Read an Excerpt
Memory is an odd fellow. Say you are retelling a story you have told many
times before, the story about how your grandparents met in 1902. Say your
grandfather, Mason Linn, was a train conductor who played the trombone and
dreamed of being in vaudeville, and your grandmother, a young woman who
played the violin, a young woman named Bess, with heavy dark hair, rode the
train every day from Downingtown to downtown Philadelphia, where she
worked as a salesgirl in Ladies' Hats in Wannamaker's department store.
Say this time, though, while you're telling this familiar story about
your grandparents' courtship, Imagination clears her throat and pipes in with
something about a hat, a truly magnificent hat that this young woman who
will become your grandmother is wearing on the train to Philadelphia—a big,
black, fur-felted hat with velvet trim, a small paper bird, and a pink ostrich
plume—a hat far too magnificent for Bess's worsted coat.
And as the story moves forward, Memory relaxes, takes a seat by
the window, orders a double Dewar's straight up and stares, mesmerized, at
his double-exposure reflection in the passing landscape. Meanwhile, his
traveling companion, Imagination, takes up the story about your grandparents
and weaves it into something so other, and in the end—according to
Imagination —the woman in the beautiful hat dies in the diphtheria epidemic
of 1903, single and childless, and the train conductor— who has, of course,
fallen in love with her—becomes a professional musician, playing in P.T.
Barnum's circusband and, eventually, with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
Say he—Mason Linn—this Hungarian man whom everyone calls
Doc, this man who may have been your grandfather, never marries. Time
passes and he joins the army and fights in the Great War overseas. He
returns home, grows old, chews Mail Pouch tobacco, spits in a can, and
lives in a damp combination basement/garage, drinking Mogen David wine,
sleeping in the back seat of a 1939 Plymouth sedan, and, in the evenings,
sitting in a lumpy mohair chair the color of an old teddy bear. And in his
ribbed, sleeveless T-shirt and baggy trousers, with his ear against the huge
illuminated dial of a Motorola radio, days and years roll by, and his hair and
mustache turn snowy white.
Now it's 1950, and Mason Linn no longer has the breath to play
his silver-plated trombone. To get by, he's working as an organ grinder—with
a little monkey in a red jacket, a monkey named Kimosabe—in front of
Wannamaker's department store, and one day a young, beautiful woman with
heavy dark hair walks through the revolving doors, and from where the old
organ grinder is playing under the flapping maroon awning, he sees the
woman reflected, spinning in the glass wedges of the revolving door, and for a
moment his heart does a fantastic leap and he is young again, punching
tickets on a Chessie train to Philadelphia and whistling Scott Joplin, and a
beautiful woman in a large black hat with a fluttering ostrich plume, a woman
carrying a violin case, is walking toward him in slow motion, and the train is
rumbling and rocking, and the flat ginger-brown fields of Chester County,
powdered with a confection of snow, are flicking by like postcards framed in
the train windows, like celluloid pictures in a View-Master disc, and all of this
is, in some respects, quite preposterous, in other respects, true.
Sisters: A Dog Story
1951—I did not come here kicking and screaming like Albertine. I did not
resist. I counted the days carefully on my fingers and toes and then left
quickly, arriving easily and a tad bit early, entirely of my own volition. Feet
first, I made my entrance, like someone arriving at a party on a luge. There
were minor complications, but they were quickly taken care of. Everything
went smoothly. And then I slept a long time, sucking heartily on my thumb.
Albertine, she came here two years earlier, but late. They yanked
her out with forceps, and as they pulled, her soft head stretched like Silly
Putty. They showed her to our mother, and she screamed. That was why I
chose the feet-first entry—an invention all my own—to prevent that terrible
I don't recall any of this, of course. What I do recall is the kitchen.
Its dark blue sea of linoleum. Our mother in her print apron with the red
rickrack. The big white stove. Its blue flames and silver knobs. Albertine in
her high chair and I in mine. Her white, hard shoes and shiny oatmeal bowl.
Our father in his undershirt and braces, singing,
So take care! Beware!
Of the green-eyed dragon with the thirteen tails!
He feeds! with greed!
On little girls, puppy dogs, and
BIG FAT SNAILS!
