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A Summer Night
Saturday night, June 1956, now the sun going down at 7:50 P.M. and the sprinkler swishing in the front yard of our big green house on Green Street, big drops whapping the begonias and lilacs in front of the screened porch where Daddy and I lie reading. A beautiful lawn, new-mown, extends to our borders with the Stenstroms and Andersons. The dog under the porch scootches down, pressing his groin into the cool dirt. A ball of orange behind the Stenstroms' house, flaming orange shining in the windows, as if the Mr. and Mrs. had spontaneously combusted because of a faulty fuse, a frayed electrical cord, or a box of oily rags in the basement. The shadow of their elm reaches to our porch, a wavery branch flickers across my right arm in gray shade. I wish my cousin Kate would come by. She said she would but it doesn't look like she will. I wrote her a poem:
She's so great
I would wait eight hours straight
To attend a fete
Daddy lies on the white wicker daybed in his blue suit pants and sleeveless undershirt and black-stockinged feet, exhausted from a long week at the bank. He is the head cashier. Daddy doesn't like dealing with people. They wear him out. Their ridiculous demands. Their utter ignorance of sound fiscal practices. He pretends to be reading C. H. McIntosh's Commentary on the Ephesians, but really he's listening to the Minneapolis Millers on the radio. Mother is upstairs lying down with a headache, and the big sister is on the telephone complaining about boys and how dumb they are, and the big brother is at the University, studying math, the big brain of the family. I am taking it easy. Reclining on the porch swing, nestled in four pillows, a bottle of Nesbitt orange pop within easy reach. I am fourteen. In 1958 I will obtain my driver's license and in 1960 graduate from Lake Wobegon High School. In 1963 I can vote. In 1982 I'll be forty. In 1992, fifty. One day, a date that only God knows, I will perish from the earth and no longer be present for roll call, my mail will be returned, my library card canceled, and some other family will occupy this house, this very porch, and not be aware that I ever existed, and if you told them, they wouldn't particularly care. Oh well. What can you do? I hope they appreciate the work I did on the lawn. Here's a little-known fact: Saturday contains the world turd. How many of you knew that? Librarian has a bra in it. Words are so interesting. Breastworks, for example. Peccary. Pistachio. Cockatoo. Titular. Interred. Poop deck.
I lie on the white wicker swing, Foxx's Book of Martyrs before me, reading about the pesky papists piling huge jagged rocks on the faithful French Huguenots and crushing them, while listening to the Minneapolis Millers on the radio lose to Toledo thanks to atrocious umpiring that killed a rally in the third inning. Eruptions of laughter from the Jackie Gleason Show at the Andersons' to the east of us, the Great One glaring at Audrey Meadows. One of these days, Alice—pow! Right in the kisser! At the Stenstroms', Perry Como sings about the tables down at Morey's, at the place where Louie dwells. We are Sanctified Brethren and do not own a television, because it does not glorify Christ. I know about these shows only from timely visits to the home of my so-called best friend, Leonard Larsen. Tucked inside my Martyrs book is a magazine called High School Orgies, lent to me by Leonard, opened to an ad for a cologne made from "love chemicals" that will turn any girl to putty in your hands. You dab some behind your ears and hold her in your arms and suddenly all resistance in gone, she is whispering for you to thrill her, fulfill her, do what you like. Plus a book of surefire pickup lines with a bonus chapter, "Techniques of Effective Kissing." Daddy is also worn out from killing chickens today at Grandma's farm. He and Aunt Eva dispatched forty of them, forty swift downstrokes of the bloody hatchet, forty astonished heads flopping into the dirt, the scalding, the ripping of feathers. The evisceration, the cleaning and wrapping. Usually, my job is to chase the birds and grab them by the ankles with a long wire hook and carry them to the killing block, but I didn't go today, because I wanted to mow the lawn and besides Eva is mad at me. Daddy grew up on that farm. He doesn't like to visit, because Aunt Eva has weepy spells and Daddy can't bear to be around anyone crying, but he has to kill chickens for Grandma, because the ones sold in stores carry deadly bacteria. The bacteria doesn't seem to bother us, but it would kill her.
Ten eye-popping mouth-watering stories in every issue of High School Orgies, and the first is the story of Jack and Laura, tenth-grade teachers at Central City High who have the hots for each other. She is blonde, him too, and common sense is no match for spring fever, no match at all. She felt his eyes devour her resplendent globes as she bent to squirt mustard on her ham sandwich in the faculty lunchroom—why had she worn this blouse with the plunging neckline??? What was she thinking of??? Whatever it was, he was thinking of the same exact thing, and in no time flat they find themselves in an empty classroom tearing the clothes off each other with trembling fingers.
