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Me Talk Pretty One Day

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Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day

By Sedaris, David

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company, May 2009

ISBN-13: 9780316073653

ISBN-10: 0316073652

Table of Contents

One Go Carolina.....3

Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities.....16

Genetic Engineering.....32

Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist.....39

You Can't Kill the Rooster.....60

The Youth in Asia.....69

The Learning Curve.....83

Big Boy.....97

The Great Leap Forward.....100

Today's Special.....120

City of Angels.....125

A Shiner Like a Diamond.....132

See You Again Yesterday.....153

Me Talk Pretty One Day.....166

Jesus Shaves.....174

The Tapeworm Is In.....181

Make That a Double.....187

Remembering My Childhood

. . . on the Continent of Africa..... 192


The City of Light in the Dark.....205

I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag.....211

Picka Pocketoni.....219

I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed.....228

Smart Guy.....239

The Late Show.....248

I'll Eat What He's Wearing.....265


Go Carolina

ANYONE WHO WATCHES EVEN THE SLIGHTEST amount of TV is familiar with the scene: An agent knocks on the door of some seemingly ordinary home or office. The door opens, and the person holding the knob is asked to identify himself. The agent then says, “I’m going to ask you to come with me.”

They’re always remarkably calm, these agents. If asked “Why do I need to go anywhere with you?” they’ll straighten their shirt cuffs or idly brush stray hairs from the sleeves of their sport coats and say, “Oh, I think we both know why.”

The suspect then chooses between doing things the hard way and doing things the easy way, and the scene ends with either gunfire or the gentlemanly application of handcuffs. Occasionally it’s a case of mistaken identity, but most often the suspect knows exactly why he’s being taken. It seems he’s been expecting this to happen. The anticipation has ruled his life, and now, finally, the wait is over. You’re sometimes led to believe that this person is a; ctually relieved, but I’ve never bought it. Though it probably has its moments, the average day spent in hiding is bound to beat the average day spent in prison. When it comes time to decide who gets the bottom bunk, I think anyone would agree that there’s a lot to be said for doing things the hard way.

The agent came for me during a geography lesson. She entered the room and nodded at my fifth-grade teacher, who stood frowning at a map of Europe. What would needle me later was the realization that this had all been prearranged. My capture had been scheduled to go down at exactly 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The agent would be wearing a dung-colored blazer over a red knit turtleneck, her heels sensibly low in case the suspect should attempt a quick getaway.

“David,” the teacher said, “this is Miss Samson, and she’d like you to go with her now.”

No one else had been called, so why me? I ran down a list of recent crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume, stealing a set of barbecue tongs from an unguarded patio, altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door; never did it occur to me that I might be innocent.

“You might want to take your books with you,” the teacher said. “And your jacket. You probably won’t be back before the bell rings.”

Though she seemed old at the time, the agent was most likely fresh out of college. She walked beside me and asked what appeared to be an innocent and unrelated question: “So, which do you like better, State or Carolina?”

She was referring to the athletic rivalry between the Triangle area’s two largest universities. Those who cared about such things tended to express their allegiance by wearing either Tar Heel powder blue, or Wolf Pack red, two colors that managed to look good on no one. The question of team preference was common in our part of North Carolina, and the answer supposedly spoke volumes about the kind of person you either were or hoped to become. I had no interest in football or basketball but had learned it was best to pretend otherwise. If a boy didn’t care for barbecued chicken or potato chips, people would accept it as a matter of personal taste, saying, “Oh well, I guess it takes all kinds.” You could turn up your nose at the president or Coke or even God, but there were names for boys who didn’t like sports. When the subject came up, I found it best to ask which team my questioner preferred. Then I’d say, “Really? Me, too!”

Asked by the agent which team I supported, I took my cue from her red turtleneck and told her that I was for State. “Definitely State. State all the way.”

It was an answer I would regret for years to come.

“State, did you say?” the agent asked. “Yes, State. They’re the greatest.”

“I see.” She led me through an unmarked door near the principal’s office, into a small, windowless room furnished with two facing desks. It was the kind of room where you’d grill someone until they snapped, the kind frequently painted so as to cover the bloodstains. She gestured toward what was to become my regular seat, then continued her line of questioning.

“And what exactly are they, State and Carolina?”

“Colleges? Universities?”

She opened a file on her desk, saying, “Yes, you’re right. Your answers are correct, but you’re saying them incorrectly. You’re telling me that they’re collegeth and univerthitieth, when actually they’re colleges and universities. You’re giving me a th sound instead of a nice clear s. Can you hear the distinction between the two different sounds?”

I nodded.

“May I please have an actual answer?”


” ‘Uh-huh’ is not a word.”


“Okay what?”

“Okay,” I said. “Sure, I can hear it.”

“You can hear what, the distinction? The contrast?”

“Yeah, that.”

It was the first battle of my war against the letter s, and I was determined to dig my foxhole before the sun went down. According to Agent Samson, a “state certified speech therapist,” my s was sibilate, meaning that I lisped. This was not news to me.

“Our goal is to work together until eventually you can speak correctly,” Agent Samson said. She made a great show of enunciating her own sparkling s’s, and the effect was profoundly irritating. “I’m trying to help you, but the longer you play these little games the longer this is going to take.”

The woman spoke with a heavy western North Carolina accent, which I used to discredit her authority. Here was a person for whom the word pen had two syllables. Her people undoubtedly drank from clay jugs and hollered for Paw when the vittles were ready - so who was she to advise me on anything? Over the coming years I would find a crack in each of the therapists sent to train what Miss Samson now defined as my lazy tongue. “That’s its problem,” she said. “It’s just plain lazy.”

My sisters Amy and Gretchen were, at the time, undergoing therapy for their lazy eyes, while my older sister, Lisa, had been born with a lazy leg that had refused to grow at the same rate as its twin. She’d worn a corrective brace for the first two years of her life, and wherever she roamed she left a trail of scratch marks in the soft pine floor. I liked the idea that a part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy - not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team. My father often accused my mother of having a lazy mind, while she in turn accused him of having a lazy index finger, unable to dial the phone when he knew damn well he was going to be late.

My therapy sessions were scheduled for every Thursday at 2:30, and with the exception of my mother, I discussed them with no one. The word therapy suggested a profound failure on my part. Mental patients had therapy. Normal people did not. I didn’t see my sessions as the sort of thing that one would want to advertise, but as my teacher liked to say, “I guess it takes all kinds.” Whereas my goal was to keep it a secret, hers was to inform the entire class. If I got up from my seat at 2:25, she’d say, “Sit back down, David. You’ve still got five minutes before your speech therapy session.” If I remained seated until 2:27, she’d say, “David, don’t forget you have a speech therapy session at two-thirty.” On the days I was absent, I imagined she addressed the room, saying, “David’s not here today but if he were, he’d have a speech therapy session at two-thirty.”

My sessions varied from week to week. Sometimes I’d spend the half hour parroting whatever Agent Samson had to say. We’d occasionally pass the time examining charts on tongue position or reading childish s-laden texts recounting the adventures of seals or settlers named Sassy or Samuel. On the worst of days she’d haul out a tape recorder and show me just how much progress I was failing to make.

“My speech therapist’s name is Miss Chrissy Samson.” She’d hand me the microphone and lean back with her arms crossed. “Go ahead, say it. I want you to hear what you sound like.”

She was in love with the sound of her own name and seemed to view my speech impediment as a personal assault. If I wanted to spend the rest of my life as David Thedarith, then so be it. She, however, was going to be called Miss Chrissy Samson. Had her name included no s’s, she probably would have bypassed a career in therapy and devoted herself to yanking out healthy molars or performing unwanted clitoridectomies on the schoolgirls of Africa. Such was her personality.

“Oh, come on,” my mother would say. “I’m sure she’s not that bad. Give her a break. The girl’s just trying to do her job.”

I was a few minutes early one week and entered the office to find Agent Samson doing her job on Garth Barclay, a slight, kittenish boy I’d met back in the fourth grade. “You may wait outside in the hallway until it is your turn,” she told me. A week or two later my session was interrupted by mincing Steve Bixler, who popped his head in the door and announced that his parents were taking him out of town for a long weekend, meaning that he would miss his regular Friday session. “Thorry about that,” he said.

I started keeping watch over the speech therapy door, taking note of who came and went. Had I seen one popular student leaving the office, I could have believed my mother and viewed my lisp as the sort of thing that might happen to anyone. Unfortunately, I saw no popular students. Chuck Coggins, Sam Shelton, Louis Delucca: obviously, there was some connection between a sibilate s and a complete lack of interest in the State versus Carolina issue.

None of the therapy students were girls. They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains. “You don’t want to be doing that,” the men in our families would say. “That’s a girl thing.” Baking scones and cupcakes for the school janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing turned out to be a girl thing. In order to enjoy ourselves, we learned to be duplicitous. Our stacks of Cosmopolitan were topped with an unread issue of Boy’s Life or Sports Illustrated, and our decoupage projects were concealed beneath the sporting equipment we never asked for but always received. When asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we hid the truth and listed who we wanted to sleep with when we grew up. “A policeman or a fireman or one of those guys who works with high-tension wires.” Symptoms were feigned, and our mothers wrote notes excusing our absences on the day of the intramural softball tournament. Brian had a stomach virus or Ted suffered from that twenty-four-hour bug that seemed to be going around.

“One of these days I’m going to have to hang a sign on that door,” Agent Samson used to say. She was probably thinking along the lines of SPEECH THERAPY LAB, though a more appropriate marker would have read FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA. We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues. At the beginning of the school year, while we were congratulating ourselves on successfully passing for normal, Agent Samson was taking names as our assembled teachers raised their hands, saying, “I’ve got one in my homeroom,” and “There are two in my fourth-period math class.” Were they also able to spot the future drunks and depressives? Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage and choral careers?

