethorpe, Savannah’s English founder, eating on the boat, its anchor tossed into the mud of Hutchinson Island. Hadn’t they all been looking for spices back then, too?
“What are you looking for now?” my host said. “You want some cocktail sauce or something?”
Look, children! This is how the Pilgrims ate!
I am no fan of cocktail sauce, as I find it resembles what I have always thought ketchup might taste like after being buried in the earth for a thousand years. Instead, I did what I always do when faced with a great vexation in my life: I drank more beer. I considered dipping my shrimp in the beer, which would have made it taste like beer, which was starting to sound like a plan.
A few weeks later, I was invited to another Low-country boil and this time brought along my wife, who had grown abusive to the children and needed to get out of the house. I said nothing, simply waited for her reaction. Perhaps it was all in my head. She took her first bite. “This is great!” she said, for all to hear.
Later, as we pulled out of the driveway, she turned to me. “That was terrible,” she said. Then I remembered: My wife is good at lying, like all other human women.
“Man, I can’t wait for the Low-country boil!” a buddy said one day after church, referring to our congregation’s annual Labor Day event.
“Indeed, remind me to bring my own salt,” I said.
He looked at me as though I had just invoked the power of Satan to rain fire on the people of God. He walked away, did not even turn back, perhaps fearing he might turn to a pillar of something.
By year two in Savannah, I had grown brash, brassy.
“Y’all got any salt here?” I asked aloud one evening, shrimps sticking out of my mouth, as though they wanted to hear the answer, too.
“Hush!” my wife said. “Don’t be so rude.” And then she handed me a saltshaker under the table. “I found it in the kitchen,” she said, sotto voce.
We became skilled at finding saltshakers and other flavor-based additives in the kitchens and cupboards of our hosts, taking our plates to the restroom for a clandestine shake or two. But on many occasions, we could find nothing.
“It was so weird,” I said. “The kitchen was totally empty. No seasoning anywhere.” We were both in the bathroom, dipping our shrimp into a saucer of perfumed bath salts.
“It’s like they knew we were coming,” she said.
“This lavender’s fantastic.”
Things turned bad quickly. I began to confront our hosts with questions about ingredients, as I did one afternoon with a next-door neighbor.
“Salt?” he said. “This shrimp doesn’t need salt! I use lots of crab boil and spices and whatnot.” He picked up a box of Zatarain’s Crab Boil that missed the trashcan, started reading aloud. “It’s got mustard seed, coriander, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, dill, allspice. Allspice!” he said, as though this last component was nothing less than the legendary bounty of the planet Arrakis in Dune. “I throw in some Old Bay, too,” he said.
“Old Bay’s standard fare,” a nearby partisan said. “It’s got spices.”
“Not enough,” I said. “Not. Enough.”
We were all in our cups now, and I grabbed the Zatarain’s box from the host.
“Look!” I said. “What does it say right here?” I shoved the box in front of my drunken host’s face.
“Stop!” my wife said. “Don’t do this!”
“Read it!” I said. “They do still teach you to read in Georgia, don’t they?”
“At least I ain’t a hick from Mississippi,” he said, pushing the box away from his nose.
“We can read in ole Mississipp’,” I said, reading the box aloud: “Salt to taste, it says. Salt to taste!” I let those three magical words, a complete sentence, that gentle and kindly invitation to flavor, settle across the Low-country boil like a dusting of revelation. “Are you with me, people? Are you with me?”
“No, don’t,” my wife said.
“Back where I come from, we do a lot of salting to taste,” I said, growing louder, redder, rednecker. It was true. In Mississippi, we add salt, Tabasco, red pepper, butter, liquor, gunpowder. This is why we place so well in national heart-disease competitions.
Last thing I remember, my wife was pushing me out of the party, toward the car. In an act of courage and defiance, I stole a decorative University of Georgia dinner plate from the foyer wall.
I no longer go to Low-country boils. My wife does, without me. She likes the company, the free beer. I sit at home, writing, wondering, in the cupboard where she has locked me, close to the seasonings that have brought me so much happiness these many years.
These days, Savannah has lost its flavor. The granite and marble and iron are more prison than backdrop to history. The spangled and dew-heavy moss of the squares hangs lower, burdened. Perhaps I am going crazy. Could it all be a great and impractical joke? Is this how Savannah people grow deranged? How soon will I emerge from the darkness of depression and step into the daylight of Low-country crazy? Will the boil taste new then? Will it taste at all? Is this why people around here drink so much?
I am sorry, Savannah, for my behavior. Perhaps I’m beyond saving. But there are others, newcomers, arriving on our shores every day. They come by boat and plane, car and train. They come because this fair city has much to offer. Think about them the next time you’re hoisting an armful of seafood and potatoes over a large pot. From the dining rooms of historic Savannah to the marshland porches and the embarrassing outlying communities with their shameful concrete patios and carpeting, I implore you all to upend tradition. Reach into the cupboard. Take up the invitation to flavor. Take up my hand. And let us, lords and vassals of the Coastal Empire, salt to taste. I’ll even bring my own plate. It’s got a picture of a dog on it. I forget his name.