“Lawson’s self-deprecating humor is not only gaspingly funny and wonderfully inappropriate; it allows her to speak about subjects like depression, anxiety, and infertility in a real and raw way.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“The Bloggess writes stuff that actually is laugh-out-loud, but you know that really you shouldn’t be laughing and probably you’ll go to hell for laughing, so maybe you shouldn’t read it. That would be safer and wiser.”
—Neil Gaiman, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Akin to Sedaris if he were an anxiety-stricken Texas mother with a fascination with the zombie apocalypse…The randomness only adds to the charm…Did a cougar casually stroll through her backyard last week? Does she really have a zombie kit stashed under her bed? Who cares? The world Lawson inhabits, however much invented, is a glorious place to be.”
—The Washington Post
“Jenny Lawson’s writing is nothing less than revolutionary…I say this without a hint of exaggeration: She may be one of the most progressive women’s voices of our time.”
—Karen Walrond, author of The Beauty of Different
“Jenny Lawson will make you laugh again and again—at things you didn’t even know were funny. And what’s more, she can write. What she knows about pacing, punch lines, setups, and surprises could fill a book. Lucky for us, it’s this one.”
—Katherine Center, author of Get Lucky
“[Lawson] creates a comic character that readers will engage with in shocked dismay as they gratefully turn the pages.”
“Random and/or pointless babble can be funny as all heck and tarnation, and that’s hardly ‘pointless.’”
—MSNBC on Jenny Lawson
“There’s something wrong with Jenny Lawson—magnificently wrong. I defy you to read her work and not hurt yourself laughing.”
—Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author
This Never Happened
(A Mostly True Memoir)
Berkley Books, New York
This book is a love letter to my family. It’s about the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments—the ones we want to pretend never happened—are the very same moments that make us who we are today. I’ve reserved the very best stories of my life for this book…to celebrate the strange, and to give thanks for the bizarre. Because you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing—rather than running screaming from—the utter absurdity of life. I thank my family for teaching me that lesson. In spades.
There Is a Method to My Madness
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing. And I know, you’re thinking, “But Little House on the Prairie was totally true!” and no, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t. Laura Ingalls was a compulsive liar with no fact-checker, and probably if she was still alive today her mom would be saying, “I don’t know how Laura came up with this whole ‘I’m-a-small-girl-on-the-prairie’ story. We lived in New Jersey with her aunt Frieda and our dog, Mary, who was blinded when Laura tried to bleach a lightning bolt on her forehead. I have no idea where she got the ‘and we lived in a dugout’ thing, although we did take her to Carlsbad Caverns once.”
And that’s why I’m better than Laura Ingalls. Because my story is ninety percent accurate, and I really did live in a dugout.1 The reason this memoir is only mostly true instead of totally true is that I relish not getting sued. Also, I want my family to be able to say, “Oh, that never happened. Of course we never actually tossed her out of a moving car when she was eight. That’s one of those crazy things that isn’t quite the truth.” (And they’re right, because the truth is that I was nine. I was sitting on my mom’s lap when my dad made a hard left, the door popped open, and I was tossed out like a sack full of kittens. My mom managed to grab my arm, which would have been helpful if my father had actually stopped the car, but apparently he didn’t notice or possibly thought I’d just catch up, and so my legs were dragged through a parking lot that I’m pretty sure was paved with broken glass and used syringes. (I learned three lessons from this experience: One: that vehicle safety in the late seventies was not exceptional for children. Two: that you should always leave before the officials arrive, as the orangeish sting of the medicinal acid applied by a sadistic ambulance driver will hurt far worse than any injury you can sustain being dragged behind a car. And three: that “Don’t make me come back there” is an empty threat, unless your father has been driving four hours with two screaming kids and he suddenly gets very quiet, in which case you should lock your door or at least remember to tuck and roll. I’m not saying he intentionally threw me out of a moving car, just that an opportunity presented itself and that my father is a dangerous man who shouldn’t be trusted.)2
Did you notice how, like, half of this introduction was a rambling parenthetical? That shit is going to happen all the time. I apologize in advance for that, and also for offending you, because you’re going to get halfway through this book and giggle at non sequiturs about Hitler and abortions and poverty, and you’ll feel superior to all the uptight, easily offended people who need to learn how to take a fucking joke, but then somewhere in here you’ll read one random thing that you’re sensitive about, and everyone else will think it’s hysterical, but you’ll think, “Oh, that is way over the line.” I apologize for that one thing. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking.
1. I never actually lived in a dugout. But I did totally go to Carlsbad Caverns once.
2. When I read these stories to friends I’m always shocked when they stop me to ask, “Wait, is that true?” during the most accurate of all of the stories. The things that have been changed are mainly names and dates, but the stories you think couldn’t possibly have happened? Those are the real ones. As in real life, the most horrible stories are the ones that are the truest. And, as in real life, the reverse is true as well.