Miss Samson instructed me, when forming an s, to position the tip of my tongue against the rear of my top teeth, right up against the gum line. The effect produced a sound not unlike that of a tire releasing air. It was awkward and strange-sounding, and elicited much more attention than the original lisp. I failed to see the hissy s as a solution to the problem and continued to talk normally, at least at home, where my lazy tongue fell upon equally lazy ears. At school, where every teacher was a potential spy, I tried to avoid an s sound whenever possible. “Yes,” became “correct,” or a military “affirmative.” “Please,” became “with your kind permission,” and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called “endless pestering” and what I called “repeated badgering,” my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything. I consulted the book both at home in my room and at the daily learning academy other people called our school. Agent Samson was not amused when I began referring to her as an articulation coach, but the majority of my teachers were delighted. “What a nice vocabulary,” they said. “My goodness, such big words!”

Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around them as best I could; “rivers,” for example, became either “a river or two” or “many a river.” Possessives were a similar headache, and it was easier to say nothing than to announce that the left-hand and the right-hand glove of Janet had fallen to the floor. After all the compliments I had received on my improved vocabulary, it seemed prudent to lie low and keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to be a pet of the teacher.

When I first began my speech therapy, I worried that the Agent Samson plan might work for everyone but me, that the other boys might strengthen their lazy tongues, turn their lives around, and leave me stranded. Luckily my fears were never realized. Despite the woman’s best efforts, no one seemed to make any significant improvement. The only difference was that we were all a little quieter. Thanks to Agent Samson’s tape recorder, I, along with the others, now had a clear sense of what I actually sounded like. There was the lisp, of course, but more troubling was my voice itself, with its excitable tone and high, girlish pitch. I’d hear myself ordering lunch in the cafeteria, and the sound would turn my stomach. How could anyone stand to listen to me? Whereas those around me might grow up to be lawyers or movie stars, my only option was to take a vow of silence and become a monk. My former classmates would call the abbey, wondering how I was doing, and the priest would answer the phone. “You can’t talk to him!” he’d say. “Why, Brother David hasn’t spoken to anyone in thirty-five years!”

“Oh, relax,” my mother said. “Your voice will change eventually.”

“And what if it doesn’t?”

She shuddered. “Don’t be so morbid.”

It turned out that Agent Samson was something along the lines of a circuit-court speech therapist. She spent four months at our school and then moved on to another. Our last meeting was held the day before school let out for Christmas. My classrooms were all decorated, the halls - everything but her office, which remained as bare as ever. I was expecting a regular half hour of Sassy the seal and was delighted to find her packing up her tape recorder.

“I thought that this afternoon we might let loose and have a party, you and I. How does that sound?” She reached into her desk drawer and withdrew a festive tin of cookies. “Here, have one. I made them myself from scratch and, boy, was it a mess! Do you ever make cookies?”

I lied, saying that no, I never had.

“Well, it’s hard work,” she said. “Especially if you don’t have a mixer.”

It was unlike Agent Samson to speak so casually, and awkward to sit in the hot little room, pretending to have a normal conversation.

“So,” she said, “what are your plans for the holidays?”

“Well, I usually remain here and, you know, open a gift from my family.”

“Only one?” she asked.

“Maybe eight or ten.”

“Never six or seven?”

“Rarely,” I said.

“And what do you do on December thirty-first, New Year’s Eve?”

“On the final day of the year we take down the pine tree in our living room and eat marine life.”

“You’re pretty good at avoiding those s’s,” she said. “I have to hand it to you, you’re tougher than most.”

I thought she would continue trying to trip me up, but instead she talked about her own holiday plans. “It’s pretty hard with my fiancé in Vietnam,” she said. “Last year we went up to see his folks in Roanoke, but this year I’ll spend Christmas with my grandmother outside of Asheville. My parents will come, and we’ll all try our best to have a good time. I’ll eat some turkey and go to church, and then, the next day, a friend and I will drive down to Jacksonville to watch Florida play Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.”

I couldn’t imagine anything worse than driving down to Florida to watch a football game, but I pretended to be impressed. “Wow, that ought to be eventful.”

“I was in Memphis last year when NC State whooped Georgia fourteen to seven in the Liberty Bowl,” she said. “And next year, I don’t care who’s playing, but I want to be sitting front-row center at the Tangerine Bowl. Have you ever been to Orlando? It’s a super fun place. If my future husband can find a job in his field, we’re hoping to move down there within a year or two. Me living in Florida. I bet that would make you happy, wouldn’t it?”

I didn’t quite know how to respond. Who was this college bowl fanatic with no mixer and a fiancé in Vietnam, and why had she taken so long to reveal herself? Here I’d thought of her as a cold-blooded agent when she was really nothing but a slightly dopey, inexperienced speech teacher. She wasn’t a bad person, Miss Samson, but her timing was off. She should have acted friendly at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until now, when all I could do was feel sorry for her.

“I tried my best to work with you and the others, but sometimes a person’s best just isn’t good enough.” She took another cookie and turned it over in her hands. “I really wanted to prove myself and make a difference in people’s lives, but it’s hard to do your job when you’re met with so much resistance. My students don’t like me, and I guess that’s just the way it is. What can I say? As a speech teacher, I’m a complete failure.”

She moved her hands toward her face, and I worried that she might start to cry. “Hey, look,” I said. “I’m thorry.”

“Ha-ha,” she said. “I got you.” She laughed much more than she needed to and was still at it when she signed the form recommending me for the following year’s speech therapy program. “Thorry, indeed. You’ve got some work ahead of you, mister.”

I related the story to my mother, who got a huge kick out of it. “You’ve got to admit that you really are a sucker,” she said.

I agreed but, because none of my speech classes ever made a difference, I still prefer to use the word chump.

Giant Dreams,

Midget Abilities

MY FATHER LOVES JAZZ and has an extensive collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes he used to enjoy after returning home from work. He might have entered the house in a foul mood, but once he had his Dexter Gordon and a vodka martini, the stress melted away and everything was “beautiful, baby, just beautiful.” The instant the needle hit that record, he’d loosen his tie and become something other than the conservative engineer with a pocketful of IBM pencils embossed with the command THINK.

“Man, oh man, will you get a load of the chops on this guy? I saw him once at the Blue Note, and I mean to tell you that he blew me right out of my chair! A talent like that comes around only once in a lifetime. The guy was an absolute comet, and there I was in the front row. Can you imagine that?”

“Gee,” I’d say, “I bet that was really something.”

Empathy was the wrong tack, as it only seemed to irritate him.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he’d say. ” ‘Really something,’ my butt. You haven’t got a clue. You could have taken a hatchet and cut the man’s lips right off his face, chopped them off at the quick, and he still would have played better than anyone else out there. That’s how good he was.”

I’d nod my head, envisioning a pair of glistening lips lying forsaken on the floor of some nightclub dressing room. The trick was to back slowly toward the hallway, escaping into the kitchen before my father could yell, “Oh no you don’t. Get back in here. I want you to sit down for a minute and listen. I mean really listen, to this next number.”

Because it was the music we’d grown up with, I liked to think that my sisters and I had a genuine appreciation of jazz. We preferred it over the music our friends were listening to, yet nothing we did or said could convince my father of our devotion. Aside from replaying the tune on your own instrument, how could you prove you were really listening? It was as if he expected us to change color at the end of each selection.

Due to his ear and his almost maniacal sense of discipline, I always thought my father would have made an excellent musician. He might have studied the saxophone had he not been born to immigrant parents who considered even pot holders an extravagance. They themselves listened only to Greek music, an oxymoron as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Slam its tail in the door of the milk truck, and a stray cat could easily yowl out a single certain to top the charts back in Sparta or Thessaloníki. Jazz was my father’s only form of rebellion. It was forbidden in his home, and he appreciated it as though it were his own private discovery. As a young man he hid his 78s under the sofa bed and regularly snuck off to New York City, where he’d haunt the clubs and consort with Negroes. It was a good life while it lasted. He was in his early forties when the company transferred our family to North Carolina.

“You expect me to live where?” he’d asked.

The Raleigh winters agreed with him, but he would have gladly traded the temperate climate for a decent radio station. Since he was limited to his record and tape collection, it became his dream that his family might fill the musical void by someday forming a jazz combo.

His plan took shape the evening he escorted my sisters Lisa and Gretchen and me to the local state university to see Dave Brubeck, who was then touring with his sons. The audience roared when the quartet took the stage, and I leaned back and shut my eyes, pretending the applause was for me. In order to get that kind of attention, you needed a routine that would knock people’s socks off. I’d been working on something in private and now began to imagine bringing it to a live audience. The act consisted of me, dressed in a nice shirt and tie and singing a medley of commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday, who was one of my father’s favorite singers. For my Raleigh concert I’d probably open with the number used to promote the town’s oldest shopping center. A quick nod to my accompanist, and I’d launch into “The Excitement of Cameron Village Will Carry You Away.” The beauty of my rendition was that it captured both the joy and the sorrow of a visit to Ellisburg’s or J. C. Penney. This would be followed by such crowd pleasers as “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should” and the catchy new Coke commercial, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

I was lost in my fantasy, ignoring Dave Brubeck and coming up for air only when my father elbowed my ribs to ask, “Are you listening to this? These cats are burning the paint right off the walls!” The other audience members sat calmly, as if in church, while my father snapped his fingers and bobbed his head low against his chest. People pointed, and when we begged him to sit up and act normal, he cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted out a request for ” ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’!”

Driving home from the concert that night, he drummed his palms against the steering wheel, saying, “Did you hear that? The guy just gets better every day! He’s up there onstage with his kids by his side, the whole lot of them jamming up a storm. Christ almighty, what I wouldn’t give for a family like that. You guys should think of putting an act together.”

My sister Lisa coughed up a mouthful of grapefruit soda.

“No, I mean it,” my father said. “All you need are some lessons and instruments, and I swear to God, you’d go right through the roof.” We hoped this was just another of his five-minute ideas, but by the time we reached the house, his eyes were still glowing. “That’s exactly what you need to do,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”

The following afternoon he bought a baby grand piano. It was a used model that managed to look imposing even when positioned on a linoleum-tiled floor. We took turns stabbing at the keys, but as soon as the novelty wore off, we bolstered it with sofa cushions and turned it into a fort. The piano sat neglected in the traditional sense until my father signed Gretchen up for a series of lessons. She’d never expressed any great interest in the thing but was chosen because, at the age of ten, she possessed what our dad decided were the most artistic fingers. Lisa was assigned the flute, and I returned home from a Scout meeting one evening to find my instrument leaning against the aquarium in my bedroom.

