Dress your family in cor.., p.19
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, p.19David Sedaris
The first step, and for me the most difficult, was going into the cellar to get the bucket. This involved leaving the well-lit porch, walking around to the side of the house, and entering what is surely the bleakest and most terrifying hole in all of Europe. Low ceiling, stone walls, a dirt floor stamped with paw prints. I never go in without announcing myself. “Hyaa!” I yell. “Hyaa. Hyaa!” It’s the sound my father makes when entering his toolshed, the cry of cowboys as they round up dogies, and it suggests a certain degree of authority. Snakes, bats, weasels—it’s time to head up and move on out. When retrieving the bucket, I carried a flashlight in each hand, holding them low, like pistols. Then I kicked in the door—“Hyaa! Hyaa!”—grabbed what I was looking for, and ran. I was back on the porch in less than a minute, but it took much longer for my hands to stop shaking.
The problem with drowning an animal—even a crippled one—is that it does not want to cooperate. This mouse had nothing going for him, and yet he struggled, using what, I don’t really know. I tried to hold him down with a broom handle but it wasn’t the right tool for the job and he kept breaking free and heading back to the surface. A creature that determined, you want to let it have its way, but this was for the best, whether he realized it or not. I’d just managed to pin his tail to the bottom of the bucket when this van drove up and stopped in front of the house. I say “van,” but it was more like a miniature bus, with windows and three rows of seats. The headlights were on high, and the road before them appeared black and perfect.
After a moment or two the driver’s window rolled down, and a man stuck his head into the pool of light spilling from the porch. “Bonsoir,” he called. He said it the way a man in a lifeboat might yell, “Ahoy!” to a passing ship, giving the impression that he was very happy to see me. As he opened the door, a light came on and I could see five people seated behind him, two men and three women, each looking at me with the same expression of relief. All were adults, perhaps in their sixties or early seventies, and all of them had white hair.
The driver referred to a small book he held in his hand. Then he looked back at me and attempted to recite what he had just read. It was French, but just barely, pronounced phonetically, with no understanding of where the accents lay.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
The man clapped his hands and turned around in his seat. “He speaks English!” The news was greeted with a great deal of excitement and then translated for one of the women, who apparently did not understand the significance. Meanwhile, my mouse had popped back to the surface and was using his good hand to claw at the sides of the bucket.
“We are looking for a particular place,” the driver said. “A house we are renting with friends.” He spoke loudly and with a slight accent. Dutch, I thought, or maybe Scandinavian.
I asked what town the house was in, and he said that it was not in a town, just a willage.
“A willage,” he repeated.
Either he had a speech impediment or the letter v did not exist in his native language. Whatever the case, I wanted him to say it again.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“A willage,” he said. “Some friends have rented a house in a little willage and we can’t seem to find it. We were supposed to be there hours ago, but now we are quite lost. Do you know the area?”
I said that I did, but drew a blank when he called out the name. There are countless small villages in our part of Normandy, clusters of stone buildings hidden by forests or knotted at the end of unpaved roads. Hugh might have known the place the man was looking for, but because I don’t drive, I tend not to pay too much attention. “I have a map,” the man said. “Do you think you could perhaps look at it?”
He stepped from the van and I saw that he was wearing a white nylon tracksuit, the pants puffy and gathered tight at the ankles. You’d expect to find sneakers attached to such an outfit, but instead he wore a pair of black loafers. The front gate was open, and as he made his way up the stairs, I remembered what it was that I’d been doing, and I thought of how strange it might look. It occurred to me to meet the man halfway, but by this time he had already reached the landing and was offering his hand in a gesture of friendship. We shook, and on hearing the faint, lapping noise, he squinted down into the bucket. “Oh,” he said. “I see that you have a little swimming mouse.” His tone did not invite explanation, and so I offered none. “My wife and I have a dog,” he continued. “But we did not bring it with us. Too much trouble.”