The quick little terrier, Go-Jeff, his tiny pink tongue and stinky doggie breath,
looking up at us from in between our chairs. His coal-lump nose, pointed
ears, their tufts of wiry hair! The sunnyside- up egg leaving my plate, sailing
to the floor. Go-Jeff 's scrambled- lightning reflex. Albertine leaning over her
tray and I over mine. The toppled milk, the spinning bowl, the flying cornmeal
mush, Albertine's curly hair, the great commotion, our glee! Our Grandma
Bessie tapping on her cup with a silver spoon, tapping like a wedding guest
calling for a kiss.
"Order in the courtroom!" she cried out. Ting-ting! Ting-ting! "Order
in the courtroom! Let the monkey speak!"
Summer 1957—"Wake up, Nelthin, ith time," my Great-Auntie Isabella
whispers, poking the bedcovers with the rubber tip of her cane.
I climb out of bed in my Hopalong Cassidy shirt and red shorts
and crawl under the bed—where there are dust balls the size of tumbleweed—
to drag out the strongbox.
Auntie Izzy is already all ready. I'm supposed to call her Mother.
She has twisted her hair into two long and skinny yellow braids and wrapped
them around above her ears like cinnamon buns. Over her nightie she wears
a funny little black jacket, buttoned all crooked, with big shredded sleeves, a
pin called a cameo, and a long, long black skirt. Along with her cane, Auntie
Izzy carries a tiny, coiled whip and a torn and ruffled parasol. I love the whip. I
want the little whip and plan to ask Santa for one for Christmas. Auntie Izzy
looks a lot like Grandpa Doc's monkey, Kimosabe. She has only three teeth,
but all of them are real gold.
The strongbox is heavy, and I hoist it up onto the bed. Auntie Izzy
unlocks it with the key she wears around her neck and takes out the little
velvet pouch with the gold coins. The coins rode on a stagecoach that was
held up by bandits, but the bandits didn't get away because the Cisco Kid
came along and killed them dead. Auntie Izzy puts the pouch of coins on her
head, then pins a tiny black hat with a veil over it. The hat fits Kimosabe, too.
The hatpin is very long and rusty and sharp and has a pearl on it, just like the
saber the Incredible Shrinking Man used to fight the Fly.
It's just getting light. I pull on my red cowboy boots and buckle
my holster. We do this early every morning. I love my guns and the way they
smell. They're silver with pearly white handles and rolls of red caps. I put on
my Dale Evans watch and my new Dale Evans hat, red with a string and a
wooden bead. You can wear it on your head or let it hang down your back
like Annie Oakley.
I pick up the pretend suitcase, the little black leather doctor's bag
with the ear horn inside. Auntie Izzy lifts up her skirt and pees in the china
pot in the corner, and then down the crooked attic stairs we go.
In this movie, my name is Nelson, and I am the dear little boy who
will die in the diphtheria epidemic of 1903. Auntie Izzy is my mother, and I
am her only little boy, and she is a young, lonely widow and we are eloping.
A man named Dr. William Wise, with a white handlebar mustache, is
supposed to come with a carriage to pick us up. We wait on the porch and
listen for the clomp clomp clomp of horses' hooves. When the carriage
comes, Dr. William Wise will get out and walk under the elm trees, swinging
a walking stick like Bat Masterson's, and at the corner of the house he will
stop and whistle, probably like Benny Goodman or Woody Woodpecker.
Then Auntie Izzy and Dr. William Wise will kiss and we will all run away and
then I will die. My job is to make sure Auntie Izzy doesn't fall down the steps
or wander off the porch. I do this for a nickel.
I have another job, too, which also pays a nickel. In the daytime, I
follow my Grandpa Doc when he leaves the basement and goes out walking
with Kimosabe, but I don't let them see me. In that movie, I wear my silver
badge and my Lone Ranger mask.
In this movie, I walk in front of Auntie Izzy, carrying the doctor's
bag with the ear horn inside, and Auntie Izzy walks behind with her hand on
my shoulder. At the bottom of the stairs, I kick the door open with my boot.
