Dress your family in cor.., p.3
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       Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, p.3

           David Sedaris
 
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  I know that such a story does not quite work to inspire sympathy. (“My home—well, one of my homes—fell through.”) We had no legitimate claim to self-pity, were ineligible even to hold a grudge, but that didn’t stop us from complaining.

  In the coming years our father would continue to promise what he couldn’t deliver, and in time we grew to think of him as an actor auditioning for the role of a benevolent millionaire. He’d never get the part but liked the way that the words felt in his mouth. “What do you say to a new car?” he’d ask. “Who’s up for a cruise to the Greek Isles?” He expected us to respond by playing the part of an enthusiastic family, but we were unwilling to resume our old roles. As if carried by a tide, our mother drifted farther and farther away, first to twin beds and then down the hall to a room decorated with seascapes and baskets of sun-bleached sand dollars. It would have been nice, a place at the beach, but we already had a home. A home with a bar. Besides, had things worked out, you wouldn’t have been happy for us. We’re not that kind of people.

  Full House

  My parents were not the type of people who went to bed at a regular hour. Sleep overtook them, but neither the time nor the idea of a mattress seemed very important. My father favored a chair in the basement, but my mother was apt to lie down anywhere, waking with carpet burns on her face or the pattern of the sofa embossed into the soft flesh of her upper arms. It was sort of embarrassing. She might sleep for eight hours a day, but they were never consecutive hours and they involved no separate outfit. For Christmas we would give her nightgowns, hoping she might take the hint. “They’re for bedtime,” we’d say, and she’d look at us strangely, as if, like the moment of one’s death, the occasion of sleep was too incalculable to involve any real preparation.

  The upside to being raised by what were essentially a pair of house cats was that we never had any enforced bedtime. At two A.M. on a school night, my mother would not say, “Go to sleep,” but rather, “Shouldn’t you be tired?” It wasn’t a command but a sincere question, the answer provoking little more than a shrug. “Suit yourself,” she’d say, pouring what was likely to be her thirtieth or forty-second cup of coffee. “I’m not sleepy, either. Don’t know why, but I’m not.”

  We were the family that never shut down, the family whose TV was so hot we needed an oven mitt in order to change the channel. Every night was basically a slumber party, so when the real thing came along, my sisters and I failed to show much of an interest.

  “But we get to stay up as late as we want,” the hosts would say.

  “And . . . ?”

  The first one I attended was held by a neighbor named Walt Winters. Like me, Walt was in the sixth grade. Unlike me, he was gregarious and athletic, which meant, basically, that we had absolutely nothing in common. “But why would he include me?” I asked my mother. “I hardly know the guy.”

  She did not say that Walt’s mother had made him invite me, but I knew that this was the only likely explanation. “Oh, go,” she said. “It’ll be fun.”

  I tried my best to back out, but then my father got wind of it, and that option was closed. He often passed Walt playing football in the street and saw in the boy a younger version of himself. “He’s maybe not the best player in the world, but he and his friends, they’re a good group.”

  “Fine,” I said. “Then you go sleep with them.”

  I could not tell my father that boys made me anxious, and so I invented individual reasons to dislike them. The hope was that I might seem discerning rather than frightened, but instead I came off sounding like a prude.

  “You’re expecting me to spend the night with someone who curses? Someone who actually throws rocks at cats?”

  “You’re damned right I am,” my father said. “Now get the hell over there.”

  Aside from myself, there were three other guests at Walt’s slumber party. None of them were particularly popular—they weren’t good-looking enough for that—but each could hold his own on a playing field or in a discussion about cars. The talk started the moment I walked through the door, and while pretending to listen, I wished that I could have been more honest. “What is the actual point of football?” I wanted to ask. “Is a V-8 engine related in any way to the juice?” I would have sounded like a foreign-exchange student, but the answers might have given me some sort of a foundation. As it was, they may as well have been talking backward.

