In fifth grade I ruined my school play with one word. Not even a word. A name. Tammy.
Tammy—Tammy Hayes—was the girl playing Eliza Doolittle in our abridged one-act version of Pygmalion.
What was I thinking, when I said her name? I was panicking. I was eleven, dripping with flop sweat. We hadn’t rehearsed enough. A slip of the tongue. I’ve always had performance anxiety. Does it matter?
One anxious burst of applause at the end, then nothing. People shuffled out of the cafeteria, looking dazed. The whole enterprise of child-rearing had become a charade. Toddlers roamed the parking lot, wandering in and out of headlight beams, brakes shrieking everywhere.
Get out, my father said, when we were halfway home, on Dayesville Road, just past the video store and Pirate’s Pizza. He pulled the car snickering into the gravel. I can’t take it anymore, he said. I can’t stand being in the car with you. You’ll have to walk from here.
Carl, my mother said, and leaned over and touched him on the arm. But she didn’t try to stop him. Or me.
None of these details are accurate, by the way.
It had rained earlier that day, and the long grass was wet. I blundered through a waste lot, thinking I could cross the creek and come up the long backyard, sneak in through the sliding door.
This was the first week of June, the second-to-last week of school. Warm enough. The air was clammy, lockerroomish. I considered staying out all night, to show them the stuff I was made of. At camp the summer before I’d learned how to make a lean-to out of deadwood. I wasn’t really made of that stuff, though. I wanted to be back in my room, in the central air, under my Boba Fett blanket, reading The Outsiders.
My sneakers skidded on the gravel as I made my way down the embankment. I had played in the creek since I was old enough to run, old enough for my parents not to look around for me and think, automatically, disappeared=drowned. I knew the long flat rock that protruded out into midstream twenty feet to my left. From the edge of the rock you could get a running jump and make it dry to the wash on the other side.
I thought about the hollow tree in My Side of the Mountain, where the young hero lived for an entire winter on his own. Were there hollow trees like that? Or caves, overhangs, places that would take me in, places nature had left especially for me?
You see the type of kid I was: I could cross and cross-cross-reference.
I would reach the sliding door, Mom would do her placating thing with Dad, and in the morning we’d all be eating Lucky Charms again. They really were lucky, Dad said, especially on the mornings the quarterly earnings came in. I was moving down the bank, picking across little boulders, snapped branches, scummy pools. Some moonlight. Not enough for the bathing or the silvery thing, but enough to get the job done.
Just where do you think you’re going, the owl said from its perch right above me.
Remember: none of this is really happening.
Two things: the owl was a very large owl, perfectly visible on a low branch, a great horned, I think, and definitely capable of the head-rotating act, and also preening with its very large, comma-shaped claws. Second, its voice sounded like Bruce Willis in Moonlighting. The fake-bluesman thing, the Cybil-give-me-a-break thing.
I’m going home, I said, trying to appear nonchalant, because that’s what the boy heroes always did when talking to animals.
The hell you are. You think that door’s going to be unlocked?
It’s always unlocked, I said, stubbornly.
Whatever. You’re on your own, is my point. If you hitch a ride to New York right now you could see the Pixies before they break up. You smoke?
Joey Ramone started when he was nine. Rimbaud did opium for the first time at seven. Deleuze was sodomized by Sartre in the bathroom of the Café de Flore when he was barely old enough to say je m’en fous. Jack London—
I’m eleven, I said, louder. I don’t understand anything you’re saying. Anyway, you’re an owl.
Oh, come on. He spread his wings, ruffling the feathers of his crest, behind what would be his shoulders, if he were human, which is a ridiculous thing to say about an owl, or so you would think. Are we playing the appearances game? Seriously?
Then what are you?
I’m the three phone calls your mom got in the middle of the night last Thursday. I’m the dirt you can’t get out from underneath your left big toenail. I’m the reason your third cousin is named Nathan. I’m the price of gas in Nairobi. You see what happens? You see how all this is your fault? It’s so easy to slip off the track. Eliza. Not so hard. Hard name to forget, in point of fact. I’m not saying it was deliberate. Just saying you weren’t really trying.
What did I do? For the fifth or eighth time that night, I felt like crying. Why does everyone hate me?
Call it a system error, he said. Call it a Gordian knot. Call it Heisenberg’s second uncertainty principle. Note to self: when you’re in a fifth grade play, you don’t have to do much. We’re not asking for Olivier. But you do have to remember you’re in a play. People are afraid of children who don’t show sufficient enthusiasm. It’s as if time starts to flow backwards.
I don’t get it.
The owl stuck out its wings for balance and did a little pirouette, stretching one claw, then the other.
They like to be told when to fall asleep and when to wake up, he said. They want something to believe in. The classics. Children. Julie Andrews in a girdle. You know what Brecht said, about how you should serve the audience a salad, but then they crunch on a little grit and say, goddammit, Bertie forgot to wash the lettuce again, but the grit isn’t dirt, it’s ground glass? Sorry, it sounds better in German.