Straight ahead is my Grandma Bessie's bedroom, where my sister Albertine
and Grandma Bessie sleep. Under the bed is some dried-up monkey poop
and boxes of brown and yellow postcards with stamps like Lilliputian
paintings. I see Albertine's arm hanging out of the bed and beside her the big
lump like Gulliver that is my grandmother snoring. Albertine and I are here
this summer because our mother is tired and needs a rest. Her nerves are
In the next room, our Aunt Frannie Linn snores with pin curls in
her hair. On her bureau a big black fan buzzes, jerking its head this way and
that. Inside her bedroom, Aunt Frannie Linn has taught Albertine and me how
to play gin rummy and how to do the Charleston, the shimmy, and the
hoochie-coo. Under her bed is a bottle with a picture of a boat called a clipper
ship on it. Aunt Frannie Linn gives Albertine and me manicures and paints
our nails and lets us light her Lucky Strikes. The next time our mother goes
away to get her nerves fixed, Aunt Frannie Linn is going to cut off our braids
and give us Tonies.
In the hall outside Aunt Frannie Linn's door sits Benny Goodman,
the parrot. "Here, Kimosabe," Benny Goodman cocks his head and
calls. "Pretty Boy, Kimosabe. Kimosabe want a peanut?" Benny Goodman
can whistle, too.
In the next room sleeps my Great-Auntie Isadora, who is
thousands of years old and could be dead. Under Auntie Dorrie's bed there is
only dust and dirt and a stinky, sticky pan. Albertine's job is to check all the
time to see if Auntie Dorrie is dead yet. To do this, Albertine must put her ear
down on Auntie Dorrie's bony chest. Tickling doesn't work. This job pays a
dime. With our nickels and dimes, Albertine and I go to the drugstore next to
Aunt Frannie Linn's beauty parlor and buy vanilla Cokes or lime rickeys and
look at movie magazines. Albertine is in love with Eddie Fisher.
Here's a joke Albertine and I made up on the long ride to
"Isabella necessary on a door?" Albertine says to me, and I
say, "Isadora necessary on a bathroom?" We can barely say this without
cracking up completely. Aunt Frannie Linn says we're naughty, but she
blows a smoke ring while she's driving and cracks up, too.
The longest stairs are the stairs to downstairs, and I long to slide
down the banister, but I must walk along slowly, doing the wedding march
like Aunt Frannie Linn taught me, Auntie Izzy's bony hand clamped on my
shoulder like Benny Goodman's claw foot on his bar.
Out on the porch, we sit on a wicker settee facing the street,
waiting for Dr. William Wise. Auntie Izzy listens with the ear horn to her ear.
It's very quiet and foggy and, as Grandma Bessie says, "close." Across the
street is where my new friend, Neddy Turner, lives. Neddy has two of
everything. Two bows and arrows, two lariats, two Lone Ranger masks and
Davy Crockett hats. On his porch are two big bouncy horses, the likes of
which I've never seen. Neddy rides Trigger and I ride Buttermilk because I'm
really a girl. My name is Ruby Jean. We gallop along, side by side, shooting
Indians who are attacking our fort: the brick walls of Neddy Turner's porch.
"Your family's a buncha crackpots," Neddy says to me, practicing
his draw. "Watch this," he says. "Bam-bam-bam," he says, firing his guns,
twirling them like Maverick, and blowing across their barrels.
Auntie Izzy keeps touching her hat. To pass the time before Dr. William
Wise's carriage comes, we count in Roman numerals or recite the books of
the Holy Bible or say our Psalms.
"Eye," Auntie Izzy says, "Eye-Eye."
"Eye-Eye-Eye!" I hop and shout. "Eye-Vee!"
We count to fifty, which is El. My favorite Roman numeral is Ex-
Ex-Ex-Vee-Eye-Eye-Eye, which is thirty-eight, but Auntie Izzy gets to say it
"Thalm one twenty-one," Auntie Izzy says after a while.
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills . . ." I stand up and shout into
her ear horn. The hills I see are full of Indians crawling on their bellies, the
horizon black with arrows.
" . . . from wenth cometh my help," Auntie Izzy says, touching her
The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother
1952—You are two years old and eating a book. Albertine is four and reading
aloud, over and over: James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby . . . You
wish that she'd shut up. The spine on your book is gold and particularly
tasty. You gnaw on it with your front teeth like it's an ear of corn. Baby's
House the book says on its chipboard cover. This is baby's house . . . the
Little Golden Book begins, the text running underneath a bright illustration of
a white clapboard house with a red roof.