  There were four styles of houses on our street, and while Walt’s was different from my own, I was familiar with the layout. The slumber party took place in what the Methodists called a family room, the Catholics used as an extra bedroom, and the neighborhood’s only Jews had turned into a combination darkroom and fallout shelter. Walt’s family was Methodist, and so the room’s focal point was a large black-and-white television. Family photos hung on the wall alongside pictures of the various athletes Mr. Winters had successfully pestered for autographs. I admired them to the best of my ability but was more interested in the wedding portrait displayed above the sofa. Arm in arm with her uniformed husband, Walt’s mother looked deliriously, almost frighteningly happy. The bulging eyes and fierce, gummy smile: it was an expression bordering on hysteria, and the intervening years had done nothing to dampen it.

  “What is she on?” my mother would whisper whenever we passed Mrs. Winters waving gaily from her front yard. I thought she was being too hard on her, but after ten minutes in the woman’s home I understood exactly what my mother was talking about.

  “Pizza’s here!!!” she chimed when the deliveryman came to the door. “Oh, boys, how about some piping hot pizza!!!” I thought it was funny that anyone would use the words piping hot, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I felt I could actually laugh at. Neither could I laugh at Mr. Winters’s pathetic imitation of an Italian waiter. “Mamma mia. Who want anudda slice a dipizza!”

  I had the idea that adults were supposed to make themselves scarce at slumber parties, but Walt’s parents were all over the place: initiating games, offering snacks and refills. When the midnight horror movie came on, Walt’s mother crept into the bathroom, leaving a ketchup-spattered knife beside the sink. An hour passed, and when none of us had yet discovered it, she started dropping little hints. “Doesn’t anyone want to wash their hands?” she asked. “Will whoever’s closest to the door go check to see if I left fresh towels in the bathroom?”

  You just wanted to cry for people like her.

  As corny as they were, I was sorry when the movie ended and Mr. and Mrs. Winters stood to leave. It was only two A.M., but clearly they were done in. “I just don’t know how you boys can do it,” Walt’s mother said, yawning into the sleeve of her bathrobe. “I haven’t been up this late since Lauren came into the world.” Lauren was Walt’s sister, who was born prematurely and lived for less than two days. This had happened before the Winterses moved onto our street, but it wasn’t any kind of secret, and you weren’t supposed to flinch upon hearing the girl’s name. The baby had died too soon to pose for photographs, but still she was regarded as a full-fledged member of the family. She had a Christmas stocking the size of a mitten, and they even threw her an annual birthday party, a fact that my mother found especially creepy. “Let’s hope they don’t invite us,” she said. “I mean, Jesus, how do you shop for a dead baby?”

  I guessed it was the fear of another premature birth that kept Mrs. Winters from trying again, which was sad, as you got the sense she really wanted a lively household. You got the sense that she had an idea of a lively household and that the slumber party and the ketchup-covered knife were all a part of that idea. While in her presence, we had played along, but once she said good night, I understood that all bets were off.

  She and her husband lumbered up the stairs, and when Walt felt certain that they were asleep, he pounced on Dale Gummerson, shouting, “Titty twister!!!” Brad Clancy joined in, and when they had finished, Dale raised his shirt, revealing nipples as crimped and ruddy as the pepperoni slices littering the forsaken pizza box.


  “Oh my God,” I said, realizing too late that this made me sound like a girl. The appropriate response was to laugh at Dale’s misfortune, not to flutter your hands in front of your face, screeching, “What have they done to your poor nipples! Shouldn’t we put some ice on them?”

  Walt picked up on this immediately. “Did you just say you wanted to put ice on Dale’s nipples?”

  “Well, not me . . . personally,” I said. “I meant, you know, generally. As a group. Or Dale could do it himself if he felt like it.”