"There is a hole in a screen somewhere," Daddy says. "Mosquitoes are coming in all over the place." I listen and hear no mosquitoes. "You run around with bare legs and arms and you never use bug repellent, for crying out loud. I keep telling you and it's in one ear and out the other." He lies looking up at the ceiling, talking to himself as the announcer Bob Motley says, "We'll be right back after this important message," and a male quartet sings, "From the land of sky-blue waters, Hamm's, the beer refreshing." Daddy: "You ever hear of encephalitis? Know what that is? It's an inflammation of the brain. They have to drill a hole in the top of your skull and stick a tube in and drain it. And if you get an infection—pƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒt. You're a goner. You'd be a vegetable. You couldn't use a knife and fork. I saw this over and over in the Army. But don't listen to me. What do I know? If you want to be a cripple for the rest of your life, go right ahead."
This is pure Daddy. He is a woofer. He's only happy when he can get upset over something. If a toilet is running, if he walks into a room and finds a light on and nobody there, he barks from one end of the house to the other. What are you people thinking? Do you think I am made of money? After Elvis sang on the Tommy Dorsey show—even though we have no television—Daddy woofed about that for weeks, the corrupting effect of it on the youth of our nation.
From one mail-order house, you can purchase nifty magic tricks, a correspondence course in ju-jitsu, novelty underwear, and powerful binoculars that can see through clothing. A cartoon man aimed his binocs at a high-stepping mama and his eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped and drops of sweat flew off his brow.
The cologne makes girls "eager to respond to your every wish, as if in a hypnotic trance," which sounds like a good deal, but what if someone like Miss Lewis came under your spell? You'd have a scrawny horse-faced old-lady English teacher in your arms. Maybe a guy should settle for the binoculars. And learn ju-jitsu in case somebody tries to steal them.
"Where does the word Saturday come from?"
Daddy grunts. He thinks it comes from the Roman god Saturn.
"But it's not Saturnay. It's SaTURDay."
"It got changed, I guess."
"Why would they change Saturnay to SaTURDay?"
This is not an important matter to Daddy.
I spring the next question. "Do you think it's right for Christians to use the names of pagan gods for the days of the week?"
He grunts. I have caught him in a small inconsistency of faith. But in matters of faith, could any inconsistency be said to be "small"?
We are Sanctified Brethren, the Chosen Remnant of Saints Gathered to the Lord's Name and Faithful to the Literal Meaning of His Word, the True Church in Apostate Times, the Faithful Bride Awaiting the Lord's Imminent Return In Triumph in the Skies, whom God has chosen to place in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, a town of about twelve hundred in the center of the state, populated by German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans, whom Scripture tells us to keep clear of, holding fast to the Principle of Separation from the Things of the World, Avoiding the Unclean, Standing Apart from Error, which is not such a big problem for my people, because we are standoffish by nature and not given to hobnobbing with strangers. Separation is the exact right Principle for us.
The Brethren are opposed to having a TV because it doesn't honor the Lord, but does it honor Him to refer to Saturn or Thor or Wotan when you plan a family picnic? Should we not testify to our faith by changing Saturday to Saintsday? How about Spiritday?
Daddy ignores this suggestion. He is good at shutting out matters he prefers not to address. Daddy is large and slow-moving, balding, with soft pink hands, smelling of Lifebuoy soap. He and the big brother (the genius) got in some bitter arguments before the genius went away to the U—Daddy yelling, "If you knew the actual number of communists in the federal government today, it would make your skin crawl!" and the genius simply ignoring him, employing his own separation principle—because what is the point of arguing with an old woofer like Daddy? You only make him woof harder. Above his head hangs a glass-bead contraption that dingle-dangles in the breeze. It glitters like a kaleidoscope. The dingling drives him nuts, like a phone that nobody answers, but it can't be thrown out, because it belonged to Grandpa, Mother's dad, and Grandpa is dead. This wicker porch furniture was his before he went to heaven to be with the Lord. He sat in this swing in his house on Taft Street and read from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and all about sacrificing calves and what was an abomination unto the Lord and how many cubits long the Temple should be, which made more sense to Grandpa, a practical man, than the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek"—what is that supposed to mean?). He was reading from God's Word and got up to go take a leak and he slipped on a loose rug and fell and broke a hip. What got into the hired girl's head that she had to go and wax that hall floor? The fool had too much time on her hands, evidently, so she had to go torture an old man, as surely as if she had set out a leg trap for him. Better she should have put cyanide in his prune juice or blown his brains out with a rifle. Poor Grandpa was hauled to the Good Shepherd Home, where he lay weeping and gnashing his teeth for two years, refusing TV, refusing crafts, until God finally called him home; meanwhile, we had been enjoying his furniture, knowing he'd never need it again.