This is baby's living room . . . the next page continues, on and
on—a real page-turner—through the traditional American home of the Truman
and Eisenhower years: baby's dining room, baby's kitchen, up the stairs to
baby's parents' room (twin beds), baby's brother's room, baby's bedroom . . .
but your favorite room is baby's bathroom. In baby's bathroom, baby stands
on a bright red bench beside a big clawfoot bathtub and brushes her teeth in
front of a medicine cabinet mirror.
This is your bathroom, too. You also have a big clawfoot
bathtub —big enough for your mother, your sister Albertine, and you to fit in
all together—and a bench painted bright red, a brown door with a ceramic
doorknob and a shiny silver lock that goes click-click click-click—like your
brother Mason's pocket cricket —when you turn it back and forth, back and
forth, back and forth, back and forth . . .
1955—The bathroom of the house at 41 Cherry Street in Ashport,
Pennsylvania, has great acoustics: a high ceiling with a light you turn on and
off by pulling a long string with a crocheted tassel, and a checkerboard floor
of black and white tiles. There's a tiny window with frosted glass that pushes
out and affords an excellent bird's-eye view of the alley, Go-Jeff 's doghouse,
the cherry tree decorated with its white caterpillar tents, and the clothesline
with its chorus line of laundry. There's a radiator, too, for help climbing from
the stool onto the sink, and above the sink a medicine cabinet with a mirror
and chock-full of salves, Band-Aids, various cold and upset-stomach
remedies, plus iodine and Mercurochrome in tiny brown bottles with glass
sticks. There's also a tall metal locker painted white, which smells inside of
Cashmere Bouquet and has two shelves of scratchy towels, plus—to your
five-year-old wonder—magnificent and curious things in the bottom like a
toilet plunger, which is really a combination pogo stick, wall sucker, and
marching hat; a box of some kind of mattresses for the beds in a mouse
hospital; a black rubber pear with a hole in one end and a little snoot, which
is for puffing dead flies off the windowsill; a big vitamin-colored rubber bag
with a long, black rubber straw, which can glug up toilet water and other
things; and—on the door—A LOCK!
Locked in the bathroom at 41 Cherry Street after morning half-day
kindergarten, while your father is out working for Atlas Powder Company,
your sister Albertine and your brother Mason at school, and your mother
doing laundry or teaching piano lessons downstairs, you spend many happy
hours laying crayons out on the radiator and watching them melt, tap dancing
on the tile floor while singing the McGuire Sisters' "Sugartime" or Burl
Ives's "Big Rock Candy Mountain," playing Albertine's fluto- phone (which she
keeps hidden in a Buster Brown shoebox under the bed and that you are
forbidden to touch), eating Vicks VapoRub out of the jar with your finger,
sipping Cheracol cough syrup, watching St. Joseph's aspirin for children
dissolve on your tongue, taking your clothes off and examining every square
inch of your body with your mother's hand mirror, shaving the hair off your
arms with your father's Gillette razor, or standing on the bright red bench,
staring into the medicine cabinet mirror on the opposite wall and repeating
endlessly your favorite phrase in many different voices, pronunciations,
variations, accents, and volumes:
Now you're a little older and learning to read and write. There are many
wonderful words to say and write and spell, but the most glorious, wonderful
word of all is SQUIRREL. SQUIRREL, with its big, squirrelly-tail S, its
magnificent squirrelly-footed Q, its dog-barking R-R. SQUIRREL is a word to
be written in the dirt in the alley with a stick, to be written with your finger on
the side of your father's DeSoto and on steamed-up windows in the kitchen
and in the dust on the coffee table and the television screen. With one of your
father's mechanical pencils, SQUIRREL can be written very small on the
wallpaper going up the stairs or low to the floor, just above the molding, or
longwise, marching up the corner of Mason's room.
In blue ballpoint pen, SQUIRREL can be printed in Mason's Latin
book, on your Aunt Frannie Linn's playing cards, on dollar bills in your
mother's wallet, and inside Albertine's Buster Brown shoes. With the
mechanical pencil point, the word SQUIRREL can be scratched into the back
of wooden doors and on bureaus underneath doilies, and on the headboard of
your bed. One night in bed you think of SQUIRREL backwards, and the
magical word LERRIUQS, pronounced Larry Ukus (the Mighty Mouse of
squirrels), appears in blue ink on your sheets. Brushing your teeth one
morning and looking in the mirror, the even more magical word lerriuqs
appears on one of the white horizontal stripes on your pajama top where the
word squirrel had once been.
Life is beautiful.