I Was a Three-Year-Old Arsonist
Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name, but it’s much more agreeable than most of the things I’ve been called. “Call me ‘that-weird-chick-who-says-“fuck”-a-lot’” is probably more accurate, but “Ishmael” seems classier, and it makes a way more respectable beginning than the sentence I’d originally written, which was about how I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it’s very disconcerting when people who’ve been inside your vagina don’t acknowledge your existence. Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know…displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That’s probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)
This book is a true story about me and my battle with leukemia, and (spoiler alert) in the end I die, so you could just read this sentence and then pretend that you read the whole book. Unfortunately, there’s a secret word somewhere in this book, and if you don’t read all of it you won’t find out the secret word. And then the people in your book club will totally know that you stopped reading after this paragraph and will realize that you’re a big, fat fake.
Okay, fine. The secret word is “Snausages.”
Still there? Good. Because the secret word is not really “Snausages,” and I don’t even know how to spell “leukemia.” This is a special test that you can use to see who really read the book. If someone in your book club even mentions Snausages or leukemia, they are a liar and you should make them leave and probably you should frisk them as you’re throwing them out, because they may have stolen some of your silverware. The real secret word is “fork.”1
I grew up a poor black girl in New York. Except replace “black” with “white,” and “New York” with “rural Texas.” The “poor” part can stay. I was born in Austin, Texas, which is known for its popular “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, and since I’ve spent my whole life being pigeonholed as “that weird girl,” I ended up fitting in there perfectly and-lived-happily-ever-after. The-end. This is probably what would have been the end of my book if my parents hadn’t moved us away from Austin when I was three.
I have pretty much no memory of Austin, but according to my mom we lived in a walk-up apartment near the military base, and late at night I would stand up in my crib, open the curtains, and attempt to wave soldiers on the street up to my room. My father was one of those soldiers at the time, and when my mom told me this story as a teenager I pointed out that perhaps she should have appreciated my getting him off the streets like that. Instead she and my father just moved my crib away from the window, because they were concerned I was “developing an aptitude for that kind of trade.” Apparently I was really distraught about this whole arrangement, because the very next week I shoved a broom into the living room furnace, set it on fire, and ran through the apartment screaming and swinging the flaming torch around my head. Allegedly. I have no memory of this at all, but if it did happen I suspect I was probably waving it around like some kinda awesomely patriotic, flaming baton. To hear my mother tell it, I was viciously brandishing it at her like she was Frankenstein’s monster and I was several angry villagers. My mother refers to this as my first arson episode. I refer to it as a lesson in why rearranging someone else’s furniture is dangerous to everyone. We’ve agreed to disagree on the wording.
Shortly after that incident, we packed up and moved to the small, violently rural town of Wall, Texas. My parents claimed it was because my dad’s enlistment had ended, and my mom found herself pregnant with my little sister and wanted to be closer to family, but I suspect it was because they realized there was something wrong with me and believed that growing up in the same small West Texas town that they’d grown up in might change me into a normal person. This was one of many things that they were wrong about. (Other things they were wrong about: the existence of the tooth fairy, the “timeless appeal” of fake wood paneling, the wisdom of leaving a three-year-old alone with a straw broom and a furnace.)
If you compared the Wall, Texas, of today with the Wall, Texas, of my childhood, you would hardly recognize it, because the Wall, Texas, of today has a gas station. And if you think having a gas station is not that big of a deal, then you’re probably the kind of person who grew up in a town that has a gas station, and that doesn’t encourage students to drive to school in their tractors.
Wall is basically a tiny town with…um…dirt? There’s a lot of dirt. And cotton. And gin, but not the good kind. In Wall, when people refer to gin they’re talking about the Cotton Gin, which is the only real business in the town and is like a factory that turns cotton into…something else. I honestly have no idea. Different cotton, maybe? I never actually bothered to learn, because I always figured that within days I would be escaping this tiny country town, and that’s pretty much how my entire life went for the next twenty years.
Our yearbook theme one year was simply “Where’s Wall?” because it was the question you’d get asked every time you told someone you lived there. The original—and more apt—theme had been “Where the fuck is Wall?” but the yearbook teacher quickly shot down that concept, saying that age-appropriate language was important, even at the cost of journalistic accuracy.
Those things on the back cover are cotton balls. No shit, y’all.
When I was asked where Wall was, I would always answer with a vague “Oh, that direction,” with a wave of my hand, and I quickly learned that if I didn’t immediately change the subject to something to break their train of thought (My personal standby: “Look! Sea monsters!”), then they’d ask the inevitable (and often incredulous) follow-up question of “Why Wall?” and you were never entirely sure whether they were asking why the hell you’d choose to live there, or why anyone would choose to name a town “Wall,” but it didn’t actually matter, because no one seemed to have a legitimate answer for either.