“Hold on to your hat,” my father said, “because here’s that guitar you’ve always wanted.”

Surely he had me confused with someone else. Although I had regularly petitioned for a brand-name vacuum cleaner, I’d never said anything about wanting a guitar. Nothing about it appealed to me, not even on an aesthetic level. I had my room arranged just so, and the instrument did not fit in with my nautical theme. An anchor, yes. A guitar, no. He wanted me to jam, so I jammed it into my closet, where it remained until he signed me up for some private lessons of fered at a music shop located on the ground floor of the recently opened North Hills Mall. I fought it as best I could and feigned illness even as he dropped me off for my first appointment.

“But I’m sick!” I yelled, watching him pull out of the parking lot. “I have a virus, and besides that, I don’t want to play a musical instrument. Don’t you know anything?”

When it finally sank in that he wasn’t coming back, I lugged my guitar into the music store, where the manager led me to my teacher, a perfectly formed midget named Mister Mancini. I was twelve years old at the time, small for my age, and it was startling to find myself locked in a windowless room with a man who barely reached my chest. It seemed wrong that I would be taller than my teacher, but I kept this to myself, saying only, “My father told me to come here. It was all his idea.”

A fastidious dresser stuck in a small, unfashionable town, Mister Mancini wore clothing I recognized from the Young Squires department of Hudson Belk. Some nights he favored button-down shirts with clip-on ties, while other evenings I arrived to find him dressed in flared slacks and snug turtle-neck sweaters, a swag of love beads hanging from his neck. His arms were manly and covered in coarse dark hair, but his voice was high and strange, as if it had been recorded and was now being played back at a faster speed.

Not a dwarf, but an honest-to-God midget. My fascination was both evident and unwelcome, and was nothing he hadn’t been subjected to a million times before. He didn’t shake my hand, just lit a cigarette and reached for the conch shell he used as an ashtray. Like my father, Mister Mancini assumed that anyone could learn to play the guitar. He had picked it up during a single summer spent in what he called “Hotlanta G.A.” This, I knew, was the racy name given to Atlanta, Georgia. “Now that,” he said, “Is one classy place if you know where to go.” He grabbed my guitar and began tuning it, holding his head close to the strings. “Yes, siree, kid, the girls down on Peachtree are running wild twenty-four hours a day.”

He mentioned a woman named Beth, saying, “They threw away the mold and shut down the factory after making that one, you know what I mean?”

I nodded my head, having no idea what he was talking about.

“She wasn’t much of a cook, but hey, I guess that’s why God invented TV dinners.” He laughed at his little joke and repeated the line about the frozen dinners, as if he would use it later in a comedy routine. “God made TV dinners, yeah, that’s good.” He told me he’d named his guitar after Beth. “Now I can’t keep my hands off of her!” he said. “Seriously, though, it helps if you give your instrument a name. What do you think you’ll call yours?”

“Maybe I’ll call it Oliver,” I said. That was the name of my hamster, and I was used to saying it.

Then again, maybe not.

“Oliver?” Mister Mancini set my guitar on the floor.

“Oliver? What the hell kind of name is that? If you’re going to devote yourself to the guitar, you need to name it after a girl, not a guy.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Joan. I’ll call it…Joan.”

“So tell me about this Joan,” he said. “Is she something pretty special?”

Joan was the name of one of my cousins, but it seemed unwise to share this information. “Oh yeah,” I said, “Joan’s really … great. She’s tall and …” I felt self-conscious using the word tall and struggled to take it back. “She’s small and has brown hair and everything.”

“Is she stacked?”

I’d never noticed my cousin’s breasts and had lately realized that I’d never noticed anyone’s breasts, not unless, like our housekeeper’s, they were large enough to appear freakish. “Stacked? Well, sure,” I said. “She’s pretty stacked.” I was afraid he’d ask me for a more detailed description and was relieved when he crossed the room and removed Beth from her case. He told me that a guitar student needed plenty of discipline. Talent was great, but time had taught him that talent was also extremely rare. “I’ve got it,” he said. “But then again, I was born with it. It’s a gift from God, and those of us who have it are very special people.”

He seemed to know that I was nothing special, just a type, yet another boy whose father had his head in the clouds.

“Do you have a feel for the guitar? Do you have any idea what this little baby is capable of?” Without waiting for an answer, he climbed up into his chair and began playing “Light My Fire,” adding, “This one is for Joan.”

“You know that I would be untrue,” he sang. “You know that I would be a liar.” The current hit version of the song was performed by José Feliciano, a blind man whose plaintive voice served the lyrics much better than did Jim Morrison, who sang it in what I considered a bossy and conceited tone of voice. There was José Feliciano, there was Jim Morrison, and then there was Mister Mancini, who played beautifully but sang “Light My Fire” as if he were a Webelo Scout demanding a match. He finished his opening number, nodded his head in acknowledgment of my applause, and moved on, offering up his own unique and unsettling versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Little Green Apples” while I sat trapped in my seat, my false smile stretched so tight that I lost all feeling in the lower half of my face.

My fingernails had grown a good three inches by the time he struck his final note and called me close to point out a few simple chords. Before I left, he handed me half a dozen purple mimeographed handouts, which we both knew were useless.

Back at the house my mother had my dinner warming in the oven. From the living room came the aimless whisper of Lisa’s flute. It sounded not unlike the wind whipping through an empty Pepsi can. Down in the basement either Gretchen was practicing her piano or the cat was chasing a moth across the keys. My mother responded by turning up the volume on the kitchen TV while my father pushed back my plate, set Joan in my lap, and instructed me to play.

“Listen to this,” he crowed. “A house full of music! Man, this is beautiful.”

You certainly couldn’t accuse him of being unsupportive. His enthusiasm bordered on mania, yet still it failed to inspire us. During practice sessions my sisters and I would eat potato chips, scowling at our hated instruments and speculating on the lives of our music teachers. They were all peculiar in one way or another, but with a midget, I’d definitely won the my-teacher-is-stranger-than-yours competition. I wondered where Mister Mancini lived and who he might call in case of an emergency. Did he stand on a chair in order to shave, or was his home customized to meet his needs? I’d look at the laundry hamper or beer cooler, thinking that if it came down to it, Mister Mancini could hide just about anywhere.

Though I thought of him constantly, I grabbed any excuse to avoid my guitar.

“I’ve been doing just what you told me to do,” I’d say at the beginning of each lesson, “but I just can’t get the hang of it. Maybe my fingers are too shor -… I mean litt -… I mean, maybe I’m just not coordinated enough.” He’d arrange Joan in my lap, pick up Beth, and tell me to follow along. “You need to believe you’re playing an actual woman,” he’d say. “Just grab her by the neck and make her holler.”

Mr. Mancini had a singular talent for making me uncomfortable. He forced me to consider things I’d rather not think about - the sex of my guitar, for instance. If I honestly wanted to put my hands on a woman, would that automatically mean I could play? Gretchen’s teacher never told her to think of her piano as a boy. Neither did Lisa’s flute teacher, though in that case the analogy was fairly obvious. On the off chance that sexual desire was all it took, I steered clear of Lisa’s instrument, fearing I might be labeled a prodigy. The best solution was to become a singer and leave the instruments to other people. A song stylist - that was what I wanted to be.

I was at the mall with my mother one afternoon when I spotted Mister Mancini ordering a hamburger at Scotty’s Chuck Wagon, a fast-food restaurant located a few doors down from the music shop. He sometimes mentioned having lunch with a salesgirl from Jolly’s Jewelers, “a real looker,” but on this day he was alone. Mister Mancini had to stand on his tiptoes to ask for his hamburger, and even then his head failed to reach the counter. The passing adults politely looked away, but their children were decidedly more vocal. A toddler ambled up on his chubby bowed legs, attempting to embrace my teacher with ketchup-smeared fingers, while a party of elementary-school students openly stared in wonder. Even worse was the group of adolescents, boys my own age, who sat gathered around a large table. “Go back to Oz, munchkin,” one of them said, and his friends shook with laughter. Tray in hand, Mister Mancini took a seat and pretended not to notice. The boys weren’t yelling, but anyone could tell that they were making fun of him. “Honestly, Mother,” I said, “do they have to be such monsters?” Beneath my moral outrage was a strong sense of possessiveness, a fury that other people were sinking their hooks into my own personal midget. What did they know about this man? I was the one who lit his cigarettes and listened as he denounced the careers of so-called pretty boys such as Glen Campbell and Bobby Goldsboro. It was I who had suffered through six weeks’ worth of lessons and was still struggling to master “Yellow Bird.” If anyone was going to give him a hard time, I figured that I should be first in line.

I’d always thought of Mister Mancini as a blowhard, a pocket playboy, but watching him dip his hamburger into a sad puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and came to see him as a wee outsider, a misfit whose take-it-or-leave-it attitude had left him all alone. This was a persona I’d been tinkering with myself: the outcast, the rebel. It occurred to me that, with the exception of the guitar, he and I actually had quite a bit in common. We were each a man trapped inside a boy’s body. Each of us was talented in his own way, and we both hated twelve-year-old males, a demographic group second to none in terms of cruelty. All things considered, there was no reason I shouldn’t address him not as a teacher but as an artistic brother. Maybe then we could drop the pretense of Joan and get down to work. If things worked out the way I hoped, I’d someday mention in interviews that my accompanist was both my best friend and a midget.

I wore a tie to my next lesson and this time when asked if I’d practiced, I told the truth, saying in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that no, I hadn’t laid a finger on my guitar since our last get-together. I told him that Joan was my cousin’s name and that I had no idea how stacked she was.

“That’s okay,” Mister Mancini said. “You can call your guitar whatever you want, just as long as you practice.”

My voice shaking, I told him that I had absolutely no interest in mastering the guitar. What I really wanted was to sing in the voice of Billie Holiday. “Mainly commercials, but not for any banks or car dealerships, because those are usually choral arrangements.”

The color ebbed from my teacher’s face.

I told him I’d been working up an act and could use a little accompaniment. Did he know the jingle for the new Sara Lee campaign?

“You want me to do what?” He wasn’t angry, just confused.

