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The depiction of some "scene" (usually urban, hip, and deracinated) has been the obsessive concern of Janowitz's work to date—to such an unrelenting degree that she has herself become a byword for the slacker demimonde that flourished in the East Village during the Reagan and Bush years. Now that history has moved on, Janowitz attempts to broaden her perspective by taking a road trip with Evangeline Slivenowicz and her five children. The Slivenowiczes live in a trailer in upstate New York, where Evangeline seduces hapless men to make ends meet and warns her daughters that "You mustn't judge men by the same standards as women. They don't have any standards." One of these boyfriends proves the point by going berserk and holding half the village hostage in the library until the FBI intervenes and provokes a miniature bloodbath. The resulting embarrassment, plus the accidental loss of the Slivenowicz trailer beneath the waters of Lake Gitchee Gumee, convinces Evangeline that a change of scenery is in order, and all set out for California to help Evangeline's son Pierce break into pictures. Meanwhile, Evangeline and her daughters allow themselves to be serviced with greater frequency than their car seems to be, while the sons sulk about their paternity and work Longfellow into most of their sentences. A deranged English lord, an undersexed policeman, several delivery men, and a vacuum cleaner salesman are some of the new friends they pick up along the way, which runs along an uneven line from the Adirondacks to Key West to the desert and on to the Pacific.
Tedious, clumsy, and overdone. Janowitz, in giving us her usual freak show, misses the essential element of satire—credibility.
My mother got out the box of eggs. "Oh, no!" said Leopold. He was six at the time. "Not eggs again!" He took the box from her hands and carried it into the kitchenette, where he cracked them into a bowl.
An hour later he called us all in to dinner. When we were seated he came out from the kitchenette carrying what looked like a souffle, except since we had no souffle dish he had made it in a glass lasagna pan. "Leopold!" my mother said. "This is amazing! How did you know what to do?"
"I watched it on TV," he said. The souffle, or whatever it was, was a bit dry, but my mother said she would keep her eyes open at the Salvation Army Thrift Store and look for a real souffle casserole. We were all amazed. Leopold, pleased, glanced down modestly. He had one of the largest noses I had ever seen on a child. His father had been German.
"Your father was a chef, Leopold!" my mother suddenly announced. "Did I tell you that before? Actually, I think he was a cook--from what I remember."
"Bratwurst and sauerkraut," said Marietta, twirling a strand of blond hair between her fingers. "Wiener schnitzel and kreplach."
"I thought you said Leopold's father was a cinematographer," Pierce said.
"Oh," my mother said vaguely. "Whatever." Leopold looked embarrassed. His ears were red. He did not like my mother talking about his father, which she often did, as well as the other fathers. "How I adore you," she suddenly told him.
He glanced up. "Why?" he said, almost angrily.
There was a pause. "I don't know," my mother said.
"How many calories does this have, anyway?" Marietta muttered.
"Maybe about six hundred," Leopold said, and bit his lip anxiously.
"In the whole thing?" my mother said. "Or per serving?"
"Per serving," Leopold said.
My mother and Marietta put down their forks. "`Then they buried Minnehaha,'" said Marietta, gazing into space with a wild expression. "`In the snow a grave they made her.'"
"I could leave out the butter next time," Leopold said. "Or the cheese."
"I liked it, Leopold," I said.
Theodore began to sing. "When the bloom is off the rose / Then all that's left is leaves. / When the fork's held in a pose / Then it cannot hold the peas." He had a gravelly voice and sang--I thought--quite poorly. "My latest lyrics," he said. "What do you think?"
"Not bad!" said my mother. "Would one of you children fix me a gin-and-tonic?"
"Not bad?" Marietta repeated. "Mother, he's awful."
"You're right." Theodore put his head in his hands. "It is awful. I have no talent whatsoever."
Leopold, the youngest, only six, got up and gyrated his hips. "I liked it, Theodore!" he said, and started to sing, Elvis-fashion. "When the bloom is off the rose, there ain't no peas on the fork."
There was a knock on the door. Whenever anyone knocked on the door of our trailer, the whole place shook. Theodore often said that if we didn't get some cinder blocks to brace it, the entire trailer might go slipping down into the lake below one of these days. No one spoke for nearly half a minute. "There's somebody at the door," my mother said at last. "One of you go and answer it."
Leopold leapt up. "I was just going to make you that gin-and-tonic, Ma," he said.
Everyone else sat there. "I'm not going to get it," Marietta said. "What if it's a burglar--or a rapist?" Marietta reached into my mother's handbag and took out a compact. There was a piece of old chewing gum stuck to the lid. She powdered her tiny nose with the grimy powder puff, even though it didn't need any. Now her nostrils were tipped in white. I didn't say anything.
"Don't be ridiculous," my mother said. "Theodore, go and see who it is."
"I'm not going," Theodore said, helping himself to some more egg-and-cheese mess. "We're not expecting anyone, are we?"
"We never expect anyone!" Leopold piped from the kitchenette.
"Pierce, get the door," my mother said. She picked up a half-eaten, translucent, emerald-green sourball candy that was partly stuck to the table. Absently she put it in her coral seas.