Unfortunately, pointing out sea monsters was neither subtle nor believable (mostly because we were completely landlocked), so instead I began compensating for Wall’s beigey blandness by making up interesting but unverifiable stories about the small town. “Oh, Wall?” I’d say, with what I imagined was a sophisticated sneer. “It’s the city that invented the dog whistle.” Or, “It’s the town that Footloose was based on. Kevin Bacon is our national hero.” Or, “I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it. It was the scene of one of the most gruesome cannibalistic slaughters in American history. We don’t talk about it, though. I shouldn’t even be mentioning it. Let’s never speak of it again.” I’d hoped that the last one would give me an air of mystery and make people fascinated with our lurid history, but instead it just made them concerned about my mental health, and eventually my mother heard about my tall tales and pulled me aside to tell me that no one was buying it, and that the town was most likely named after someone whose last name happened to be Wall. I pointed out that perhaps he’d been named that because he was the man who’d invented walls, and she sighed impatiently, pointing out that it would be hard to believe that a man had invented walls when most of them couldn’t even be bothered to close the bathroom door while they’re using it. She could tell that I was disappointed at the lack of anything remotely redeeming about our town, and conceded halfheartedly that perhaps the name came from a metaphoric wall, designed to keep something out. Progress was my guess. My mother suggested it was more likely boll weevils.
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have a childhood that was not like mine. I have no real frame of reference, but when I question strangers I’ve found that their childhood generally had much less blood in it, and also that strangers seem uncomfortable when you question them about their childhood. But really, what else are you going to talk about in line at the liquor store? Childhood trauma seems like the natural choice, since it’s the reason why most of us are in line there to begin with. I’ve found, though, that people are more likely to share their personal experiences if you go first, so that’s why I always keep an eleven-point list of what went wrong in my childhood to share with them. Also I usually crack open a bottle of tequila to share with them, because alcohol makes me less nervous, and also because I’m from the South, and in Texas we offer drinks to strangers even when we’re waiting in line at the liquor store. In Texas we call that “southern hospitality.” The people who own the liquor store call it “shoplifting.” Probably because they’re Yankees.
I’m not allowed to go back to that liquor store.2
1. “Fork” is not really the real secret word. There isn’t actually a secret word. Because this is a book, y’all. Not a fucking spy movie.
2. Author’s note: My editor informs me that this doesn’t count as a chapter, because nothing relevant happens in it. I explained that that’s because this is really just an introduction to the next chapter and probably should be combined with the next chapter, but I separated it because I always find it’s nice to have short chapters that you can finish quickly so you can feel better about yourself. Plus, if your English teacher assigned you to read the first three chapters of this book you’ll already be finished with the first two, and in another ten minutes you can go watch movies about sexy, glittery vampires, or whatever the hell you kids are into nowadays. Also, you should thank your English teacher for assigning you this book, because she sounds badass. You should probably give her a bottle from the back of your parents’ liquor cabinet to thank her for having the balls to choose this book over The Red Badge of Courage. Something single-malt.
You’re welcome, English teachers. You totally owe me.
Wait. Hang on. It just occurred to me that if English teachers assigned this book as required reading, that means that the school district just had to buy a ton of my books, so technically I owe you one, English teachers. Except that now that I think about it, my tax dollars paid for those books, so technically I’m kind of paying for people to read my own book, and now I don’t know whether to be mad or not. This footnote just turned into a goddamn word problem.
You know what? Fuck it. Just send me half of the malt liquor you get from your students and we’ll call it even.
Also, is this the longest footnote in the history of ever? Answer: Probably.
My Childhood: David Copperfield Meets Guns & Ammo Magazine
I’ve managed to pinpoint several key differences between my childhood and that of pretty much everyone else in the entire fucking world. I call these points, “Eleven Things Most People Have Never Experienced or Could Have Even Possibly Imagined, but That Totally Happened to Me, Because Apparently I Did Something Awful in a Former Life That I’m Still Being Punished For.”
#1. Most people have never stood inside a dead animal, unless you count that time when Luke Skywalker crawled inside that tauntaun to keep from freezing to death, which I don’t, because Star Wars is not a documentary. If you’re easily grossed out, I recommend skipping this entire section and going straight to chapter five. Or maybe getting another book that’s less disturbing than this one. Like one about kittens. Or genocide.
Still there? Good for you! Let’s continue. I remember as a kid watching the Cosby family prepare dinner on TV and thinking how odd it was that no one was covered in blood, because this was a typical night in our house: My father, an avid bow hunter, would lumber inside the house with a deer slung over his shoulder. He’d fling it across the dining room table, and then my parents would dissect it and pull out all the useful parts, like some sort of terrible piñata. It was disgusting, but it was the only life I knew, so I assumed that everyone else was just like us.
The only thing that seemed weird about it to me was that I was the only person in the whole house who gagged at the smell of the deer blood. My parents tried to convince me that blood doesn’t have a smell, but they are fucking liars. Also they told me that milk does have a smell, and that’s ridiculous, and I’m shocked that their lies have spread so far. Milk doesn’t have a smell. Blood does. And I think I’m so sensitive to the smell of a dead deer because of the time when I accidentally walked inside one.
I was about nine years old and I was playing chase with my sister while my father was cleaning a deer.
I’m going to interrupt here for a small educational explanation about what it means to “clean a deer”:
“Cleaning a deer” for people who are sensitive members of PETA
You get some warm water and tearless shampoo and gently massage the deer. (Lather, rinse, but don’t repeat, even though the bottle says to, because that’s just a ploy to sell more shampoo.) Blow-dry on low heat and hot-glue a bow to his forehead. Send him back to the woods to meet a nice Jewish doe. Go to the next chapter.