I felt certain he was lying when he denied knowing the tune. Doublemint gum, Ritz crackers, the theme songs for Alka-Seltzer and Kenmore appliances: he claimed ignorance on all counts. I knew that it was queer to sing in front of someone, but greater than my discomfort was the hope that he might recognize what I thought of as my great talent, the one musical trick I was able to pull off. I started in on an a cappella version of the latest Oscar Mayer commercial, hoping he might join in once the spirit moved him. It looked bad, I knew, but in order to sustain the proper mood, I needed to disregard his company and sing the way I did at home alone in my bedroom, my eyes shut tight and my hands dangling like pointless, empty gloves.

I sang that my bologna had a first name.

I added that my bologna had a second name.

And concluded: Oh, I love to eat it every day

And if you ask me why, I’ll say

Thaaaat Os-carrr May-errr has a way, with B-Oooo-L-Oooo-G-N-A

I reached the end of my tune thinking he might take this as an opportunity to applaud or maybe even apologize for underestimating me. Mild amusement would have been an acceptable response. But instead, he held up his hands, as if to stop an advancing car. “Hey, guy,” he said. “You can hold it right there. I’m not into that scene.”

A scene? What scene? I thought I was being original.

“There were plenty of screwballs like you back in Atlanta, but me, I don’t swing that way - you got it? This might be your ‘thing’ or whatever, but you can definitely count me out.” He reached for his conch shell and stubbed out his cigarette. “I mean, come on now. For God’s sake, kid, pull yourself together.”

I knew then why I’d never before sung in front of anyone, and why I shouldn’t have done it in front of Mister Mancini. He’d used the word screwball, but I knew what he really meant. He meant I should have named my guitar Doug or Brian, or better yet, taken up the flute. He meant that if we’re defined by our desires, I was in for a lifetime of trouble.

The remainder of the hour was spent awkwardly watching the clock as we silently pretended to tune our guitars.

My father was disappointed when I told him I wouldn’t be returning for any more lessons. “He told me not to come back,” I said. “He told me I have the wrong kind of fingers.”

Seeing that it had worked for me, my sisters invented similar stories, and together we announced that the Sedaris Trio had officially disbanded. Our father offered to find us better teachers, adding that if we were unhappy with our instruments, we could trade them in for something more suitable. “The trumpet or the saxophone, or hey, how about the vibes?” He reached for a Lionel Hampton album, saying, “I want you to sit down and give this a good listen. Just get a load of this cat and tell me he’s not an inspiration.”

There was a time when I could listen to such a record and imagine myself as the headline act at some magnificent New York nightclub, but that’s what fantasies are for: they allow you to skip the degradation and head straight to the top. I’d done my solo and would now move on to pursue other equally unsuccessful ways of getting attention. I’d try every art form there was, and with each disappointment I’d picture Mister Mancini holding his conch shell and saying, “For God’s sake, kid, pull yourself together.”

We told our father, no, don’t bother playing us any more of your records, but still he persisted. “I’m telling you that this album is going to change your lives, and if it doesn’t, I’ll give each one of you a five-dollar bill. What do you think of that?”

It was a tough call - five dollars for listening to a Lionel Hampton record. The offer was tempting, but even on the off chance he’d actually come through with the money, there would certainly be strings attached. We looked at one another, my sisters and I, and then we left the room, ignoring his cry of “Hey, where do you think you’re going? Get back in here and listen.”

We joined our mother at the TV and never looked back. A life in music was his great passion, not ours, and our lessons had taught us that without the passion, the best one could hope for was an occasional engagement at some hippie wedding where, if we were lucky, the guests would be too stoned to realize just how bad we really were. That night, as was his habit, our father fell asleep in front of the stereo, the record making its pointless, silent rounds as he lay back against the sofa cushions, dreaming.

Genetic Engineering

MY FATHER ALWAYS STRUCK ME as the sort of man who, under the right circumstances, might have invented the microwave oven or the transistor radio. You wouldn’t seek him out for advice on a personal problem, but he’d be the first one you’d call when the dishwasher broke or someone flushed a hairpiece down your toilet. As children, we placed a great deal of faith in his ability but learned to steer clear while he was working. The experience of watching was ruined, time and time again, by an interminable explanation of how things were put together. Faced with an exciting question, science tended to provide the dullest possible answer. Ions might charge the air, but they fell flat when it came to charging the imagination - my imagination, anyway. To this day, I prefer to believe that inside every television there lives a community of versatile, thumb-size actors trained to portray everything from a thoughtful newscaster to the wife of a millionaire stranded on a desert island. Fickle gnomes control the weather, and an air conditioner is powered by a team of squirrels, their cheeks packed with ice cubes.

Once, while rifling through the toolshed, I came across a poster advertising an IBM computer the size of a refrigerator. Sitting at the control board was my dad the engineer, years younger, examining a printout no larger than a grocery receipt. When I asked about it, he explained that he had worked with a team devising a memory chip capable of storing up to fifteen pages’ worth of information. Out came the notepad and pencil, and I was trapped for hours as he answered every question except the one I had asked: “Were you allowed to wear makeup and run through a variety of different poses, or did they get the picture on the first take?”

To me, the greatest mystery of science continues to be that a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests. We certainly expressed enthusiasm for our mother’s hobbies, from smoking and napping to the writings of Sidney Sheldon. (Ask my mother how the radio worked and her answer was simple: “Turn it on and pull out the goddamn antenna.”) I once visited my father’s office, and walked away comforted to find that at least there he had a few people he could talk to. We’d gone, my sister Amy and I, to settle a bet. She thought that my father’s secretary had a sharp, protruding chin and long blond hair, while I imagined that the woman might more closely resemble a tortoise - chinless, with a beaky nose and a loose, sagging neck. The correct answer was somewhere in between. I was right about the nose and the neck, but Amy won on the chin and the hair color. The bet had been the sole reason for our visit, and the resulting insufferable tour of Buildings A through D taught us never again to express an interest in our father’s workplace.

My own scientific curiosity eventually blossomed, but I knew enough to keep my freakish experiments to myself. When my father discovered my colony of frozen slugs in the basement freezer, I chose not to explain my complex theories of suspended animation. Why was I filling the hamster’s water beaker with vodka? “Oh, no reason.” If my experiment failed, and the drunken hamster passed out, I’d just put her in the deep freeze, alongside the slugs. She’d rest on ice for a few months and, once thawed and fully revived, would remember nothing of her previous life as an alcoholic. I also took to repairing my own record-player and was astonished by my ingenuity for up to ten minutes at a time - until the rubber band snapped or the handful of change came unglued from the arm, and the damned thing broke all over again.

During the first week of September, it was my family’s habit to rent a beach house on Ocean Isle, a thin strip of land off the coast of North Carolina. As youngsters, we participated in all the usual seaside activities - which were fun, until my father got involved and systematically chipped away at our pleasure. Miniature golf was ruined with a lengthy dissertation on impact, trajectory, and wind velocity, and our sand castles were critiqued with stifling lectures on the dynamics of the vaulted ceiling. We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.

By the time we reached our teens, we were exhausted. No longer interested in the water, we joined our mother on the beach blanket and dedicated ourselves to the higher art of tanning. Under her guidance, we learned which lotions to start off with, and what worked best for various weather conditions and times of day. She taught us that the combination of false confidence and Hawaiian Tropic could result in a painful and unsightly burn, certain to subtract valuable points when, on the final night of vacation, contestants gathered for the annual Miss Emollient Pageant. This was a contest judged by our mother, in which the holder of the darkest tan was awarded a crown, a sash, and a scepter.

Technically the prize could go to either a male or a female, but the sash read MISS EMOLLIENT because it was always assumed that my sister Gretchen would once again sweep the title. For her, tanning had moved from an intense hobby to something more closely resembling a psychological dysfunction. She was what we called a tanorexic: someone who simply could not get enough. Year after year she arrived at the beach with a base coat that the rest of us could only dream of achieving as our final product. With a mixture of awe and envy, we watched her broiling away on her aluminum blanket. The spaces between her toes were tanned, as were her palms and even the backs of her ears. Her method involved baby oil and a series of poses that tended to draw crowds, the mothers shielding their children’s eyes with sand-covered fingers.

It is difficult for me to sit still for more than twenty minutes at a stretch, so I used to interrupt my tanning sessions with walks to the pier. On one of those walks, I came across my father standing not far from a group of fishermen who were untangling knots in a net the size of a circus tent. A lifetime of work beneath the coastal sun had left them with what my sisters and I referred to as the Samsonite Syndrome, meaning that their enviable color was negated by a hard, leathery texture reminiscent of the suitcase my mother stored all our baby pictures in. The men drank from quart bottles of Mountain Dew as they paused from their work to regard my father, who stood at the water’s edge, staring at the shoreline with a stick in his hand.

I tried to creep by unnoticed, but he stopped me, claiming that I was just the fellow he’d been looking for. “Do you have any idea how many grains of sand there are in the world?” he asked. It was a question that had never occurred to me. Unlike guessing the number of pickled eggs in a jar or the amount of human brains it might take to equal the weight of a portable television set, this equation was bound to involve the hateful word googolplex, a term I’d heard him use once or twice before. It was an idea of a number and was, therefore, of no use whatsoever.

I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take… I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task. It hardly seemed fair, because, unlike a horse or a Seeing Eye dog, the whole glory of being a bird is that nobody would ever put you to work. Birds search for grubs and build their nests, but their leisure time is theirs to spend as they see fit. I pictured this bird looking down from the branches to say, “You want me to do what?” before flying off, laughing at the foolish story he now had to tell his friends. How many grains of sand are there in the world? A lot. Case closed.

My father took his stick and began writing an equation in the sand. Like all the rest of them, this one was busy with x’s and y’s resting on top of one another on dash-shaped bunks. Letters were multiplied by symbols, crowded into parentheses, and set upon by dwarfish numbers drawn at odd angles. The equation grew from six to twelve feet long before assuming a second line, at which point the fishermen took an interest. I watched them turn from their net, and admired the way they could smoke entire cigarettes without ever taking them from their mouths - a skill my mother had mastered and one that continues to elude me. It involves a symbiotic relationship with the wind: you have to know exactly how and when to turn your head in order to keep the smoke out of your eyes.