"I'm not getting it," Pierce said. "I'm frightened."
"Aren't you children absurd." My mother scraped a burnt crust from the dish.
"How come you don't answer it," Pierce pointed out. He flicked his disposable cigarette lighter, then tapped the side, trying to see how much fluid was left in it.
"Maud, you go," my mother said. "It's your turn."
"Yeah, that's right," said Theodore, brushing invisible crumbs from his lapels. His pink-and-white-striped shirt was, as always, perfectly pressed. "It's your turn. You answer it."
"I'll give the orders around here," my mother said, taking Pierce's lighter out of his hand and putting it in her pocket. "Maud, would you like to answer the door?"
"Maybe he's gone by now," I said. But there was another knock. I got up.
"I'll be in the bedroom," my mother said, getting up as well.
I went to the door. It was about two feet away from the dining table, and made out of thin aluminum. "Who's there?" I said. I stared out the window. "Nobody's there." I turned away. "He must have left." I started to go back to the table to sit down again when Marietta screamed.
"He's looking in the window," she said.
I opened the door and stood on the top step. "Hello?" I said. The man stepped away from the window and stared up at me. He had very blue eyes rimmed with black; a nice, insolent coral seas; dark, curly hair; and one of our dogs, Trayf, on the end of a rope.
"This dog." He almost whimpered. "Do you know who it belongs to?"
"That's our dog," I said, stepping down and taking the rope from the man's hand. "I'm sorry. Was he bothering you?"
"I thought he was lost," the man said. "Lost and terribly ill."
"He's not terribly ill," I said. "He's a hairless dog. He's not supposed to have any fur."
"I've never seen a dog of this sort." The man looked surprised. "What kind is it?"
"It's a Xoloitzquintl," I said. "Formerly known as the Mexican hairless. The ancient Aztecs used to eat them. We found a recipe. It was for a casserole. Do you know what a casserole is?"
"Why, yes, I think so," he said. "Various sorts of stews, which you do in the oven. Why? Is that a trick question?"
"You have an accent," I remarked. "I wasn't sure you knew."
"I'm from England."
"And you have casseroles there!" I said. "In the casserole recipe we found, the dog-meat goes on the bottom, and the turkey on top. Apparently the dog-meat wasn't very tasty, so they tried to hide it underneath the turkey. My mother raises them--the dogs, that is, not turkey. I'm the one interested in poultry. Bad dog, Trayf." I started to go back into the house. The man was still looking at me with a peculiar expression.
"I live just up the road," he said. "I've rented the house up there for the winter."
"Be careful," I said, turning to open the front door. The dog squeezed in past me.
"Why?" the man said.
I looked back at him. "There are brown recluse spiders in the basement of that house."
"What are those?" he said.
"Poisonous spiders," I said, flicking my brown hair away from my eyes.
"I wasn't told about this," he said, and took a step back nervously, as if one of the spiders might be me.
"The exterminator came and fumigated--under our trailer, and in the basements of the other houses on this road. But you should still be careful." I was embarrassed at having talked so much and I went into the trailer. My mother had not yet come out from the bedroom, but the others were still sitting at the table.
"Who was it?" Marietta asked.
"It was a man," I said. "Trayf must have escaped, and was hanging around the Colemans' house. The man is renting it for the winter. He was incredibly handsome and had a very distinguished English accent."
"How old was he?"
"I'd say he was thirty-four years old," I said. "He was a manly type of guy, beautifully dressed. Clean, too."
"I like manliness in a man." Marietta smiled wistfully.
"What was he wearing?" said Pierce, who rarely said anything.
"I'm not exactly certain. It appeared luxurious, though."
Pierce raised his eyebrow. "Color?"
"Caramel," I decided. "It was a sort of pale, nubby, caramel overcoat. Possibly vicuna."
"Darn." Marietta went to the window and looked out. "I wanted to see him. He's gone, though."
"You did see him," I said. "You said he was looking in the window."
"Who can see anything out this window," Marietta said. "It's filthy." She rubbed at it with a finger. "Who wants to live in such a hellhole."
Our trailer was very tiny and dingy. "Go stay with your father," I suggested. She turned and gave me a sarcastic smirk.
"Soon all this will be behind me," she said grandly. "I shall marry the handsome Englishman and he'll take me away from all this, to his chateau on the Loire." She came to the table. "Is there any ice cream?"
"Why would an Englishman have a chateau on the Loire?" Theodore said. "He probably has a family seat in Surrey."
"Dervon," Pierce muttered.
Theodore and I looked at each other. "Where, Pierce?" said Theodore.
"Leave me alone," Pierce said, taking a pack of matches out of his pocket and opening the cover.
There was another knock on the door. "That's him!" Marietta said. She jumped up and ran to the door. The rest of us got up and crowded around behind. Even Leopold, busy tidying the kitchenette, came out wearing a floral apron, my mother's gin-and-tonic in one hand.