I nodded and he held out his map, a Xerox of a Xerox marked with arrows and annotated in a language I did not recognize. “I think I’ve got something better in the house,” I said, and at my invitation, he followed me inside.
An unexpected and unknown visitor allows you to see a familiar place as if for the very first time. I’m thinking of the meter reader rooting through the kitchen at eight A.M., the Jehovah’s Witness suddenly standing in your living room. “Here,” they seem to say. “Use my eyes. The focus is much keener.” I had always thought of our main room as cheerful, but walking through the door, I saw that I was mistaken. It wasn’t dirty or messy, but like being awake when all decent people are fast asleep, there was something slightly suspicious about it. I looked at the Visible Man spread out on the table. The pieces lay in the shadow of a large taxidermied chicken that seemed to be regarding them, determining which organ might be the most appetizing. The table itself was pleasant to look at—oak and hand-hewn—but the chairs surrounding it were mismatched and in various states of disrepair. On the back of one hung a towel marked with the emblem of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. It had been a gift, not bought personally, but still it was there, leading the eye to an adjacent daybed, upon which lay two copies of a sordid true-crime magazine I purportedly buy to help me with my French. The cover of the latest issue pictured a young Belgian woman, a camper beaten to death with a cinder block. IS THERE A SERIAL KILLER IN YOUR REGION? the headline asked. The second copy was opened to the crossword puzzle I’d attempted earlier in the evening. One of the clues translated to “female sex organ,” and in the space provided I had written the word for vagina. It was the first time I had ever answered a French crossword puzzle question, and in celebration I had marked the margins with bright exclamation points.
There seemed to be a theme developing, and everything I saw appeared to substantiate it: the almanac of guns and firearms suddenly prominent on the bookshelf, the meat cleaver lying for no apparent reason upon a photograph of our neighbor’s grandchild.
“It’s more of a summer home,” I said, and the man nodded. He was looking now at the fireplace, which was slightly taller than he was. I tend to see only the solid stone hearth and high oak mantel, but he was examining the meat hooks hanging from the clotted black interior.
“Every other house we passed was dark,” he said. “We’ve been driving I think for hours, just looking for someone who was awake. We saw your lights, the open door . . .” His words were familiar from innumerable horror movies, the wayward soul announcing himself to the count, the mad scientist, the werewolf, moments before he changes.
“I hate to bother you, really.”
“Oh, it’s no bother, I was just drowning a mouse. Come in, please.”
“So,” the man said, “you say you have a map?”
I had several, and pulled the most detailed from a drawer containing, among other things, a short length of rope and a novelty pen resembling a dismembered finger. Where does all this stuff come from? I asked myself. There’s a low cabinet beside the table, and pushing aside the delicate skull of a baby monkey, I spread the map upon the surface, identifying the road outside our house and then the village the man was looking for. It wasn’t more than ten miles away. The route was fairly simple, but still I offered him the map, knowing he would feel better if he could refer to it on the road.
“Oh no,” he said, “I couldn’t,” but I insisted, and wa
The mouse that had fought so hard against my broom handle had lost his second wind and was floating, lifeless now, on the surface of the water. I thought of emptying the bucket into the field behind the house, but without the van, its headlights, and the comforting sound of the engine, the area beyond the porch seemed too menacing. The inside of the house suddenly seemed just as bad, and so I stood there, looking out at what I’d now think of as my willage. When the sun came up I would bury my dead and fill the empty bucket with hydrangeas, a bit of life and color, so perfect for the table. So pleasing to the eye.
Grateful acknowledgment is offered to the various editors I consider myself lucky to have worked with: Jeffrey Frank at The New Yorker, Ira Glass at “This American Life,” Maja Thomas and Steve Lamont at Little, Brown, and Andy Ward at Esquire and G.Q.
About the Author
David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, Barrel Fever, and Holidays on Ice and is a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s “This American Life.”
David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
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