One of the men asked my father if he was a tax accountant, and he answered, “No, an engineer.” These were poor men, who could no longer afford to live by the ocean, who had long ago sold their one-story homes for the valuable sand beneath them. Their houses had been torn down to make room for high-priced hotels and the A-frame cottages that now rented in season for a thousand dollars a week.

“Let me ask a little something,” one of the men said, spitting his spent cigarette butt into the surf. “If I got paid twelve thousand dollars in 1962 for a half-acre beachfront lot, how much would that be worth per grain of sand by today’s standard?”

“That, my friend, is a very interesting question,” my father said.

He moved several yards down the beach and began a new equation, captivating his audience with a lengthy explanation of each new and complex symbol. “When you say pie,” one man asked, “do you mean a real live pie, or one of those pie shapes they put on the news sometimes to show how much of your money goes to taxes?”

My father answered their questions in detail, and they listened intently - this group of men with nets, blowing their smoke into the wind. Stooped and toothless, they hung upon his every word while I stood in the lazy surf, thinking of the upcoming pageant and wondering if the light reflecting off the water might tan the underside of my nose and chin.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Twelve Moments

in the Life of the Artist

One At an early age my sister Gretchen exhibited a remarkable talent for drawing and painting. Her watercolors of speckled mushrooms and bonneted girls were hung with pride in the family room, and her skill was encouraged with private lessons and summer visits to sketching camp. Born with what my mother defined as an “artistic temperament,” Gretchen floated from blossom to blossom in a blissful haze. Staring dreamily up at the sky, she tripped over logs and stepped out in front of speeding bicycles. When the casts were placed on her arms and legs, she personalized them with Magic Marker daisies and fluffy clouds. Physically she’d been stitched up more times than the original flag, but mentally nothing seemed to touch her. You could tell Gretchen anything in strict confidence, knowing that five minutes later she would recall nothing but the play of shadows on your face. It was like having a foreign-exchange student living in our house. Nothing we did or said made any sense to her, as she seemed to follow the rules and customs of some exotic, faraway nation where the citizens drilled the ground for oil paint and picked pastels from the branches of stunted trees. Without copying anyone else, she had invented her own curious personality, which I envied even more than her artistic ability.

When Gretchen’s talent was recognized by teachers, both my parents stepped forward to claim responsibility. As a child my mother had shown a tendency for drawing and mud sculpture and could still amuse us with her speedy recreations of a popular cartoon woodpecker. Proving his to be a latent gift, my father bought himself a box of acrylic paints and set up his easel in front of the basement TV, turning out exact copies of Renoir cafés and Spanish monks brooding beneath their hooded robes. He painted New York streetscapes and stagecoaches riding into fiery sunsets - and then, once he’d filled the basement walls with his efforts, he stopped painting as mysteriously as he’d begun. It seemed to me that if my father could be an artist, anyone could. Snatching up his palette and brushes, I retreated to my bedroom, where, at the age of fourteen, I began my long and disgraceful blue period.

Two: When painting proved too difficult, I turned to tracing comic-book characters onto onionskin typing paper, telling myself that I would have come up with Mr. Natural on my own had I been born a few years earlier. The main thing was to stay focused and provide myself with realistic goals. Unlike my father, who blindly churned out one canvas after another, I had real ideas about the artistic life. Seated at my desk, my beret as tight as an acorn’s cap, I projected myself into the world represented in the art books I’d borrowed from the public library. Leafing past the paintings, I would admire the photographs of the artists seated in their garrets, dressed in tattered smocks and frowning in the direction of their beefy nude models. To spend your days in the company of naked men - that was the life for me. “Turn a bit to the left, Jean-Claude. I long to capture the playful quality of your buttocks.”

I envisioned the finicky curators coming to my door and begging me to hold another show at the Louvre or the Metropolitan. After a lunch of white wine and tongue-size cutlets, we would retire to the gentlemen’s lounge and talk about money. I could clearly see the results of my labor: the long satin scarves and magazine covers were very real to me. What I couldn’t begin to imagine was the artwork itself. The only crimp in my plan was that I seemed to have no talent whatsoever. This was made clear when I signed up for art classes in high school. Asked to render a bowl of grapes, I would turn in what resembled a pile of stones hovering above a whitewall tire. My sister’s paintings were prominently displayed on the walls of the classroom, and the teacher invoked her name whenever discussing perspective or color. She was included in all the city- and countywide shows and never mentioned the blue ribbons scotch-taped to her entries. Had she been a braggart, it would have been much easier to hate her. As it was, I had to wrestle daily with both my inadequacy and my uncontrollable jealousy. I didn’t want to kill her, but hoped someone else might do the job for me.

Three: Away from home and the inevitable comparisons with Gretchen, I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry program. The night before my first life-drawing class, I lay awake worrying that I might get physically excited by the nude models. Here would be this person, hopefully a strapping animal-husbandry major, displaying his tanned and muscled body before an audience of students who, with the exception of me, would see him as nothing but an armature of skin and bones. Would the teacher take note of my bulging eyes or comment on the thin strand of saliva hanging like fishing wire from the corner of my mouth? Could I skip the difficult hands and feet and just concentrate on the parts that interested me, or would I be forced to sketch the entire figure?

My fears were genuine but misplaced. Yes, the model was beefy and masculine, but she was also a woman. Staring too hard was never an issue, as I was too busy trying to copy my neighbor’s drawings. The teacher made his rounds from easel to easel, and I monitored his progress with growing panic. Maybe he didn’t know my sister, but there were still plenty of other talented students to compare me with.

Frustrated with drawing, I switched to the printmaking department, where I overturned great buckets of ink. After trying my hand at sculpture, I attempted pottery. During class critiques the teacher would lift my latest project from the table and I’d watch her arm muscles strain and tighten against the weight. With their thick, clumsy bases, my mugs weighed in at close to five pounds each. The color was muddy and the lips rough and uninviting. I gave my mother a matching set for Christmas, and she accepted them as graciously as possible, announcing that they would make the perfect pet bowls. The mugs were set on the kitchen floor and remained there until the cat chipped a tooth and went on a hunger strike.

Four: I transferred to another college and started the whole humiliating process all over again. After switching from lithography to clay modeling, I stopped attending classes altogether, preferring to concentrate on what my roommate and I referred to as the “Bong Studies Program.” A new set of owlish glasses made pinpoints of my red-rimmed eyes, and I fell in with a crowd of lazy filmmakers who talked big but wound up spending their production allowances on gummy bricks of hash. In their company I attended grainy black-and-white movies in which ponderous, turtlenecked men slogged the stony beaches, cursing the gulls for their ability to fly. The camera would cut to a field of ragged crows and then to a freckle-faced woman who sat in a sunbeam examining her knuckles. It was all I could do to stay awake until the movie ended and I could file out of the theater behind the melancholy ticketholders, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the pale worrywarts I’d seen flickering up on the screen. True art was based upon despair, and the important thing was to make yourself and those around you as miserable as possible. Maybe I couldn’t paint or sculpt, but I could work a mood better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately, the school had no accredited sulking program and I dropped out, more despondent than ever.

Five: My sister Gretchen was leaving for the Rhode Island School of Design just as I was settling back into Raleigh. After a few months in my parents’ basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations. The moment I took my first burning snootful, I understood that this was the drug for me. Speed eliminates all doubt. Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant. The upswing is that, having eliminated the need for both eating and sleeping, you have a full twenty-four hours a day to spread your charm and talent.

“For God’s sake,” my father would say, “It’s two o’clock in the morning. What are you calling for?”

I was calling because the rest of my friends had taken to unplugging their phones after ten P.M. These were people I’d known in high school, and it disappointed me to see how little we now had in common. They were still talking about pen-and-ink portraits and couldn’t understand my desire to drag a heavy cash register through the forest. I hadn’t actually done it, but it sounded like a good idea to me. These people were all stuck in the past, setting up their booths at the art fair and thinking themselves successful because they’d sold a silk screen of a footprint in the sand. It was sad in a way. Here they were, struggling to make art, while without the least bit of effort, I was living art. My socks balled up on the hardwood floor made a greater statement than any of their hokey claptrap with the carefully matted frames and big curly signatures in the lower left-hand corners. Didn’t they read any of the magazines? The new breed of artist wanted nothing to do with my sister’s idea of beauty. Here were people who made a living pitching tents or lying in a fetal position before our national monuments. One fellow had made a name for himself by allowing a friend to shoot him in the shoulder. This was the art world I’d been dreaming of, where God-given talent was considered an unfair advantage and a cold blooded stare merited more praise than the ability to render human flesh. Everything around me was art, from the stains in my bathtub to the razor blade and short length of drinking straw I used to cut and ingest my speed. I was back in the world with a clear head and a keen vision of just how talented I really was.

“Let me put your mother on,” my father would say. “She’s had a few drinks, so maybe she can understand whatever the hell it is you’re talking about.”

Six: I bought my drugs from a jittery, bug-eyed typesetter whose brittle, prematurely white hair was permed in such a way that I couldn’t look at her without thinking of a late-season dandelion. Selling me the drugs was no problem, but listening to my increasingly manic thoughts and opinions was far too much for one person to take on a daily basis.

“I’m thinking of parceling off portions of my brain,” I once told her. “I’m not talking about having anything surgically removed, I’d just like to divide it into lots and lease it out so that people could say, ‘I’ve got a house in Raleigh, a cottage in Myrtle Beach, and a little hideaway inside a visionary’s head.’ “

Her bored expression suggested the questionable value of my mental real estate. Speed heats the brain to a full boil, leaving the mouth to function as a fulminating exhaust pipe. I talked until my tongue bled, my jaw gave out, and my throat swelled up in protest.

Hoping to get me off her back, my dealer introduced me to half a dozen hyperactive brainiacs who shared my taste for amphetamines and love of the word manifesto. Here, finally, was my group. The first meeting was tense, but I broke the ice by laying out a few lines of crystal and commenting on my host’s refreshing lack of furniture. His living room contained nothing but an enormous nest made of human hair. It seemed that he drove twice a week to all the local beauty parlors and barbershops, collecting their sweepings and arranging them, strand by strand, as carefully as a wren.