Her hand brushed against the bulge of his maleness and suddenly his body seemed to rise as if on an ocean wave. His passion was too powerful to resist. "Oh, Jack," she moaned. He leaned forward so she could better sniff his secret cologne and she began to tear at his shirt buttons. He had viewed her often through his binoculars and well knew the delights that would soon be his.
And suddenly, on the radio, Bob Motley is in a white froth, yelling, "Goodbye, Mama, that train is leaving the station! Whoooooooooooooo-eeee!"—his trademark home-run cry—and Daddy perks up his ears, but it isn't a homer, it's a long fly out for Miller slugger Clint Hardin. ("That ball was on its way out of here, folks! And the wind got hold of it and it's a heartbreaking out to right field for a great ballplayer and just a wonderful guy! What a shame! And now Wayne Terwilliger comes to the plate.") The crowd goes back to sleep.
The noble Huguenots, our Protestant ancestors, are perishing under the rock piles dumped on them by papists, and with their dying breaths the Huguenots pray for God to forgive their tormentors, a truly wonderful touch. A papist sneers at a lovely Huguenot girl as she raises her hands to heaven, as a load of rocks is piled on her. Expertly, Jack's tongue probed her hot mouth as his lovestick hardened. Laura moaned audibly—she loved it, the little vixen! And now out comes the older sister from the kitchen, all hot and bothered, and cries out, "Why does he get to lie around and read books while everybody else has to do the work around here? I even had to do his laundry today—boy, talk about disgusting!" She makes a face, at the thought of unspeakable things. "And he's supposed to dry the dishes and he just waltzes away and the pots and pans are sitting there in the dish rack!"
I close the Book of Martyrs carefully to conceal Jack with his lovestick. But the book is too small! The magazine pokes out!
Quickly I shift High School Orgies from Foxx's to my Collier's Encyclopedia (Volume XI, Passover-Printing), but the sister got a glimpse of the lovestick man. I'm pretty sure she did. She doesn't miss a trick. The sister smelled the wine on my breath that Sunday morning weeks ago. Walked in and sniffed it and knew instantly where it came from. It was the Blood of the Lord. People go to hell for things of that sort, as she was quick to point out.
She stands over Daddy, hands on hips, her broad butt in the yellow Bermudas, her pale pimply piano legs. "It takes two minutes to dry a few pots and pans, and he can't even be bothered to do that much!"
I explain to her the principle of evaporation, whereby the air absorbs moisture, and objects such as pots and pans become dry in a short period of time with no need for human hands.
"Why do you have to be so stupid?"
I am only being reasonable, I explain.
She leans over Daddy and touches his shoulder, to bring him back to the point. "Why do I have to do my chores and his too? It isn't fair!" You'd think she had spent ten years on a chain gang.
I open my encyclopedia, which conceals Jack and his lovestick. A handsome book from Grandpa's sixteen-volume set, of which each grandchild received a volume. My volume includes Pax Romana, peacocks, the peanut, The Pearl Fishers by Bizet, explorer Robert Peary, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Pend d'Oreille Indians, penicillin—I wish that Penis were here, illustrated, so I could check my own for normality (why does it hang slightly to the left?)—Pennsylvania, the pentatonic scale, the periodic table, the perpetual calendar, perspective, photography (illustrated), the Pimpernel (Scarlet)—Wayne fouls off a Toledo fastball—a full page of Scottish plaids by clan, the planets, the various genuses of plants, the Poets Laureate of Britain, poisons and their antidotes, poker hands, polo, Catholic popes, Presidents of the United States from Washington to F.D.R., the prevention of forest fires, a history of printing—how could a person not love such a book? And right in the middle, surrounded by Scottish plaids, Jack is doing a push-up over Laura with her luscious orbs and his lovestick is between her legs, vanished into a thicket of hair. "Please, Jack, don't stop!" she murmured, as a wave of pulsating pleasure hit her like an express train and the life-giving sperm suddenly shot over her proud globes of flesh. They were teachers at the high school and suddenly it was spring, they opened the windows, and now look at them. Wayne Terwilliger fouls off another pitch. "It's a waiting game," says Bob Motley. "Wayne's looking for the inside fastball."
Daddy says he wishes I would be kinder to my sister and do my share of the chores.