“Cleaning a deer” for curious, nonjudgmental readers who really want to know how it’s done (and who aren’t PETA members who are just pretending to be curious, nonjudgmental readers, but who really want to throw blood on me at book signings)
Cleaning a deer consists of tying up the arms and legs of the deer to a clothesline-like contraption, making it look as if the dead deer is a cheerleader doing the “Give me an X!” move. Then you slice open the stomach, and all the stuff you don’t want falls out. Like the genitals. And the poop rope.
“Cleaning a deer” for people who clean deer all the time
I know, right? Can you believe there are people who don’t know this shit? Weird. These are probably the same people who call the poop rope “the intestines.” We all know it’s a poop rope, people. Saying it in French doesn’t make it any less disgusting.
Anyway, my dad had just finished cleaning the deer when I made a recklessly fast, ninja-like U-turn to avoid getting tagged by my sister, and that’s when I ran. Right. The fuck. Inside of the deer. It took me a moment to realize what had happened, and I stood there, kind of paralyzed and not ninja-like at all. The best way I can describe it is that it was kind of like I was wearing a deer sweater. Sometimes people laugh at that, but it’s not an amused laugh. It’s more of an involuntary nervous giggle of what-the-fuckness. Probably because you aren’t supposed to wear deer for sweaters. You’re not supposed to throw up inside them either, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
I’d like to think that my father threw that deer away, because I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to eat food you’ve worn or vomited into, but while he was hosing me off he was also hosing off the deer, so my guess is that he applied some sort of a fucked-up Grizzly Adams version of the five-second rule. (Food on the floor is still edible as long as you pick it up within five seconds. Unless it’s peanut butter; then the five-second rule is null. Or if it’s something like dry toast, the five-second rule is extended to, like, a week and a half, because really, what’s going to get on dry toast? Nothing, that’s what. God, I could write a whole book on the five-second rule. That should totally be the follow-up book to this one: The Five Second Rule As It Applies to Various Foodstuffs. Brilliant. But now I’ve forgotten what I was writing about. Oh, yeah, throwing up inside a deer sweater. Right.) And that’s why I still suspect that my dad took home the horribly defiled deer sweater to eat. Except I didn’t eat it, because after that the smell of blood made me gag, and to this day I can’t eat any meat that I’ve seen or smelled raw, which my husband complains about all the time, but until he’s worn a deer sweater he can just shut the hell up. He says it’s all in my mind, but it’s totally not, and I’ve even offered to take some sort of blind smell test, like they did in the Pepsi challenge, where he holds bowls of blood up to my nose so that I can prove that I can smell blood, but he won’t do it. Probably because he’s kind of anal about our bowls. He wouldn’t even let me use one for throwing up in when I was sick. He was all, “Vomit bowl? Who uses a vomit bowl?!” and I was all, “I use a vomit bowl. Everyone uses a vomit bowl. You keep it near you in case you can’t make it to the toilet,” and he was all, “No, you use a trash can,” and I was like, “You sick fuck. I’m not throwing up in a trash can. That’s totally barbaric.” Then he yelled, “That’s what normal people do!” and I screamed, “That’s how civilization breaks down!” And then I refused to speak to him for the rest of the day, because he made me yell at him while I was vomity. Did you notice how I just skipped right to having a husband even though this paragraph is supposed to be about my childhood? My God, this is going to be a terrible book. But both stories have to do with blood and vomit, so that’s kind of impressive, in a way that’s really less “impressive” and more just kind of “sad” and “disturbing.”
#2. (On the list of “Things Most People Have Never Experienced or Could Have Even Possibly Imagined but That Totally Happened to Me,” in case you’ve forgotten what we were talking about because number one was way too long and needs to be edited or possibly burned.) Most people don’t have poisonous tap water in their house. Most people don’t get letters from the government telling them not to drink their poisonous tap water because dangerous radon has leaked into their well. In fact, most people don’t get their poisonous tap water from a well at all.
Concerned relatives would question my mother about the risks of my sister and me being exposed to all that radon, but she waved them off, saying, “Oh, they couldn’t swallow it even if they wanted to. They’d throw it up immediately. It’s that toxic. So, you know, no worries.” Then she’d send us off to brush our teeth with it and bathe in it. My mom was a big proponent of the “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory, almost to the point where she seemed to be daring the world to kill us. This theory worked well for my sister, who has never been sick a day in her life, and is one of those Amazonian women who could squat in a field to have a baby and then pick the baby up and keep on hoeing, except also the field would be on fire, and she’d be all, “Fuck you, fire!” and walk through it like that scary robot in The Terminator. And also her baby would be fire-resistant, and would be karate-chopping the flames like a tiny badass. I’ve tried to have this same level of pioneer toughness, but every couple of months I have a total breakdown or catch some kind of weird disease that only animals get. Like the time I got human parvo, which totally exists and is no fucking picnic. Or the time when I was brushing my hair and heard a pop in my neck, and I could barely even breathe it hurt so much. Then I drove myself to work and I almost passed out from a combination of the pain and the not-breathing, and when I got there I hurt so much I couldn’t even move my mouth to talk, so I wrote, “I HAVE BROKEN MY NECK,” on a Post-it, and my bewildered office mate drove me to the hospital. Turns out I’d herniated a disc, and the doctor gave me a pamphlet on domestic abuse and kept asking me whether someone was hurting me at home, because apparently most people don’t herniate their discs simply from brushing their hair too hard. I prefer to think that most people just don’t brush their hair as enthusiastically as I do.