“I’ve been building this nest for, oh, about six months now,” he said. “Go ahead, have a seat.”

Other group members stored their bodily fluids in baby-food jars or wrote cryptic messages on packaged skirt steaks. Their artworks were known as “pieces,” a phrase I enthusiastically embraced. “Nice piece,” I’d say. In my eagerness to please, I accidentally complimented chipped baseboards and sacks of laundry waiting to be taken to the cleaners. Anything might be a piece if you looked at it hard enough. High on crystal, the gang and I would tool down the beltway admiring the traffic cones and bright yellow speed bumps. The art world was our conceptual oyster, and we ate it raw.

Inspired by my friends, I undertook a few pieces of my own. My first project was a series of wooden vegetable crates I meticulously filled with my garbage. Seeing as how I no longer ate anything, there were no rotting food scraps to worry about, just cigarette butts, aspirin tins, wads of under-nourished hair, and bloody Kleenex. Because these were pieces, I carefully recorded each entry using an ink I’d made from the crushed bodies of ticks and mosquitoes.

2:17 A.M.: Four toenail clippings.

3:48 A.M.: Eyelash discovered beside sink. Moth.

Once the first two crates were completed, I carried them down to the art museum for consideration in their upcoming juried biennial. When the notice arrived that my work had been accepted, I foolishly phoned my friends with the news. Their proposals to set fire to the grand staircase or sculpt the governor’s head out of human feces had all been rejected. This officially confirmed their outsider status and made me an enemy of the avant-garde. At the next group meeting it was suggested that the museum had accepted my work only because it was decorative and easy to swallow. My friends could have gotten in had they compromised themselves, but unlike me, some people had integrity.

Plans were made for an alternative exhibit, and I wound up attending the museum opening in the company of my mother and my drug dealer, who by this time had lost so much hair and weight that, in her earth-tone sheath, she resembled a cocktail onion speared on a toothpick. The two of them made quite a pair, hogging the wet bar and loudly sharing their uninformed opinions with anyone within earshot. There was a little jazz combo playing in the corner, and the waiters circulated with trays of jumbo shrimp and stuffed mushrooms. I observed the crowd gathered around my crates, wanting to overhear their comments but feeling a deeper need to keep tabs on my mother. I looked over at one point and caught her drunkenly clutching the arm of the curator, shouting, “I just passed a lady in the bathroom and told her, ‘Honey, why flush it? Carry it into the next room and they’ll put it on a goddamn pedestal.’ “

Seven: I told my friends that I had hated every moment of the museum reception, which was practically true. The show was up for two months, and when it came down, I carried my crates to a vacant lot and burned them in penitence for my undeserved success. I had paid for my folly and, as a reward, was invited to take part in the nest builder’s performance piece. The script was great.

“When I bleat here on page seventeen, do you want me to just bleat or to really let go and ‘bleat, bleat’?” I asked. “I feel like ‘bleat, bleating,’ but if Mother/Destroyer is going to be crawling through the birth canal of concertina wire, I don’t want to steal focus, you know what I mean?”

He did. That was the scary part, that someone understood me. It occurred to me that a performance piece was something like a play. A play without a story, dialogue, or any discernible characters. That kind of a play. I was enchanted.

We found ourselves a raw space, and oh, how I loved the way those words tripped off my tongue. “We’ve located a great raw space for the piece,” I’d tell my outside friends. “It’s an abandoned tobacco warehouse with no running water or electricity. It’s got to be a good hundred and twenty degrees in there! You really ought to come down and see the show. There are tons of fleas, and it’s going to be really deep.”

My parents attended the premiere, sitting cross-legged on one of the padded mats spread like islands across the filthy concrete floor. Asked later what she thought of the performance, my mother massaged her knees, asking, ‘Are you trying to punish me for something?”

The evening newspaper ran a review headlined LOCAL GROUP PITCHES IN, CLEANS UP WAREHOUSE. This did nothing to encourage the ticket buyers, whose numbers dwindled to the single digits by the second night of our weeklong run. Word of mouth hurt us even more, but we comforted ourselves by blaming a population so brainwashed by television that they couldn’t sit through a simple two-and-a-half-hour performance piece without complaining of boredom and leg cramps. We were clearly ahead of our time but figured that, with enough drugs, the citizens of North Carolina would eventually catch up with us.

Eight: The nest builder announced plans for his next performance piece, and the group fell apart. “Why is it always your piece?” we asked. As leader, it was his fate to be punished for having the very qualities we admired in the first place. His charisma, his genuine commitment, even his nest - all these things became suspect. When he offered us the opportunity to create our own roles, we became even angrier. Who was he to give assignments and set deadlines? We lacked the ability to think for ourselves and resented having to admit it. This led to an epic shouting match in which we exhausted all our analogies and then started all over again from the top. “We’re not your puppets or little trained dogs, willing to jump through some hoop. What, do you think we’re puppets? Do we look like puppets to you? We’re not puppets or dogs, and we’re not going to jump through any more of your hoops, Puppet Master. Oh, you can train a dog. Stick your hand up a puppet’s ass and he’ll pretty much do whatever you want him to, but we’re not playing that game anymore, Herr Puppet Meister. We’re through playing your tricks, so find someone else.”

I had hoped that the group might stay together forever, but within ten minutes it was all over, finished, with each of us vowing to perform only our own work. I spent the next several weeks running the argument over and over in my mind, picturing a small dog chasing a puppet across the floor of an abandoned warehouse. How could I have been so stupid as to throw away the only opportunity I’d ever have?

I was at home braiding the bristles on my whisk broom when the museum called, inviting me to participate in their new “Month of Sundays” performance-art festival. It seemed as though I should play hard to get, but after a moment or two of awkward silence, I agreed to do it for what I called “political reasons.” I needed the money for drugs.

Nine: Watching the performances of my former colleagues, I got the idea that once you assembled the requisite props, the piece would more or less come together on its own. The inflatable shark naturally led to the puddle of heavy cream, which, if lapped from the floor with slow, steady precision, could account for up to twenty minutes of valuable stage time. All you had to do was maintain a shell-shocked expression and handle a variety of contradictory objects. It was the artist’s duty to find the appropriate objects, and the audience’s job to decipher meaning. If the piece failed to work, it was their fault, not yours.

My search for the appropriate objects led me to a secondhand store. Standing at the checkout counter with an armload of sock monkeys, I told the cashier, “These are for a piece I’m working on. It’s a performance commissioned by the art museum. I’m an artist.”

“Really?” The woman stabbed her cigarette into a bucketful of sand. “My niece is an artist, too! She’s the one who made those sock monkeys.”

“Yes,” I said. “But I’m a real artist.”

The woman was not offended, only puzzled. “But my niece lives over in Winston-Salem.” She said it as if living in Winston-Salem automatically signified an artistic temperament. “She’s a big, blond-headed girl with twin babies just about grown. Everybody calls her the sock lady on account of that she’s always making those monkeys. She’s a pretty girl, big-boned but just as talented as she can be.”

I looked into this woman’s face, her fuzzy jowls hanging like saddlebags, and I pictured her reclining nude in a shallow pool of peanut oil. Were she smart enough to let me, I could use her as my living prop. I could be the best thing that ever happened to her, but sadly, she was probably too ignorant to appreciate it. Maybe one day I’d do a full-length piece on the topic of stupidity, but in the meantime, I’d just pay for the sock monkeys, snort a few lines of speed, and finish constructing a bulletproof vest out of used flashlight batteries.

Ten: Quite a few people showed up for the museum performance, and I stood before them wishing they were half as high as I was. I’d been up for close to three days and had taken so much speed that I could practically see the individual atoms pitching in to make up every folding chair. Why is everyone staring at me? I wondered. Don’t they have anything better to do? I thought I was just being paranoid, and then I remembered that I was being stared at for a reason. I was onstage, and everyone else was in the audience, waiting for me to do something meaningful. The show wasn’t over. It had only just begun. I reminded myself that this was my moment. All I had to do was open my prop box, and the rest of the piece would take care of itself.

I’m slicing this pineapple now, I thought. Next I’ll just rip apart these sock monkeys and pour the stuffing into this tall rubber boot. Good, that’s good. Nobody pours stuffing like you do, my friend. Now I’ll snip off some of my hair with these garden shears, place the bottlecaps over my eyes, and we’re almost home.

I moved toward the audience and was kneeling in the aisle, the shears to my head, when I heard someone say, “Just take a little off the back and sides.”

It was my father, speaking in a loud voice to the woman seated beside him.

“Hey, sport,” he called, “what do you charge for a shave?”

The audience began to laugh and enjoy themselves.

“He should probably open a barbershop, because he’s sure not going anywhere in the show-business world.”

It was him again, and once more the audience laughed. I was spitting tacks, trying my hardest to concentrate but thinking, Doesn’t he see the Botticelli hanging on the wall behind me? Has he no idea how to behave in an art museum? This is my work, damn it. This is what I do, and here he’s treating it like some kind of a joke. You are a dead man, Lou Sedaris. And I’ll see to that personally.

Immediately following the performance a small crowd gathered around my father, congratulating him on his delivery and comic timing.

“Including your father was an excellent idea,” the curator said, handing me my check. “The piece really came together once you loosened up and started making fun of yourself.”

Not only did my father ask for a cut of the money, but he also started calling with suggestions for future pieces. “What if you were to symbolize man’s inhumanity to man by heating up a skillet of plastic soldiers?”

I told him that was the cheesiest idea I’d ever heard in my life and asked him to stop calling me with his empty little propositions. “I’m an artist!” I yelled. “I come up with the ideas. Me, not you. This isn’t some party game, it’s serious work, and I’d rather stick a gun to my head than listen to any more of your bullshit suggestions.”

There was a brief pause before he said, “The bit with the gun just might work. Let me think about it and get back to you.”

Eleven: My performing career effectively ended the day my drug dealer moved to Georgia to enter a treatment center. Since the museum I’d done a piece at a gallery and had another scheduled for the state university. “How can you do this to me?” I asked her. “You can’t move away, not now. Think of all the money I’ve spent on you. Don’t I deserve more than a week’s notice? And what do you need with a treatment center? People like you the way you are; what makes you think you need to change? Just cut back a little, and you’ll be fine. Please, you can’t do this to me. I have a piece to finish, goddamnit. I’m an artist and I need to know where my drugs are coming from.”