"I do the lawn." And this is surely true. When the genius went away to the University I took over the lawn, which he, being a genius, had allowed to go to rack and ruin, and now take a look for yourself. Thick, green turf. Dandelions: vanquished. Massed on the Anderson border, they launched a seed barrage that fell to certain doom, thanks to vigilance. Crabgrass: ditto. "It would mean so much to Daddy if you'd take over the lawn," Mother said to me in early April, and that very same day I became the Lord of the Yard, Genghis Khan of the Lawn, the Conqueror of the Crabgrass Race (but to impress Mother, not Daddy)—I fertilized and raked and watered and poked it with steel rods to aerate the soil and fought off two moles by whacking their tunnels flat and flooding them and inserting poisoned Twinkies. I spent several Saturdays prying out dandelions with a two-prong fork, stemming the yellow tide from the Andersons' jungle, I patted chunks of sod into bare spots caused by winter blight or dog pee. And I was surprised myself at how verdant and thick and green it got by the end of May. I cut it close and soak it regularly and the result is a lawn worthy of millionaires and Hollywood stars—if Clark Gable had our lawn, he'd sit on it every day and grin for the photographers. Every day Daddy looks at this perfection, and once, prompted by Mother, he said, "It's looking pretty good," but mostly he searches for flaws, a ragged edge, a few brown blades, a lone clump of skunk cabbage, and he delights in pointing these out. But still—you don't hear me whining about my sad lot in life. Everybody knows Daddy's not the backslapping type. But the sister has him wrapped around her little finger. She works him like a marionette. She stands behind him, touching his shoulder, and he tells me to go dry the pots and pans. Even though I have today mowed the entire lawn. "I will," I say. "In a minute."
"Why can't you do what you're told to do?" she hisses at me.
"Don't make a federal case out of everything." Wayne fouls off another pitch. Still looking for the inside fastball.
She looks daggers at me, poor ugly thing. A big shovel-faced girl with Christmas cookies for titties and Percheron legs and chubby thighs and cheesy hair and a very very bad personality. And that is the problem here, ladies and gentlemen. This is not about pots and pans. This is about a personality problem.
I tell her that a person can't poke along washing the dishes and complaining about everything under the sun and expect me to stand and twiddle my thumbs and wait for her to finish in a week or two, can she. And steady Wayne Terwilliger takes a called third strike ("Un-believable! Un-believable, folks! That pitch to Twig was in the dirt, ladies and gentlemen! How can a man be expected to hit a pitch like that? In the dirt! And the fans here are letting home-plate umpire Larry Cahoon know they're upset about that call!") and the Millers are set down, scoreless, and there's a commercial for Rainbow motor oil and then the Burma-Shave Boys ("You can put on suntan lotion, where the ocean meets the sand. / Find he-man perfection and a complexion well tanned. / You can dream of sweet amore on your surfboard on the wave, / But listen, pal, you'll get your gal if you use Burma-Shave.").
She says, "I just finished washing your underwear, and if that isn't a disgusting job. Did nobody ever show you how to use toilet paper?"
A low blow. I ignore it.
Daddy says, "I come home from butchering forty chickens and I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown and you kids can't give me one minute of peace."
I have given him plenty of peace. It's a peaceful night, the sprinkler swishing, school is out, and the humiliations of phys ed are over, I am quite content here with my reading material, but this porky little whiner, Miss Misery, comes and ruins a perfectly lovely summer night, simply because someone knows enough about the scientific process of evaporation to let the pots and pans sit and DRY BY THEMSELVES instead of running in to dry them at her beck and call. This is the issue here.
"Go dry the pots and pans," says Daddy. "How many times do I have to tell you?"
"As soon as I move the sprinkler, I will go and put away the pots and pans, which are undoubtedly dry already."
"So move it, then," he says.
"I'll go check and see if it's ready to be moved." I set the encyclopedia down on the porch swing, with the lovestick inside, and set a pillow over it.
The sprinkler is placed at the exact point where it douses a quadrant of front yard from the birch tree to the sidewalk, allowing a slight overlap. I check the grassroots. Wet but not soaked.
"Not ready to be moved yet," I say.
Daddy says, "Make sure you move it before it floods, for heaven's sake. Or we'll have to resod the whole thing. And sod doesn't grow on trees, either. It grows on the ground." He chuckles at his little joke. I chuckle too. There is much to be gained by laughing at Daddy's little jokes.
The sister is not amused. She shakes her head and stomps into the house, her big yellow butt like two pigs fighting in a laundry bag. And then she comes charging right back.
"The pots and pans have big water spots on them!"
I point out that pots and pans will still conduct heat and cook food even with a few water spots.
—Reprinted from Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ©2002, Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.