  Walt’s eyes wandered from my face to my chest, and then the entire slumber party was upon me. Dale had not yet regained the full use of his arms, and so he sat on my legs while Brad and Scott Marlboro pinned me to the carpet. My shirt was raised, a hand was clamped over my mouth, and Walt latched onto my nipples, twisting them back and forth as if they were a set of particularly stubborn toggle bolts. “Now who needs ice!” he said. “Now who thinks he’s the goddam school nurse.” I’d once felt sorry for Walt, but now, my eyes watering in pain, I understood that little Lauren was smart to have cut out early.

  When finally I was freed, I went upstairs and stood at the kitchen window, my arms folded lightly against my chest. My family’s house was located in a ravine. You couldn’t see it from the street, but still I could make out the glow of lights spilling from the top of our driveway. It was tempting, but were I to leave now, I’d never hear the end of it. The baby cried. The baby had to go home. Life at school would be unbearable, so I left the window and returned to the basement, where Walt was shuffling cards against the coffee table. “Just in time,” he said. “Have a seat.”

  I lowered myself to the floor and reached for a magazine, trying my best to act casual. “I’m not really much for games, so if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll just watch.”

  “Watch, hell,” Walt said. “This is strip poker. What kind of a homo wants to sit around and watch four guys get naked?”

  The logic of this was lost on me. “Well, won’t we all sort of be watching?”

  “Looking maybe, but not watching,” Walt said. “There’s a big difference.”

  I asked what the difference was, but nobody answered. Then Walt made a twisting motion with his fingers, and I took my place at the table, praying for a gas leak or an electrical fire—anything to save me from the catastrophe of strip poker. To the rest of the group, a naked boy was like a lamp or a bath mat, something so familiar and uninteresting that it faded into the background, but for me it was different.

  A naked boy was what I desired more than anything on earth, and when you were both watching and desiring, things came up, one thing in particular that was bound to stand out and ruin your life forever. “I hate to tell you,” I said, “but it’s against my religion to play poker.”

  “Yeah, right,” Walt said. “What are you, Baptist?”

  “Greek Orthodox.”

  “Well, that’s a load of crap because the Greeks invented cards,” Walt said.

  “Actually, I think it was the Egyptians.” This from Scott, who was quickly identifying himself as the smart one.

  “Greeks, Egyptians, they’re all the same thing,” Walt said. “Anyway, what your pooh-bah doesn’t know won’t hurt him, so shut the hell up and play.”

  He dealt the cards, and I looked from face to face, exaggerating flaws and reminding myself that these boys did not like me.The hope was that I might crush any surviving atom of attraction, but as has been the case for my entire life, the more someone dislikes me the more attractive he becomes. The key was to stall, to argue every hand until the sun came up and Mrs. Winters saved me with whatever cheerful monstrosity she’d planned for breakfast.

  On the off chance that stalling would not work, I stepped into the bathroom and checked to make sure I was wearing clean underwear. A boner would be horrible beyond belief, but a boner combined with a skid mark meant that I should take the ketchup-smeared knife and just kill myself before it was too late.

  “What are you, launching a sub in there?” Walt shouted. “Come on, we’re waiting.”

  Usually when I was forced to compete, it was my tactic to simply give up. To try in any way was to announce your ambition, which only made you more vulnerable. The person who wanted to win but failed was a loser, while the person who didn’t really care was just a weirdo—a title I had learned to live with. Here, though, surrender was not an option. I had to win at a game I knew nothing about, and that seemed hopeless until I realized we were all on an equal footing. Not even Scott had the slightest idea what he was doing, and by feigning an air of expertise, I found I could manipulate things in my favor.

  “A joker and a queen is much better than the four and five of spades,” I said, defending my hand against Brad Clancy’s.

  “But you have a joker and a three of diamonds.”

  “Yes, but the joker makes it a queen.”

  “I thought you said that poker was against your religion,” Walt said.

  “Well, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it. Greeks invented cards, remember. They’re in my blood.”

  At the start of the game, the starburst clock had read three-thirty. An hour later I was missing one shoe, Scott and Brad had lost their shirts, and both Walt and Dale were down to their underwear. If this was what winning felt like, I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. Confidently in the lead, I invented little reasons for the undressed to get up and move about the room.