But briefly. You are no longer allowed to have a pencil, a pen, a
crayon, a piece of chalk, nor any other writing instrument on your person
without supervision. For one hour—Dale Evans time—you must sit quietly in
your room and think about what you have done, and it is during this very
thoughtful, quiet period that Blinker comes up with the idea of invisible
writing: writing with water. Blinker is the person who fed Betsy Wetsy a bottle
of real milk and then put her to bed without making her pee, and a rank odor
began to spread from your side of the bedroom. Blinker is the person who
drank the entire bottle of Cheracol and then threw up in the hall. It's a damn
good thing he threw up, too, or he could be dead or in St. Vincent's getting
his stomach pumped. Blinker is the person whose breath smells like Vicks
VapoRub. Blinker is the person responsible for the fact that the cricket lock
on the bathroom door is now rusting in a Chase & Sanborn can in the
After this quiet, thoughtful hour is up, Blinker must go to the
bathroom. There, Blinker experiments on a very small scale with the first
invisible water writing, and it is quite successful, but Blinker can't leave well
enough alone. During dinner that evening, eating corn on the cob, Blinker
comes up with the concept of butter writing. Butter writing is a kind of shiny
water writing. After dinner, with a purloined stick of Land O'Lakes, Blinker
writes the word SQUIRREL on the wallpaper behind the davenport and then
gives the remainder of the stick of butter to Go- Jeff, who gulps it down whole,
paper and all. The next day while your mother is doing laundry, butter writing
progresses to Crisco writing and escalates to Crisco erasing, which involves
using big globs of Crisco to erase or blend together shiny spots on the
wallpaper, leaving the can of Crisco full of dust and dog hair and big patches
of the wallpaper a dark pee-colored yellow.
Blinker has really done it this time. You fear for your life, so you
go upstairs and get in your bed and pull the covers up over your head.
Downstairs, your mother comes in the back door with a laundry basket. She
walks into the living room and sets the basket on the davenport.
"What's this?" she says, but you cannot hear her because you're
taking a nap, you're sound asleep. Because you're sick. Because you have a
terrible stomachache. Because you're dying. You are sound asleep and
dying at the same time. You're snoring loudly, as only dying people with
stomachaches can: Ckckcooonkckck. Ckckcooooooonkckck.
Your mother is coming up the stairs calling your name. "Ruby!"
she calls. "Ruby Jean Reese!"
Should you add the whistling exhale like in the Bugs Bunny
cartoons, or would that be too much?
Ckcknnkckck. Pffffwwwwww. Ckckcnnnkckck. Pffffwwwwwww.
a few days later
You're sitting on the davenport with your bride doll on your lap, your brother
Mason beside you. You're watching Mighty Mouse, and Mason says to you,
without turning his head:
"So did you hear about that buddy of yours, that, er—Blinker, is
it?—fella, Blinker, the famous Crisco painter?"
"What about Blinker?" you ask.
"He bought the ranch," Mason says.
"He turned up dead, stupid."
"It was on the radio . . . last night . . . while you were asleep.
Blinker was run over by a truck and decapitated."
"Well, maybe he got run over by a truck and he was
declumpertated, but he's OK," you insist. (Blinker had been hit by a car on
another occasion, but it turned out to have been a mistake. It was somebody
else.) "He got his stomach pumped and now he's OK," you elaborate. "Dr.
Elsworth said Blinker's OK."
"Yeah, he's OK, all right. He's just fine without a head!" Your
brother Mason starts laughing hysterically and beating on one of the
davenport's fat arms. "Yeah," he says, laughing, "he's just gotta big canna
Crisco where his head used to be! Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha! Ha
ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
"Whaddaya mean, without a head? Blinker's got a head. He does
too got a head!"
"No, stupid, he's been DE-CAP-I-TATED. You don't even know
what DE-CAP-I-TATED means. It's too big a word for you."
"Shut up. I do, too, know what D-coppertated means."
"D-coppertated! Ha ha ha! Ha ha he he ha ha! You can't even
pronounce it! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha he he! So what does D-coppertated
"DE-CAP-I-TATED means he got his head cut off!" Mason
says. "Blinker got his head cut off. Just picture Blinker's head rolling down
the street like a bowling ball. Ha ha ha ha! Ho ho ho ho! He he he he he!"