#3. Most people have running water. I mean, we mostly had running water, except when we didn’t, which was often. As my sister and I would always say to each other, “You know, you never really appreciate your poisonous well water until it’s gone.” In the summer the water would occasionally stop for no reason whatsoever, and in the winter the pipes would freeze, and we’d be forced to fill up pots of water from our cistern, and then warm the icy water on the stove to bathe in. It’s even less glamorous than it sounds. I once pointed out to my mother that the water from the cistern was slightly brown, and that it didn’t really seem like the cleanest way to wash your hair, but she sighed at me in disappointment, saying, “It’s pronounced ‘beige.’” As if the pronunciation somehow made it fancier.
“Okay,” I capitulated grudgingly, “the cistern water seems slightly more beige than the water from the tap,” but my mom just shrugged it off, because apparently she didn’t trust water she couldn’t see.
#4. Most people don’t have a cistern or even know what a cistern is. Some of them say that they have a cistern, and then they politely add that the word is actually pronounced “sister,” and then I just nod, because I really don’t want to have to explain that a cistern is actually an enormous metal can that catches rainwater, sort of like an aboveground well for people who can’t actually afford a well. But no one wants to explain that, because honestly? Who’s going to admit they can’t afford a well? Not me, obviously, because we had a well. One that was filled with poisonous radon.
The back of this photo says, “1975—Jenny & her chickens. A dog killed them not long afterward.” Funny, I feel fine.
#5. Most people don’t have live raccoons in the house. My dad was always rescuing animals, and by “rescuing animals” I mean “killing the mother, and then discovering she had babies, and bringing the babies home to raise them in the bathtub.” Once, he brought home eight newborn raccoons in a bucket for us to raise. When the orphaned raccoons were little, my mom sewed tiny Jams for them to wear (because this was the eighties, and Jams were quite popular then), and they were adorable, but then the raccoons got big enough to climb out of the bathtub and pretty much destroyed the entire house. Raccoons are totally OCD and they are driven to wash everything that they see, which you’d think would make them smell better, but it doesn’t, because they smell all musky and vaguely sour, like one-night stands.
When the raccoons were old enough, we returned them all to the woods, except for one raccoon that we kept as a pet. His name was Rambo, and he’d learned how to turn on the bathroom sink and would wash random things in it all the time, like it was his own private river. If I’d have been thinking I would have left some Woolite and my delicates by the sink for him to rinse out, but you never think to turn your pet raccoon into a tiny butler until it’s too late. Once, we came home to find Rambo in the sink, washing a tiny sliver of soap that had been a new bath-size bar that morning. He looked exhausted, and like he wanted someone to stop him and put him to bed, but when we tried to take away the last bit of soap he growled at us, and so we let him finish, because at that point I guess it was like a vendetta, if raccoons had vendettas. Sometimes when I’m working on an impossible project that I know I should just give up on and someone tries to take it away, I growl and scream, “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!” (which is both weird and inappropriate) but I think that that’s probably exactly how Rambo was feeling, with his soap sliver and puckered little fingers covered in radon water, and it makes me sad. But then I laugh, because it reminds me that right after the soap incident my mom insisted that Rambo needed to live outside in a chicken cage “to protect him from himself.” I had placed him on top of the cage to pet him when my little sister, Lisa, who was about seven then, whacked him in the nose (because she was kind of a dick at the time), and then Rambo flipped the fuck out, stood up on his hind legs, grimaced, and jumped directly onto my sister’s face. He grabbed on to her ears like he was some kinda horrible raccoon mask, and he was hissing and looking right into her eyes like, “I WILL BRING YOU DOWN, BITCH,” and my sister was screaming and flailing her arms and it was totally awesome.
The next day my dad took Rambo to the farm, which I’d thought meant that he actually took him to my grandfather’s farm to live, but now that I think about it, it probably had less to do with going to a farm than buying one. And now I’m sad again. But then I think about the fact that my dad was probably pointing the gun at Rambo, and Rambo was probably wearing his little Jams and was all, “Hi there, mister!” and my dad probably sighed defeatedly,1 saying something like “Aw, fuck. Just go on, then. Here’s ten dollars and some soap.” Because deep down my father is a total softy. Unless he’s inadvertently killing the mother of a bunch of baby raccoons. Then you’d better stand the fuck back, because you’re totally going to get blood on you.