Nothing I said would change her mind. I cashed in a savings bond left to me by my grandmother and used the money to buy what I hoped would be enough speed to get me through the month. It was gone in ten days, and with it went my ability to do anything but roll on the floor and cry. It would have made for a decent piece, but I couldn’t think about that at the time.

Speed’s breathtaking high is followed by a crushing, suicidal depression. You’re forced to pay tenfold for all the fun you thought you were having. It’s torturous and demeaning, yet all you can think is that you want more. I might have thrown myself out the window, but I lived on the first floor and didn’t have the energy to climb the stairs to the roof. Everything ached, and even without the speed I was unable to sleep. Thinking I must have dropped a grain or two, I vacuumed the entire apartment with a straw up my nose, sucking up dead skin cells, Comet residue, and pulverized cat litter. Anything that traveled on the bottom of a shoe went up my nose.

A week after my drugs ran out, I left my bed to perform at the college, deciding at the last minute to skip both the doughnut toss and the march of the headless plush toys. Instead, I just heated up a skillet of plastic soldiers, poured a milkshake over my head, and called it a night.

A few of my former friends showed up at the performance, looking just as sweaty and desperate as I did. Following the piece, they invited themselves to my apartment and I welcomed them, hoping that somebody still had some drugs. It turned out that they were thinking the exact same thing. We sat around making small talk and watching one another’s hands. Someone would reach into his pocket and we’d all perk up until the hand returned bearing nothing but a cigarette. The shame was nothing I ever could have conveyed with thimbles or squirt guns filled with mayonnaise. A fistful of burning hair could not begin to represent the mess I had made of my life.

I thought briefly of checking myself into a hospital, but I’d seen what those wards looked like and I’ve always hated having a roommate. Perhaps this was something that with hard work and determination I could overcome. Maybe I could sober up, get my personal life in order, and reevaluate my priorities. Chances were that I had no artistic talent whatsoever. If I were to face that fact, possibly I could move on with my life, maybe learn a trade and take pride in my ability to shingle roofs or knock the dents out of cars. There was no shame in working with your hands and returning home at night to a glass of ice water and the satisfaction that you’d brightened someone’s afternoon with a pock-free fender. Lots of people did things like that. You might not read their names in the magazines, but still they were out there, day after day, giving it all they had. Better yet, I decided - at the age of twenty-seven - to return to art school. They’d have plenty of drugs there.

Twelve: I take my seat on the cold concrete floor, watching as a full-grown woman kneels before an altar made of fudge. She’s already put away a gingerbread cabin, two pints of ice cream, and a brood of marshmallow chicks - all without saying a word. The effect is excruciating, but I have no one but myself to blame. I find myself attending these performance pieces the same way certain friends drop by their AA meetings. I still do a lot of selfish and terrible things. I do not, however, treat myself to hot-cocoa enemas before an audience of invited guests. Minor as it seems, this has become something to celebrate.

The woman onstage has tottered on stilts fashioned from empty cans of Slim-Fast. She’s taken her eating disorder on the road, conditioning her hair with whipped topping and rolling her bangs in finger-size breakfast sausages. Just when I think she’s finished with all her props and is ready to toss up an ending, out comes a bust of Venus made from cake frosting. Looking around, I notice my fellow audience members examining their cuticles and staring with great purpose at the exit sign. Like me, they’re thinking of something positive to say once the spectacle is over and the performer takes up her post beside the front door. The obvious comment would come in the form of a question, that being, “What in God’s name possessed you to do such a thing, and why is it that nobody stopped you?” I’m not here to cause trouble, so it’s probably best to remark upon a single detail. When the time comes, I take her sticky hand in mine and ask how she manages to keep her frosting so stiff. This is neither damning nor encouraging. It is simply my password out onto the street, where I can embrace life with a renewed sense of liberty. The girl standing in front of the delicatessen stoops to tie her shoe. I watch as farther down the block a white-haired man tosses a business card into the trash. I turn for a moment at the sound of a car alarm and then continue along my way, unencumbered. No one expects me to applaud or consider the relationship between the shoelace and the white-haired man. The car alarm is not a metaphor, but just an unrehearsed annoyance. This is a new and brighter world, in which I am free to hurry along, celebrating my remarkable ability to walk, to run.

You Can’t

Kill the Rooster

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my father was transferred and our family moved from western New York State to Raleigh, North Carolina. IBM had relocated a great many northerners, and together we made relentless fun of our new neighbors and their poky, backward way of life. Rumors circulated that the locals ran stills out of their toolsheds and referred to their house cats as “good eatin’.” Our parents discouraged us from using the titles “ma’am” or “sir” when addressing a teacher or shopkeeper. Tobacco was acceptable in the form of a cigarette, but should any of us experiment with plug or snuff, we would automatically be disinherited. Mountain Dew was forbidden, and our speech was monitored for the slightest hint of a Raleigh accent. Use the word “y’all,” and before you knew it, you’d find yourself in a haystack French kissing an underage goat. Along with grits and hush puppies, the abbreviated form of you all was a dangerous step on an insidious path leading straight to the doors of the Baptist church.

We might not have been the wealthiest people in town, but at least we weren’t one of them.

Our family remained free from outside influence until 1968, when my mother gave birth to my brother, Paul, a North Carolina native who has since grown to become both my father’s best ally and worst nightmare. Here was a child who, by the time he had reached the second grade, spoke much like the toothless fishermen casting their nets into Albemarle Sound. This is the grown man who now phones his father to say, “Motherfucker, I ain’t seen pussy in so long, I’d throw stones at it.”

My brother’s voice, like my own, is high-pitched and girlish. Telephone solicitors frequently ask to speak to our husbands or request that we put our mommies on the line. The Raleigh accent is soft and beautifully cadenced, but my brother’s is a more complex hybrid, informed by his professional relationships with marble-mouthed, deep-country work crews and his abiding love of hard-core rap music. He talks so fast that even his friends have a hard time understanding him. It’s like listening to a foreigner and deciphering only shit, motherfucker, bitch, and the single phrase You can’t kill the Rooster.

“The Rooster” is what Paul calls himself when he’s feeling threatened. Asked how he came up with that name, he says only, “Certain motherfuckers think they can fuck with my shit, but you can’t kill the Rooster. You might can fuck him up sometimes, but, bitch, nobody kills the motherfucking Rooster. You know what I’m saying?”

It often seems that my brother and I were raised in two completely different households. He’s eleven years younger than I am, and by the time he reached high school, the rest of us had all left home. When I was young, we weren’t allowed to say “shut up,” but once the Rooster hit puberty it had become acceptable to shout, “Shut your motherfucking hole.” The drug laws had changed as well. “No smoking pot” became “no smoking pot in the house,” before it finally petered out to “please don’t smoke any more pot in the living room.”

My mother was, for the most part, delighted with my brother and regarded him with the bemused curiosity of a brood hen discovering she has hatched a completely different species. “I think it was very nice of Paul to give me this vase,” she once said, arranging a bouquet of wildflowers into the skull-shaped bong my brother had left on the dining-room table. “It’s nontraditional, but that’s the Rooster’s way. He’s a free spirit, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Like most everyone else in our suburban neighborhood, we were raised to meet a certain standard. My father expected me to attend an Ivy League university, where I’d make straight A’s, play football, and spend my off-hours strumming guitar with the student jazz combo. My inability to throw a football was exceeded only by my inability to master the guitar. My grades were average at best, and eventually I learned to live with my father’s disappointment. Fortunately there were six of us children, and it was easy to get lost in the crowd. My sisters and I managed to sneak beneath the wire of his expectations, but we worried about my brother, who was seen as the family’s last hope.

From the age of ten, Paul was being dressed in Brooks Brothers suits and tiny, clip-on rep ties. He endured trumpet lessons, soccer camp, church-sponsored basketball tournaments, and after-school sessions with well-meaning tutors who would politely change the subject when asked about the Rooster’s chances of getting into Yale or Princeton. Fast and well-coordinated, Paul enjoyed sports but not enough to take them seriously. School failed to interest him on any level, and the neighbors were greatly relieved when he finally retired his trumpet. His response to our father’s impossible and endless demands has, over time, become something of a mantra. Short and sweet, repeated at a fever pitch, it goes simply, “Fuck it,” or on one of his more articulate days, “Fuck it, motherfucker. That shit don’t mean fuck to me.”

My brother politely ma’ams and sirs all strangers but refers to friends and family his father included, as either “bitch” or “motherfucker.” Friends are appalled at the way he speaks to his only remaining parent. The two of them once visited my sister Amy and me in New York City, and we celebrated with a dinner party. When my father complained about his aching feet, the Rooster set down his two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and removed a fistful of prime rib from his mouth, saying, “Bitch, you need to have them ugly-ass bunions shaved down is what you need to do. But you can’t do shit about it tonight, so lighten up, motherfucker.”

All eyes went to my father, who chuckled, saying only, “Well, I guess you have a point.”

A stranger might reasonably interpret my brother’s language as a lack of respect and view my father’s response as a form of shameful surrender. This, though, would be missing the subtle beauty of their relationship.

My father is the type who once recited a bawdy limerick, saying, “A woman I know who’s quite blunt / had a bear trap installed in her… Oh, you know. It’s a base, vernacular word for the vagina.” He can absolutely kill a joke. When pushed to his limit, this is a man who shouts, “Fudge,” a man who curses drivers with a shake of his fist and a hearty “G.D. you!” I’ve never known him to swear, yet he and my brother seem to have found a common language that eludes the rest of us.

My father likes to talk about money. Spending doesn’t interest him in the least, especially as he grows older. He prefers money as a concept and often uses terms such as annuity and fiduciary, words definitely not listed in the dictionary of mindless entertainment. It puts my ears to sleep, but still, when he talks I pretend to listen to him, if only because it seems like the mature thing to do. When my father talks finance to my brother, Paul will cut him off, saying, “Fuck the stock talk, hoss, I ain’t investing in shit.” This rarely ends the economics lecture, but my brother wins bonus points for boldly voicing his uninterest, just as my father would do were someone to corner him and talk about Buddhism or the return of the clog. The two of them are unapologetically blunt. It’s a quality my father admires so much, he’s able to ignore the foul language completely. “That Paul,” he says, “now there’s a guy who knows how to communicate.”