"Don't tell her a thing like that!" your mother scolds. She's passing
by the living room and has overheard Mason's remark. She walks around the
corner and swats your brother on the back of his head with a tea towel and
You watch some more Mighty Mouse, and then it's over. Sky
King comes on, then Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.
"Mason, how do you spell that clumpertated word?" you turn and
ask your brother.
"I believe in the holey ghost, the holey Christian church, the communion of
saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life
everlasting, hey men!" you say to yourself, bouncing a ball, walking Go-Jeff
on a make-believe leash, jumping rope, hopping on one foot, skipping to
school, whumping your Slinky down the stairs. "The life everlasting, hey men!
The life everlasting, hey men! The holey Christian church. The holey Christian
church. The holey-moley, roly-poly, holey Christian church."
Now it's Thanksgiving vespers, and after your favorite poem, the
Apostles' Creed, everyone is singing one of your favorite hymns, "Bringing in
the Cheese," their voices happy and cheerful, their faces kind in the yellow
light. Mrs. Kline, at the pipe organ, is trying to keep up, her crow wings
flapping, her feet going one direction, her hands the other.
Bringing in the cheese, bringing in the cheese,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the cheese.
You stand next to Albertine in the children's choir and sing as
loud as you can, sort of shouting. You sing with your top lip curled under and
your top teeth sticking out like a mouse because this is a hymn written by
church mice, and you are pretending to be one of them as you sing. Gus and
Jock—from Cinderella —probably had a part in composing this wonderful
hymn. They probably know it by heart. They are probably singing it right now
at the top of their lungs in one of the dark, echoing alcoves of Riverview
Lutheran Church, maybe over to your right there behind the baptismal pot,
standing on a big hunk of Swiss cheese.
The hymn is over. The congregation claps shut their hymnals, but
everyone remains standing as Mason, an acolyte, puts out the altar candles
with the big candle snuffer on a pole. Reverend Creech raises his arms like
he, too, is about to fly. "Let us pray," he says, and then the beautiful words
wash over you, the words you will always remember all the long days of your
life and whisper to yourself when you're afraid, when you're alone, when all
the sadness of being human gathers itself around you:
May the piece of God, which passeth all understanding
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.
For many, many years you ponder just exactly which piece of God Reverend
Creech might be referring to, but for now you forget about all that because the
choir is filing out and everyone is singing your very most favorite song in the
whole world, the one your mother plays for you on the piano at bedtime, and
your father has taught you and Albertine to sing in two-part harmony:
Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening steal across the sky.
Now the darkness gathers, stars begin to peep,
Birds and beasts and flowers soon will be asleep.
Thru the long night watches may thine angels spread
Their white wings above me watching 'round my bed.
Grant to little children visions bright of Thee
Guard the sailors tossing on the deep blue sea.
Comfort every sufferer watching late in pain
Those who plan some evil, from their sin restrain.
Jesus, give the weary calm and sweet repose
With thy tenderest blessing may my eyelids close.
1957—With very little coaxing and carrying, and only minor scratches, a big
orange cat follows you and Albertine home from school. A big orange cat with
silky fur and a big round pumpkin head. An orange cat who walks around the
house rubbing her head on the legs of everything, including you. She walks in
and out your legs, in and out, and her tail goes up your dress and makes you
"Our cat must have a very beautiful name," Albertine
announces. "Princess!" she exclaims. "Here, Princess! Here pretty Princess
"Kyrie Eleison!" you call, after the beautiful and mysterious words
of the Kyrie sung in church. "Here, Kyrie," you call, crawling across the
carpet toward your cat. "Here Kyrie! Kyrie Eleison!"
"Daisy," Albertine says resolutely. "DAISY BUTTERCUP."
"Here Dona, here Dona," you persist. "Here Dona Nobis Pacem!"
and Albertine rolls her eyes so far back into her head they disappear
completely. Only the whites—like Orphan Annie's—show.