"Excuse me," a man said. It wasn't the same man: this one had a chunky face that could be easily sliced into luncheon meats. "I'm here today with a special offer from Minotaur Vacuum Cleaners--a free demonstration. Is the lady of the household at home?"
"I'm the lady of the household," Theodore said, pushing past Marietta.
"Ah," the man said, looking dubious. "Is your mother home?"
"Just a minute," Theodore said. He yelled over his shoulder. "Ma, there's a man here who wants to demonstrate his you-know-what."
My mother came out from her bedroom and stood behind us. She had put on a plastic Halloween mask in the shape of a bunny rabbit, and she took her drink from Leopold's hand.
"Oh," my mother said, removing the mask. "I thought you were someone we knew. Come in. What do you want to demonstrate?"
The man's expression was frightened. He was short, and, though young, had tired, houndy bags under his eyes. His suit was cheap. He was incredibly hirsute: there was even a thick pelt of hair on the back of his hands. "You're the lady of the household?" He sounded skeptical.
It was true that my mother appeared ridiculously youthful. She had huge eyes, dark and luminous, which always seemed ready to spill over with tears. They often did spill over; I once begged her to try and remember to collect them in a tiny vial, so that we could maybe freeze and sell the liquid for scientific research, or to a beauty-product company that didn't want to hurt animals, just make them cry.
"You must be the Minotaur Vacuum man," my mother said. "I believe I spoke to you earlier. I saw the ad in the paper for the free demonstration. Won't you come in?"
We stepped back. He carried a large suitcase, big enough to contain a cello. "Well, well, well," he said, looking around. He unlatched the case and removed a chrome machine that might have been the engine that launched a spaceship or at least a nuclear missile.
"Wow," said Pierce, going over and rubbing the sides of the machine. "Look at that."
"Thirty-five-horsepower motor," the man said, bending down beside Pierce and wiping the vacuum off with a cloth. "Enough hp to get a small car around Paris. I'm Steve Hartley, by the way."
"I've never been to Paris," my sister said. "Have you ever been to Paris, Steve?"
"You've been to Australia, though," Leopold said, giving Marietta a poke in the ribs. "I've never even been anywhere!" He turned to Steve Hartley. "They went to Australia before I was born. Tell us about your vacuum cleaner, Mr. Hartley."
Steve Hartley acted as if my mother had asked that question. He paid no attention to Leopold. "The Minotaur is able to accomplish what no other vacuum cleaner can," said Mr. Hartley. "This model is specially equipped with a glass collection chamber. Is there a mattress in the house?"
"Come this way," my mother said, leading him down the hall--what there was of it--to her bedroom. The walls were paneled in plastic that was meant to resemble wood. Her bed was covered in a lace bedspread with a pale pink lining. There was one window, with a white plastic bamboo curtain that Pierce had hung some time ago. It was a little crooked; one side no longer fully unrolled. Through the gap left on the side, the garbage cans were visible in the yard.
"I hope you don't mind if I remove some of the bedclothes," Mr. Hartley said. He pulled up the blankets and sheets and asked for the location of the electrical outlet. Leopold helped him by plugging in the machine. Mr. Hartley turned it on. It made an explosive sound and then began to chortle and yelp dementedly. "That's odd," said Mr. Hartley, yelling above the noise.
"What is?" my mother shouted.
"This is normally a very quiet machine. However, the noise is only temporary and won't affect its performance. Over time, dead cells are sloughed from your body while you sleep, drifting into the mattress. Your whole mattress is riddled with dead cells. Only the Minotaur is capable of sucking them out, without damage to the mattress."
"That's interesting," Theodore yelled.
"What is?" I said.
"Your entire past is in your mattress," he said. "If you never changed your mattress from the time you were born until you died, maybe scientists in the future could replay your existence through DNA molestation."
"What's DNA molestation?" I said.
"Where they pick on your dead cells. You know how chimps groom themselves? Similar to plucking at lice and salt deposits."
Steve Hartley ran the intake pipe over the mattress and after a few minutes turned off the machine. It shrieked and slowly the noise dwindled from an unhappy putter to an irritated cough and then stopped altogether. "It shouldn't be making that noise after it's turned off," Mr. Hartley explained, discomfited. "All it needs is a minor tune-up. Any Minotaur you purchase from us we'll be happy to tune up at any time, free of charge. It comes with a lifetime warranty. Now, I want you to take a look at this."
He was speaking to my mother, but all of us crowded around. Protruding from the back of the vacuum cleaner was a peculiar attachment: a chrome box with a glass lid. He peered in. "Let me see," said Leopold.
"One minute," said Mr. Hartley. He lifted up the lid of the box and took out a piece of cotton that had been placed in the bottom. "Look at this," he said, holding it up proudly. "It's completely gray. The Minotaur model 350 was--just in that brief period of time--able to suck out so many dead cells from the mattress that the entire cotton pad turned gray. How does that make you feel, sleeping on a mattress full of dead cells? When was the last time you even thought of cleaning the inside of your mattress?"
"That's my whole past you've got in that jar," my mother said, reaching toward him. "Give it to me."
"No, no," Mr. Hartley said nervously. "It's what they call in the industry, detritus."