When words fail him, the Rooster has been known to communicate with his fists, which, though quick and solid, are no larger than a couple of tangerines. At five foot four, he’s shorter than I am, stocky but not exactly intimidating. The year he turned thirty we celebrated Christmas at the home of my older sister Lisa. Paul arrived a few hours late with scraped palms and a black eye. There had been some encounter at a bar, but the details were sketchy.

“Some motherfucker told me to get the fuck out of his motherfucking face, so I said, ‘Fuck off, fuckface’”

“Then what?”

“Then he turned away and I reached up and punched him on the back of his motherfucking neck.”

“What happened next?”

“What the fuck do you think happened next, bitch? I ran like hell and the motherfucker caught up with me in the fucking parking lot. He was all beefy, all flexed up and shit. The motherfucker had a taste for blood and he just pummeled my ass.”

“When did he stop?”

My brother tapped his fingertips against the tabletop for a few moments before saying, “I’m guessing he stopped when he was fucking finished.”

The physical pain had passed, but it bothered Paul that his face was “all lopsided and shit for the fucking holidays.” That said, he retreated to the bathroom with my sister Amy’s makeup kit and returned to the table with two black eyes, the second drawn on with mascara. This seemed to please him, and he wore his matching bruises for the rest of the evening.

“Did you get a load of that fake black eye?” my father asked. “That guy ought to do makeup for the movies. I’m telling you, the kid’s a real artist.”

Unlike the rest of us, the Rooster has always enjoyed our father’s support and encouragement. With the dream of college officially dead and buried, he sent my brother to technical school, hoping he might develop an interest in computers. Three weeks into the semester, Paul dropped out, and my father, convinced that his son’s lawn-mowing skills bordered on genius, set him up in the landscaping business. “I’ve seen him in action, and what he does is establish a pattern and really tackle it!”

Eventually my brother fell into the floor-sanding business. It’s hard work, but he enjoys the satisfaction that comes with a well-finished rec room. He thoughtfully called his company Silly P’s Hardwood Floors, Silly P being the name he would have chosen were he a rap star. When my father suggested that the word silly might frighten away some of the upper-tier customers, Paul considered changing the name to Silly Fucking P’s Hardwood Floors. The work puts him in contact with plumbers and carpenters from such towns as Bunn and Clayton, men who offer dating advice such as “If she’s old enough to bleed, she’s old enough to breed.”

“Old enough to what?” my father asks. “Oh, Paul, those aren’t the sort of people you need to be associating with. What are you doing with hayseeds like that? The goal is to better yourself. Meet some intellectuals. Read a book!”

After all these years our father has never understood that we, his children, tend to gravitate toward the very people he’s spent his life warning us about. Most of us have left town, but my brother remains in Raleigh. He was there when our mother died and still, years later, continues to help our father grieve: “The past is gone, hoss. What you need now is some motherfucking pussy.” While my sisters and I offer our sympathy long-distance, Paul is the one who arrives at our father’s house on Thanksgiving day, offering to prepare traditional Greek dishes to the best of his ability. It is a fact that he once made a tray of spanakopita using Pam rather than melted butter. Still, though, at least he tries.

When a hurricane damaged my father’s house, my brother rushed over with a gas grill, three coolers full of beer, and an enormous Fuck-It Bucket - a plastic pail filled with jawbreakers and bite-size candy bars. (”When shit brings you down, just say ‘fuck it,’ and eat yourself some motherfucking candy.”) There was no electricity for close to a week. The yard was practically cleared of trees, and rain fell through the dozens of holes punched into the roof. It was a difficult time, but the two of them stuck it out, my brother placing his small, scarred hand on my father’s shoulder to say, “Bitch, I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this shit, motherfucker, just you wait.”

The Youth in Asia

IN THE EARLY 1960s, during what my mother referred to as “the tail end of the Lassie years,” my parents were given two collies, which they named Rastus and Duchess. We were living in New York State, out in the country, and the dogs were free to race through the forest. They napped in meadows and stood knee-deep in frigid streams, costars in their own private dog-food commercial. According to our father, anyone could tell that the two of them were in love.

Late one evening, while lying on a blanket in the garage, Duchess gave birth to a litter of slick, potato-size puppies. When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother arranged the puppy in a casserole dish and popped it in the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

“Oh, keep your shirts on,” she said. “It’s only set on two hundred. I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.”

The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.

Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, Rastus took off. The puppies were given away and we moved south, where the heat and humidity worked against a collie’s best interests. Duchess’s once beautiful coat now hung in ragged patches. Age set in and she limped about the house, clearing rooms with her suffocating farts. When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother’s healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope; apparently she could resurrect only the cute dead.

The oven trick was performed on half a dozen peakish hamsters but failed to work on my first guinea pig, who died after eating a couple of cigarettes and an entire pack of matches.

“Don’t take it too hard,” my mother said, removing her oven mitts. “The world is full of guinea pigs: you can get another one tomorrow.”

Eulogies tended to be brief, our motto being Another day, another collar.

A short time after Duchess died, our father came home with a German shepherd puppy. For reasons that were never fully explained, the privilege of naming the dog went to a friend of my older sister’s, a fourteen-year-old girl named Cindy. She was studying German at the time, and after carefully examining the puppy and weighing it in her hands, she announced that it would be called Mädchen, which apparently meant “girl” to the Volks back in the Vaterland. We weren’t wild about the name but considered ourselves lucky that Cindy wasn’t studying one of the hard-to-pronounce Asian languages.

When she was six months old, Mädchen was hit by a car and killed. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German shepherd, which the same Cindy thoughtfully christened Mädchen II. This tag-team progression was disconcerting, especially to the new dog, which was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor.

“Mädchen One would never have wet the floor like that,” my father would scold, and the dog would sigh, knowing she was the canine equivalent of a rebound.

Mädchen Two never accompanied us to the beach and rarely posed in any of the family photographs. Once her puppyhood was spent, we lost all interest. “We ought to get a dog,” we’d sometimes say, completely forgetting that we already had one. She came inside to eat, but most of her time was spent outside in the pen, slumped in the A-frame doghouse our father had designed and crafted from scrap pieces of redwood.

“Hey,” he’d ask, “how many dogs can say they live in a redwood house?”

This always led to my mother’s exhausted “Oh, Lou, how many dogs can say that they don’t live in a goddamn redwood house?”

Throughout the collie and shepherd years we kept a succession of drowsy, secretive cats that seemed to enjoy a unique bond with our mother. “It’s because I open their cans,” she’d say, though we all knew it ran deeper than that. What they really had in common was their claws. That and a primal urge to destroy my father’s golf bags. The first cat ran away, and the second one was hit by a car. The third passed into a disagreeable old age and died hissing at the kitten that had prematurely arrived to replace her. When, at the age of seven, the fourth cat was diagnosed with feline leukemia, my mother was devastated.

“I’m going to have Sadie put to sleep,” she said. “It’s for her own good, and I don’t want to hear a word about it from any of you. This is hard enough as it is.”

The cat was put down, and then came a series of crank phone calls and anonymous postcards orchestrated by my sisters and me. The cards announced a miraculous new cure for feline leukemia, and the callers identified themselves as representatives from Cat Fancy magazine. “We’d like to use Sadie as our September cover story and were hoping to schedule a photo shoot as soon as possible. Do you think you could have her ready by tomorrow?”

We thought a kitten might lift our mother’s spirits, but she declined all offers. “That’s it,” she said. “My cat days are over.”

When Mädchen Two developed splenic tumors, my father dropped everything and ran to her side. Evenings were spent at the animal hospital, lying on a mat outside of her cage and adjusting her IV. He’d never afforded her much attention when she was healthy, but her impending death awoke in him a great sense of duty. He was holding her paw when she died, and he spent the next several weeks asking us how many dogs could say they’d lived in a redwood house.

Our mother, in turn, frequently paused beside my father’s tattered, urine-stained golf bag and relived memories of her own.

After spending a petless year with only one child still living at home, my parents visited a breeder and returned with a Great Dane they named Melina. They loved this dog in proportion to its size, and soon their hearts had no room for anyone else. In terms of mutual respect and admiration, their six children had been nothing more than a failed experiment. Melina was the real thing. The house was given over to the dog, rooms redecorated to suit her fancy. Enter your former bedroom and you’d be told, “You’d better not let Melina catch you in here,” or, “This is where we come to peepee when there’s nobody home to let us outside, right, girl!” The knobs on our dressers were whittled down to damp stumps, and our beds were matted with fine, short hairs. Scream at the mangled leather carcass lying at the foot of the stairs, and my parents would roar with laughter. “That’s what you get for leaving your wallet on the kitchen table.”

The dog was their first genuine common interest, and they loved it equally, each in his or her own way. Our mother’s love tended toward the horizontal, a pet being little more than a napping companion, something she could look at and say, “That seems like a good idea. Scoot over, why don’t you.” A stranger peeking through the window might think that the two of them had entered a suicide pact. She and the dog sprawled like corpses, their limbs arranged in an eternal embrace. “God, that felt good,” my mom would say, the two of them waking for a brief scratch. “Now let’s go try it on the living-room floor.”

My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she’d stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, “Hey, you got a saddle for that thing?” When out for a walk there was the inevitable “Are you walking her, or is it the other way ’round?”

“Ha-ha!” our father always laughed, as if it were the first time he’d heard it. The attention was addictive, and he enjoyed a pride of accomplishment he never felt with any of us. It was as if he were somehow responsible for her beauty and stature, as if he’d personally designed her spots and trained her to grow to the size of a pony. When out with the dog, he carried a leash in one hand and a shovel in the other. “Just in case,” he said.

“Just in case, what, she dies of a heart attack and you need to bury her?” I didn’t get it.

“No,” he said, “the shovel is for, you know, her… business.”

My father was retired, but the dog had business.

I was li