  “Hey, Walt, did you hear that? It sounded like footsteps up in the kitchen.”

  “I didn’t hear anything.”

  “Why don’t you go to the stairway and check. We don’t want any surprises.” His underwear was all bunchy in the back, saggy like a diaper, but his legs were meaty and satisfying to look at.

  “Dale, would you make sure those curtains are closed?”

  He crossed the room, and I ate him alive with my eyes, confident that no one would accuse me of staring. Things might have been different were I in last place, but as a winner, it was my right to make sure that things were done properly. “There’s an open space down by the baseboard. Bend over and close it, will you?”

  It took a while, but after explaining that a pair of kings was no match for a two of hearts and a three of spades, Walt surrendered his underpants and tossed them onto a pile beside the TV set. “Okay,” he said. “Now the rest of you can finish the game.”

  “But it is finished,” Scott said.

  “Oh no,” Walt said. “I’m not the only one getting naked. You guys have to keep playing.”

  “While you do what—sit back and watch?” I said. “What kind of a homo are you?”

  “Yeah,” Dale said. “Why don’t we do something else? This game’s boring and the rules are impossible.”

  The others muttered in agreement, and when Walt refused to back down, I gathered the deck and tamped it commandingly upon the tabletop. “The only solution is for us all to keep playing.”

  “How the hell do you expect me to do that?” Walt said. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing more for me to lose.”

  “Oh,” I said, “there’s always more. Maybe if the weakest hand is already naked, we should make that person perform some kind of a task. Nothing big, just, you know, a token kind of a thing.”

  “A thing like what?” Walt asked.

  “I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

  In retrospect, I probably went a little too far in ordering Scott to sit on my lap. “But I’m naked!” he said.

  “Hey,” I told him, “I’m the one who’s going to be suffering. I was just looking for something easy. Would you rather run outside and touch the mailbox? The sun will be coming up in about twenty seconds—you want the whole neighborhood to see you?”

  “How long will I have to sit on you?” he asked.

  “I don’t know. A minute or two. Maybe five. Or seven.”

  I moved onto the easy chair and wearily patted my knee, as if thi
s were a great sacrifice. Scott slid into place, and I considered our reflection in the darkened TV screen. Here I was, one naked guy on my lap and three others ready to do my bidding. It was the stuff of dreams until I remembered that they were not doing these things of their own accord. This was not their pleasure, but their punishment, and once it was over they would make it a point to avoid me. Rumors would spread that I had slipped something into their Cokes, that I had tried to French Brad Clancy, that I had stolen five dollars from Walt’s pocket. Not even Mrs. Winters would wave at me, but all that would come later, in a different life. For now I would savor this poor imitation of tenderness, mapping Scott’s shoulders, the small of his back, as he shuddered beneath my winning hand.

  Consider the Stars

  Every night before going to bed, Hugh steps outside to consider the stars. His interest is not scientific—he doesn’t pinpoint the constellations or make casual references to Canopus; rather, he just regards the mass of them, occasionally pausing to sigh. When asked if there’s life on other planets, he says, “Yes, of course. Look at the odds.”

  It hardly seems fair we’d get the universe all to ourselves, but on a personal level I’m highly disturbed by the thought of extraterrestrial life. If there are, in fact, billions of other civilizations, where does that leave our celebrities? If worth is measured on a sliding scale of recognition, what would it mean if we were all suddenly obscure? How would we know our place?

  In trying to make sense of this, I think back to a 1968 Labor Day celebration at the Raleigh Country Club. I was at the snack bar, listening to a group of sixth-graders who lived in another part of town and sat discussing significant changes in their upcoming school year. According to the girl named Janet, neither Pam Dobbins nor J. J. Jackson had been invited to the Fourth of July party hosted by the Duffy twins, who later told Kath Matthews that both Pam and J.J. were out of the picture as far as the seventh grade was concerned. “Totally, completely out,” Janet said. “Poof.”

 
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