Photographic proof of Rambo in his Jams. Also pictured: Teen Beat magazine with Kirk Cameron on the cover, records, and VHS tapes. It’s like the eighties threw up all over this raccoon. I couldn’t even make this shit up, people.
#6. Most people don’t go out into the woods to catch armadillos so that their father can race them professionally. Also, when you find one and pull it out by its tail, most girls’ fathers won’t scream out, “Mind the teeth! That one looks like a biter!” Probably because most fathers don’t love their daughters as much as my father loves me. Or maybe because they didn’t make their daughters pull live armadillos out of tree stumps. Hard to tell. Honestly, though, those girls are missing out, because there is nothing like seeing your father down on his hands and knees with five other grown men, screaming and slapping at the ground to scare their respective armadillos into crossing the finish line first. And when I say, “There’s nothing like it,” what I mean is, “Holy shit, these people are fucking insane.”
Usually when I tell people my dad was a Texas armadillo racing champion, they assume I’m exaggerating, but then I pull out his silver armadillo championship ring (which is, of course, shaped like an armadillo), and then they’re all, “Crap on a crap cracker, you’re actually serious.” And then they usually leave quickly. The gold armadillo championship ring would be more impressive to show off, but we don’t have it anymore because my father traded it for a Victorian funeral carriage. And no, I’m not joking, because why the fuck would I joke about that? But I do have photographic proof:
Why, yes, that is the shining winner’s ring of the Armadillo Glitterati. Also pictured: My father during an unfortunate Magnum P.I. phase, confused spectators, unnamed armadillo.
#7. Most people don’t have a professional taxidermist for a father. When I was little, my father used to sell guns and ammo at a sporting goods store, but I always told everyone he was an arms dealer, because it sounded more exciting. Eventually, though, he saved up enough money to quit his job and build a taxidermy shop next to our house (which was tiny and built out of asbestos back when people still thought that was a good thing). My dad built the taxidermy shop himself out of old wood from abandoned barns and did a remarkable job, fashioning it to look exactly like a Wild West saloon, complete with swinging doors and gaslights and a hitching post for horses. Then he hired a bunch of guys to work for him, many of whom looked to me as if they were fresh from prison or just about to go back in. I can’t help feeling sorry for the confused strangers who would wander into my father’s taxidermy shop, expecting to find a bar and a stiff drink, and who instead found several rough-looking men my father had hired, covered in blood and elbow deep in animal carcasses. I suspect, though, that the blood-covered taxidermists probably shared their personal flasks with the baffled stranger, because although they seemed slightly dangerous, they also were invariably good-hearted, and I’m fairly certain they recognized that anyone stumbling onto that kind of scene would probably need a strong drink even more than when they’d first set out looking for a bar to begin with.
#8. Most people don’t have their childhood pets eaten by homeless people. When I was five, my dad won a duckling for me at the carnival. We named him Daffodil, and he lived in the backyard in an inflatable raft that we filled with water. He was awesome. Then he got too big to live comfortably in the raft, so we set him loose under the nearby town bridge so he could be with all the other ducks. We sang “Born Free,” and he seemed very happy as he waddled away. A month later the local news ran a story on the fact that all of the ducks in the river had gone missing and had been eaten by homeless people living under the bridge. It was apparently a bad neighborhood for ducks. I stared, wide-eyed, at my mom as I stammered out, “HOBOS. ATE. MY DAFFODIL.” My mom stared back with a tightened jaw, wondering whether she should just lie to me, but instead she decided it was time to stop protecting me from real life, and sighed, saying, “It sounds nicer if you call them ‘transients,’ dear.” I nodded mechanically. I was traumatized, but my vocabulary was improving.
From the back of the photo: “Jenny & Daffodil. Later he was eaten by homeless people.”
#9. Most people don’t share a swimming pool with pigs. We lived downwind from the (locally) famous Schwartzes’ pig farm, which is something some people might be embarrassed about, but these were “show pigs,” so yeah, it was pretty fucking impressive. When the wind was blowing from the west it would smell so strong that we’d have to close the windows, but that was less because of the pigs, and more because of the nearby rendering plant. In fact, the first time my husband caught a whiff he nearly gagged, and my mom nonchalantly said, “Oh, that? That’s just the rendering plant,” in the same way other people might say, “Oh, that’s just our gardener.” Then he gave me this look like “What the fuck is a rendering plant?” and I quietly explained that a rendering plant is a factory where they compost old flowers, because that sounds much more whimsical than, “It’s like a slaughterhouse, but way less classy.”
The Schwartzes had an enormous open-air cistern that they used to water the pigs, and on special occasions we’d get invited over to swim in the pig’s water. This is all true, people.
Right here is when people begin to say, “I don’t believe any of this,” and I have to show them pictures or get my mom on the phone to confirm it, and then they get very quiet. Probably out of respect. Or possibly pity. This is why I always have to clarify that although my childhood was fucked up, it was also kind of awesome.