Who’s Brecht? Jeez. Forget I said anything. My point was, Brecht is full of shit. People deserve to be entertained. And, if possible, diddled. The story, not the storyknife. Why should they have to work so hard? Listen, none of this really matters now. I mean, I wouldn’t bring it up next year when you audition for Pippin. But for god’s sake, when the time comes, don’t rock the boat. Granted, you’ll be at a disadvantage, true. What are you going to write about, after all? Other than books? Are we still pretending that having an imagination counts for anything? In a box, the mind turns on itself. Believe me. I’ve been sitting here on this branch for eleven and a half years, waiting for you. With no TV.
My dad says TV kills a hundred brain cells a minute.
Don’t knock TV, the owl said. It pays the bills. It’s the foundation of our economy. Of our whole way of life. That is, if the Japs don’t ruin everything with those VCRs. What year is it, anyway?
I’ve got to be going, I said. My parents are going to be wondering what happened to me.
I realized, as I said the words, that I had no idea if I was right.
Listen to me for a second, he said. Remember when you were little? And you felt like your whole world was just sucking in on itself, because Ray-Ray broke your castle and then Mommy sent you to bed early, but then Daddy crawled into bed with you and read Frog and Toad Are Friends for the fifteen-hundredth time? Remember the one about how Frog is sick and Toad is telling him a story to make him feel better, only he can’t think of a story, so he paces up and down, splashes water on his head, and then bangs his head against the wall? And then he feels sick, so Frog tells him to get into bed and tells him a story about how one day there was a Toad who couldn’t tell a story—
I get it. OK.
No you don’t. In the end, Toad was asleep. Let me finish a sentence for once. That’s the point. A story should put you to sleep. Or it should kill you. How come babies know that and we don’t? You want to know the bedtime story your parents are telling you these days? How We Had A Bright And Promising Little Boy Who Loved Playing With Erector Sets And Legos And We Thought He’d Be An Engineer Or A Real Estate Developer, But Then He Turned Kind of Quiet And Morose And Spent All His Time Reading And Drawing Warlocks And Quit Soccer And Now We’re Afraid He Won’t Even Want To Go To M.I.T. And We’re Going To Wind Up Paying For Some College In The Woods Studying Alternative Agriculture And Queer Theory With Two Hundred Kids Who Don’t Know How To Do Laundry. That’s a story that’s guaranteed to keep you up at night. It’s not right. After all they’ve done to you.
I don’t want to be a writer, I said. How do you know I’m going to be a writer?
It’s because of your happy childhood. Because of your unhappy childhood. How should I know? Look, you’re doing it now. Right now, as we speak. You’re typing away. It’s like there’s a manual typewriter literally punching the words into your back. Like a Bates Stamper. Some people call it psychic survival, some call it self-indulgence. Some people say it’s the only hope for the species; some say it’s as interesting as macramé. Your reading public hovers in the low three digits. You’re not quite as badly off as the poets, but also you have less sex. Perversely, you make money teaching people who want to be just like you. Everybody’s got something to say. It’s a lifestyle. Writing is hot, but reading is passé. Not that you’re not grateful. It beats clerking in the Custom House. Or nuzzling the king’s overweight fifth mistress. Whatever writers did in the olden days, keeping themselves in dirks and shoe leather and all.
I picked up a rock.
Remember the Atlanta child murders? he said. Adam, the one who had his head cut off, and the Patz kid, the one in New York? Remember razor blades in apples? The Tylenol poisoning? That’s why. That’s why you’ll be a writer. Because when you were little the world became a mean and horrible place. The bourgeois heart tightened up like a sphincter. Yet you still remember the seventies, when the world was young. You remember that yolky sun that came between the thin curtains. You remember the smell of Mom making yogurt in the kitchen and listening to Jim Croce. Free to Be… You and Me. The world made you a promise and then broke it. That’s why. In ten years you’ll be wondering if you ever knew what it meant to be happy.
I picked up a rock and took aim.
You see how this works, he said. See how quickly we get to that point? Every story has someone that needs to be expunged. Go ahead. Make the world safe for Level 42.
I’m coming up from the low field behind the house, the abandoned field already overgrown with ragweed and sumac, because it’s next to be developed, the farmer already sold out and moved to Panama City, I’m coming up with muddy shoes and wet hems, a forehead streaked with black, a backpack with an Earth Science textbook that doesn’t yet contain the words global warming, I’m coming, weighed down with metaphors, sunk under texts, already, wearing words like a shirt, inexorable as NAFTA, I’m coming across the backyard, stepping quietly over the sprinkler, coming into the cast light, the family portrait, the family watching a movie, John Candy’s enormous face filling the screen, and Dad has forgotten to unlock the sliding door, I stand and wait, I stand and take it all in, I will never be noticed, I have to choose, whether to slip away, whether to knock, whether to break the glass and enter.
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