"Panis Angelicus?" You pout and beg. "Adeste Fideles? Agnus
For many hours that night, you lie awake, wandering through the
enchanted forest of all the words you know, bumping into trunks and
branches, tripping over roots and stumps, searching for the perfect name for
your beautiful orange cat: mimosa, marmalade, gladiola, peony, poppycock,
forsythia, taffeta, pinochle, piano forte, aspen, pumpkinseed, Leviticus
Numbers, lickety-split, fiddlesticks, Worcestershire, nincompoop,
whippoorwill, whippersnapper, Fridgedaire, DeSoto, squirrel, pollywollydoodle
all the day . . . and on and on. And then . . . you find it! There it is, lying on
its back, humming "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," kicking its feet, and doing
the backstroke around your brain: the perfect name for your cat. So you can
go to sleep now. But come morning, you wake up in a panic because the
perfect name you've now forgotten! You should have written it down! Your
heart is racing: mimosa, gladiola, peony, forsythia, taffeta, squirrel . . . Oh,
praise the Lord, there it is! You run downstairs, but . . .
Your cat is gone.
"He wanted out," Mason mumbles, dripping a big, sloppy serving
spoonful of Wheaties up to his mouth and never looking up from the cereal
box he's reading.
Other than the time Mr. Rossi crawled out on his roof and hollered for
everyone to turn themselves into little children and the time Mrs. Wagner's
pressure cooker exploded split pea soup, there is not much excitement in
Ashport. Except on Saturday. Every Saturday, you and Albertine walk to the
Strand theater on Center Avenue. Matinees start at noon with double features
that last until four o'clock. Every single kid in Ashport is there, it seems.
Ushers dressed like Johnny Philip Morris unhook the velvet sausages, and
you pour in like lava, hundreds of you racing down the aisles and up the
steps to the balconies, you and Albertine running, too, holding hands. The
ushers close the doors and slouch around the lobby, smoking Old Golds,
reading magazines, and playing cards, betting pennies, never paying you any
mind until they open the doors hours later. Until then, behind the closed
doors, it's mayhem, a zoo. The Strand has two balconies; a gilded, domed
ceiling; and tiered side boxes like the ones in Ford's Theatre where Lincoln
was shot—two- and four-seaters with heavy maroon curtains. Kids are
everywhere, screaming, running, hanging off the balconies like apes, choking
on popcorn, losing their fillings and swallowing their teeth along with Jujubes,
throwing wads of Bazooka bubble gum at the screen, and making elephant
noises with empty Good & Plenty boxes.
You'll watch A Light in the Forest and Johnny Tremain; Westward
Ho! the Wagons; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; and Tarzan, the Ape Man,
and it's at the Strand that you'll see Old Yeller. There won't be a peep out of
anyone when Travis discovers Old Yeller has rabies. Everyone knows what
Travis must do. All the children at the Strand will be sniffling, boo-hooing,
wiping their snotty noses on their sleeves as Travis raises his twenty-two.
Shortly after Old Yeller, Walt Disney's Bambi will come to the
Strand, and around the same time, your father will begin reading you and
Albertine The Yearling. Next will follow a book about an orphaned bear cub
named Wob. Quickly and wholeheartedly you will begin to embrace the
morose romanticism of female pubescence, priming yourself for the death of
Beth in Little Women, a passage that Albertine reads to you every night in
The Saturday you see Bambi, though, you will begin your life's
work as a writer and editor, an epic poem entitled "The Very Beautiful Sad
Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother." That is your poem's final title, but it will go
through literally hundreds of titles and revisions as you work on it over the
next two years. "The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother" isn't
just any old elegy. It is a very special genre: an illustrated elegy. Crying
fawns standing on their hind legs and wiping their eyes with floral
handkerchiefs crowd the side margins. Stiff dead deer with their legs sticking
up in the air like upside-down coffee tables adorn the bottom. And,
throughout, there is a lot of corn—corn on the cob and the Jolly Green Giant
canned variety, too—because you know deer like corn, and for some reason
you feel the poem should have both visual and taste appeal for deer. With
confidence, your "Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother" could
masquerade today as a long-lost collaborative effort of Rod McKuen, Andy
Warhol, and Betty Crocker.
Here's the first stanza of the final version of your poem, "The Very
Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother":
In the meadow still and calm,
Lays the lovely stag.
Never will she run again,
Nor never leap the crag.
You know the word elegy because it's the name of a song you
learned to play on your Grandpa Doc's trombone. At first you played it as
fast as possible, like you play everything else, but when your mother told you
to slow down, it was supposed to be sad because somebody had died,
everything seemed to miraculously come together—music, art, movies, fairy
tales, poetry— like the missing piece of a puzzle showing up at the bottom of
a shoebox full of broken crayons.