When you’re surrounded by other people who are just as poor as you are, life doesn’t seem all that weird. For instance, one of my friends grew up in a house with a dirt floor, and it’s hard to feel too bad about your tiny asbestos house when you have the privilege of owning carpet. Also, in my parents’ defense, I never really realized we were that poor, because my parents never said we couldn’t afford things, just that we didn’t need them. Things like ballet lessons. And ponies. And tap water that won’t kill you.
#10. Most people don’t file wild animals. When I was about six my parents decided to raise chickens, but we couldn’t afford a real henhouse. Instead we put some filing cabinets in the garage, and opened the drawers like stair steps so the chickens could nest in them. Once, when I went out to gather the eggs, I stretched onto my tiptoes to reach into the top drawer and I felt what seemed like a misshapen egg, and that’s because it was in the belly of a gigantic fucking rattlesnake that was attempting to swallow another one of the eggs. This is when I ran screaming back into the house, and my mom grabbed a rifle from the gun cabinet, and (as the escaping snake writhed down the driveway) she shot it right in the lumpy part where the egg still was, and egg exploded everywhere like some sort of terrible fireworks display. We found out later that it was actually a bull snake just pretending to be a rattlesnake, and my mother felt a little bad about killing it, but pretending to be a rattlesnake in front of an armed mother is basically like waving a fake gun in front of a cop. Either way, you’re totally going to get shot. Also, whenever I read this paragraph to people who don’t live in the South, they get hung up on the fact that we had furniture devoted to just guns, but in rural Texas pretty much everyone has a gun cabinet. Unless they’re gay. Then they have gun armoires.
#11. Most people don’t have to devote an entire year of therapy to a single ten-minute episode from their childhood. Three words: Stanley, the Magical Squirrel. Actually that’s four words, but I don’t think you’re supposed to count the word “the,” since it isn’t important enough to be capitalized. All of this will be fixed by my editor by the time you read this anyway, so really I could write anything here. Like, did you know that Angelina Jolie hates Jewish people? True story. (Editor’s note: Angelina Jolie does not hate Jewish people at all, and this is a total fabrication. We apologize to Ms. Jolie and to the Jewish community.)
I was going to write about Stanley the Magical Squirrel right here on number eleven, but it’s way too convoluted, so instead I made it into the whole next chapter, because I’m pretty sure when you sell a book you get paid by the chapter. I could be wrong about that, though, because I am often wrong. Except about the Angelina-Jolie-hating-Jews thing, which is probably totally true. (No, that’s not true at all. Shut up, Jenny.—Ed.)
1. Is “defeatedly” a real word? As in, “She sighed defeatedly as spell-check implied that ‘defeatedly’ isn’t a real word.” Fuck it. It’s going in the book, and I’m pretty sure that makes it a real word. Me and Shakespeare. Making shit up as we go along.
Stanley, the Magical Talking Squirrel
When I tell people that my father is kind of a total lunatic, they laugh and nod knowingly. They assure me that theirs is too, and that he’s just a “typical father.”
And they’re probably right, if the typical father runs a full-time taxidermy business out of the house, and shows up at the local bar with a miniature donkey and a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, and thinks other people are weird for making such a big deal out of it. If the typical father says things like “Happy birthday! Here’s a bathtub of raccoons!” or “We’ll have to take your car. Mine has too much blood in it,” then yeah, he’s totally normal. Still, I don’t remember any of the kids from Charles in Charge feeling around the deep freeze for the Popsicles and instead pulling out an enormous frozen rattlesnake that Charles had thrown in while it was still alive. Maybe I missed that episode. We didn’t watch a lot of TV.
That’s why whenever people try to tell me how their “insane father” would sometimes fall asleep on the toilet, or occasionally catch the house on fire, I put my finger to their lips and whisper, “Hush, little rabbit. Let me give you perspective.”
And then I tell them this story:
It was close to midnight when I heard my father rumbling down the hall, and then suddenly the light switched on in my bedroom. My mom unsuccessfully tried to convince him to go to bed. “Let the girls sleep,” she mumbled from their bedroom across the hall. My mother had learned that my father could not be dissuaded when a “great thought” hit him, but she went through the motions of arguing with him (mainly to point out what was normal and what was crazy, so that my sister and I would be able to recognize it as we got older).
I was eight, and my sister, Lisa, was six. My father, a giant bohemian man who looked like a dangerous Zach Galifianakis, lumbered into our tiny bedroom. Lisa and I shared a room most of our lives. Our bedroom was so small that there wasn’t much room for anything other than the bed we shared, and a dresser. The closet doors had been removed long ago to give the illusion of more space. The illusion had failed. I’d spent hours trying to create small bastions of privacy. I’d construct forts with old quilts, and beg my mom to let me live in the garage with the chickens. I’d shut myself in the bathroom (the only room with a lock), but with one bathroom for four people, and a father with irritable bowel syndrome, this was not a good long-term solution. Occasionally I would empty my wooden toy box, curl up inside, and shut the lid, preferring the leg cramps and quiet darkness of the pine box to the outside world…much like a sensory deprivation chamber, but for orphans. My mom was concerned, but not concerned enough to actually do anything about it. There are few advantages to growing up poor, and not having money for therapy is the biggest.
My father crouched on the edge of our bed, and Lisa and I blinked, our eyes slowly adjusting to the bright light. “Wake up, girls,” my dad boomed, his face flushed with excitement, cold, or hysteria. He was dressed in his usual camouflage hunting clothes, and the scent of deer urine wafted around the room. Hunters often use animal pee to cover their scent, and my father splashed it on like other men used Old Spice. Texas is a state that had once outlawed sodomy and fellatio, but is totally cool with men giving themselves golden showers in the name of deer hunting.
My dad held a Ritz cracker box, which was weird, because we never had brand-name food in the house, so I was all, “Hell, yeah, this is totally worth waking me up for,” but then I realized that there was something alive and moving in the cracker box, which was disturbing; less because my father had brought some live animal in a cracker box into our room, and more because whatever was in there was ruining some perfectly good crackers.
Let me preface this by saying that my dad was always bringing home crazy-ass shit. Rabbit skulls, rocks shaped like vegetables, angry possums, glass eyes, strange drifters he picked up on the road, a live porcupine in a rubber tire. My mother (a patient and stoic lunch lady) seemed secretly convinced that she must’ve committed some terrible act in a former life to deserve this lot in life, and so she forced a smile and set another place for the drifter/junkie at the dinner table with the quiet dignity usually reserved for saints or catatonics.
Daddy leaned toward us and told us rather conspiratorially that this box held our newest pet. This is the same man who once brought home a baby bobcat, let it loose in the house, and forgot to mention it because he “didn’t think it was important,” so for him to be excited I assumed the box had to contain something truly amazing, like a two-headed lizard, or a baby chupacabra. He opened the box and whispered excitedly, “Come out and meet your new owners, Pickle.”
Almost as if on cue, a tiny head poked out of the cracker box. It was a smallish, visibly frightened squirrel, its eyes glazed over from fright. My sister squealed with delight and the squirrel disappeared back into the box. “Hey now, you’ve gotta be quiet or you’ll scare it,” my father warned. And yeah, Lisa’s squeal might have been jarring, but more likely it was just freaked the fuck out by our house. My taxidermist father had decorated practically every spare wall in our home with wide-eyed foxes, leering giant elk, snarling bear heads, and wild boars complete with bloody fangs from eating slow villagers. If I was that squirrel I would have totally shit myself.
Lisa and I were silent, and the tiny squirrel tentatively peeked over the top of the box. It was cute, as far as squirrels go, but all I could think was, “Really? A fucking squirrel? This is what you got me out of bed for?” And true, I may not have said “fucking” in my head, because I was eight, but the sentiment was totally there. This is a man who throws his kids in the car to chase after tornadoes for fun, and who once gave me a five-foot-long ball python when he forgot my birthday, so the whole squirrel-in-a-box thing seemed kinda anticlimactic.
My father noticed the nonplussed look on my face and leaned in further, like he was telling us a secret he didn’t want the squirrel to overhear. “This,” he whispered, “is no ordinary squirrel. This,” he said with a dramatic pause, “is a magic squirrel.”
My sister and I stared at each other, thinking the same thing: “This,” we thought to ourselves, “is our father clearly thinking we are idiots.” Lisa and I were both well versed in our dad’s storytelling abilities, and we knew that he was not a man to be trusted. Just last week he’d woken us up and asked whether we wanted to go to the movies. Of course we wanted to go to the movies. Money was always tight, so seeing a movie was one of those rare glimpses into the lives of the wealthy few who could splurge on such luxuries as matinees and central heating. These people in the audience, I felt sure, were the same people who could afford real winter shoes instead of bread sacks stuffed with newspapers.
Lisa and me in the front yard in our (barely visible) bread-sack shoes.
When Lisa and I were practically bouncing off the walls from the sheer excitement of seeing a movie, he’d send us off to call both movie theaters in the nearby town and have us write down every showing so we could decide what to see. We’d listen to the recording of the movies over and over to get it all down, and after thirty minutes of intense labor we’d compiled the list, and multiple reasons why The Muppet Movie was the only logical choice. Then my father would merrily agree and we would all cheer, and he would bend down and say, “So. Do you have any money?” My sister and I looked at each other. Of course we didn’t have any money. We were wearing bread-sack shoes. “Well,” said my father, with a big grin spreading across his face, “I don’t have any money either. But it sure was fun when we thought we were going, huh?”
Some people might read this and think that my father was a sadistic asshole, but he was not. He honestly thought that the time that Lisa and I spent planning a movie date that would never happen would be a great break from what we would have been doing had he not brought it up (i.e., hot-wiring the neighbor’s tractor, or playing with the family shovel). I wonder if one day my father will get as much of a kick out of this concept when Lisa and I call to tell him we’re going to pick him up from the retirement home for Christmas, but then never actually show up. “But it sure was exciting when you thought you were coming home, though, right?” we’ll cheerfully ask him on New Year’s Eve. “Seriously, though, we’ll totally be there to pick you up tomorrow. No enemas and heart meds for you! We’re going to the circus! It’s gonna be great! You should totally trust us!” He totally shouldn’t trust us.