You decide on the synonym stag for deer after casually asking
everyone you know: "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, what's another
word for 'deer'?" Your brother Mason offers you stag, a wonderful word, a
great gift. Likewise, crag would be found by asking people the meaning of
every possible word you can come up with that rhymes with stag, as
in, "Excuse me, is 'klag' a word?"
In fact, the whole poem will be written pretty much that way. You
have never heard of a thesaurus, although you are learning to use your
father's Webster's dictionary.
You repeat this poem to yourself all the time and work on it every
day after school in a very ritualistic fashion. You keep it rolled up, with a
rubber band around it, in a black metal miner's lunch pail that your father has
given you, along with some broken crayons, a mechanical pencil your brother
Mason has been looking for for some time, a beautiful fountain pen on loan
from your mother, a jar of Schaeffer's blue ink, a candle stub, and some
books of matches from the Knotty Pine. The fountain pen is a dark, marbled
blue, with a little metal lever on the side that lets the pen suck up ink like an
elephant's trunk. "The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother" is
written on very thin graph paper (also from your father) with a pale blue grid.
You keep the lunch pail under your bed. Every day after school,
you crawl under the bed, retrieve the lunch pail, and take it up into the attic,
where you light the candle and work on your chef-d'oeuvre. It's all very
difficult—the writing and drawing on the uneven, splintery floor boards, the
curling paper, the fountain pen and all—but this is the path you've chosen.
The only person you ever show your poem to is your mother, to
whom you read it many, many times, every revision. Every time you sit on
your mother's lap and read her "The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's
Dead Mother," she hugs you and then puts her hand over her heart and
says, "Sweetheart, that's really, really beautiful. I know you'll be a famous
poet someday, Ruby Jean."
When you are nine, though, in September 1959, you start fourth
grade with a young, pretty teacher, Miss Barrett. Miss Barrett is just out of
state teacher's college. She's very stylish in a Thalia Menninger kind of way,
with fawn-colored hair.Miss Barrett wears muted cashmere twin-set sweaters
and a single strand of pearls with a big gold clip. You've always been quite
shy, but you trust Miss Barrett, with her fawn-colored hair and fawn-colored
camel's hair coat, her fawn-colored sweaters and white pearls, and you really
want her to like you. After much deliberation, one fall Friday when school is
over and Miss Barrett is in the front of the room erasing the blackboards, you
tiptoe up to her desk and place "The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's
Dead Mother" on it, rolled up and tied with a hair ribbon, and tiptoe away. All
weekend you daydream about Miss Barrett reading your poem, imagining
that she will love your poem, love you, praise you. She'll probably come to
school on Monday, you speculate, with her eyes all red and puffy from crying.
On Monday morning, you put on your favorite dress—black watch
plaid with a big white Pilgrim collar and a black velvet bow —and your patent-
leather Mary Janes. Miss Barrett is wearing her tan cashmere sweater, her
white pearls, and her camel's hair skirt—her most fawnlike ensemble. She's
walking up and down the aisles, calling names, taking roll, something in her
hand with a rib—. . . Could it . . .
When she calls your name, Miss Barrett places "The Very
Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother" on your desk— without a
word, in front of the whole class—and pats you on the head. Embarrassed,
you stuff it quickly into your plaid bookbag.
All day you feel sick.
After school, you run home and race upstairs to the attic stairwell,
throw open the door, heart pounding, and click it shut. Unbuckle your
bookbag and unroll "The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi's Dead Mother."
On the first page in red ink, Miss Barrett has printed in her big,
neat handwriting: A stag is a male deer!!! Three exclamation marks and a
thick red underline like a bad cut.
A little ways down the page and running right over a particularly
poignant fawn (possibly even Bambi herself) in the margin, Miss Barrett has
drawn a thick red circle around the word lay and written: Only chickens lay!!!
Three more big red exclamation marks like war paint and, again, the thick red
underscore like an open wound.
You are overcome with shame and humiliation and tears. Into your
room you run, banging the door, and under the bed you scramble and grab
the black miner's pail. Up the attic stairs you fly with your pail and your
stupid elegy poem, your Mary Janes flashing, and into the attic closet, where
you kick the door again and again and strike the matches and set that stupid
poem that goddamn stupid holey shit Christian goddamn very beautiful sad
piss-on-it damn elegy on fire.
Copyright © 2003 by Sara Pritchard. Reprinted by permission of Houghton