The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanacby Kris D'Agostino
In the spirit of novels by Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta, a smart, funny debut about a disillusioned young man whose fledgling leap from postadolescence to adulthood lands him back in an already overburdened family nest.Calvin Moretti can’t believe how much his life sucks. He’s a twenty-four-year-old film school dropout living at home again and… See more details below
In the spirit of novels by Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta, a smart, funny debut about a disillusioned young man whose fledgling leap from postadolescence to adulthood lands him back in an already overburdened family nest.Calvin Moretti can’t believe how much his life sucks. He’s a twenty-four-year-old film school dropout living at home again and working as an assistant teacher at a preschool for autistic kids. His insufferable go-getter older brother is also living at home, as is his kid sister, who’s still in high school and has just confided to Cal that she’s pregnant. What’s more, Calvin’s father, a career pilot, is temporarily grounded and obsessed with his own mortality. and his ever-stalwart mother is now crumbling under the pressure of mounting bills and the imminent loss of their Sleepy Hollow, New York, home: the only thing keeping the Morettis moored. Can things get worse? Oh, yes, they can.Which makes it all the more amazing that The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac is not only buoyantly fun but often very, very funny. In this debut novel, Kris D’Agostino has crafted an engrossing contemporary tale of a loopy but loving family, and in Calvin Moretti, he’s created an oddball antihero who really wants to do the right thing—if he can just figure out what it is.
“A singularly funny, bitter, bold book about what it’s like to resemble people you want badly to be better than. This is a remarkable book about a remarkable family with disturbingly familiar problems.”
—Brock Clarke, author of Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanaca novel
By Kris D'Agostino
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2012 Kris D'Agostino
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI work with retards.
This is fact in more ways than one. It is fact because I am a teaching assistant at a preschool for autistic kids. It is fact because family, friends, and most of the people who populate my life are idiots.
"Peepee," Arham says. He is smiling in a very unnatural way.
"No peepee," I tell him. I grab the small chair on which he sits and pull it closer to me. "You just went," I add under my breath. Arham continues to smile. He's a cute kid, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, or something. His hair smells like peanuts, cumin.
I'm not a preschool teacher. The road that led me here was long and circuitous, fraught with disappointment and regret. My job title is, as stated on my paychecks, "Teaching Assistant." My mother basically thrust the whole thing upon me—under threat of losing the free bed and board I have been exploiting since moving back to my parents' house last year. Although I'm not particularly happy with this job, I haven't been able to summon the proper motivation to do anything about it. I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing with myself. I have no money. I spend what little I make on weed, student loans, LPs, and the laundry list of bills I've racked up. Life is basically standing still. Stalled out. Or something along those lines. It has made me angry. I am angry all the time. And the fact that I can't focus that anger on any one thing, any one person, other than myself, makes me that much more dispirited.
There is a lap desk resting on my thighs. I sit with one of these for hours, every day. I'm not sure why I can't have a table, but I try not to ask too many questions around here. I shift from one cheek to the other to keep my ass from getting numb and check the clock on the wall: 3:20. Ten more minutes and the school day will be over. Ten more minutes and I will be holding Arham's hand, leading him across the grass to bus number 52. The bus that takes him home.
I shuffle a stack of twenty index cards, all laminated, all displaying various colored polygons. It's shape time for Arham, one of the many programs I attempt to teach him on a daily basis. I place two of the cards on the lap desk. One shows a red star, the other a blue circle. I couldn't get the printer to work properly, so the star looks like a melting pinecone.
I take a breath and check the clock again. Still 3:20.
"Point to the star," I say.
Arham's smile widens.
I have been using bits of cookie all afternoon as small rewards when he behaves well. By this point, a dark circle of brownish muck has built up around his lips. I get paper towels to clean him off. When I return to my seat, he has a look of mischief on his face. He says, "Peepee," then falls out of his chair onto the floor. What little patience I arrived with at eight this morning is gone. I lunge after him. The lap desk falls. Index cards scatter. Arham is excited because I have reacted to him. He has successfully gotten me down to his level. Arham has the attention span of a fourteen-month-old. He's on the spectrum. Autistic, special, slow, handicapped, disabled, annoying, possessing intellectual qualities on par with my grandmother's – whatever you want to call it.
He lies on his back, giggling that high-pitched girlish giggle I've been listening to since the school year began. I grab his miniature frame by the shoulders and attempt to hoist him to his feet. The fucking kid weighs maybe twenty-five pounds.
"Peepee," he blurts out. This time it's accompanied by a volley of spit and chewed cookie bits. A large glob lands just below the neckline of his Looney Tunes T-shirt. Another splatters on my forearm.
I look over at Angela and her student, future Stanford-Binet all-star Hendrick Ramirez. Hendrick is Puerto Rican, three years old, the same age as Arham. Hendrick isn't autistic. He is merely crippled by massive behavior and attention problems. As if this is somehow better.
Angela and I are employees of the John W. Manley School in Sleepy Hollow, New York. There are forty or so kids here, shipped in from various parts of the county. We work with them in semi-isolation, one kid per teacher, two kids per room, so as not to overwhelm anyone. Angela and I share a front room with two large floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a very green, very long sloping hill. For normal people this would be nice, these large windows. But Arham has a thing with birds and clouds and trees. He wants to eat them. To stop him from constantly banging his head on the glass, I have been forced to hang sheets of colored craft paper over the windows, blocking his view. The paper is thin, though, and creates an uncanny kaleidoscope effect on the floors and walls. I don't mind this.
Spring break is two days away. I just need to make it to the end of the week.
I take a deep breath. Arham continues to dribble mushy discharge onto my arm. I grab the front of his shirt and wipe some cookie-spit paste across Daffy Duck's beak.
Little Hendrick Ramirez is now standing on his chair, demanding I stop manhandling Arham.
"No!" he tells me, pointing a tiny finger in my direction. His accent stretches the o and for a second he reminds me of those guys I see camped out on the sidewalks in Port Chester playing dominoes, eating chicken feet. Hendrick is wearing a shiny plastic fireman's hat, which makes him much less mysterious.
"No, yourself," I say.
Angela has put her pen down and is looking at me. I mouth Sorry, like it's not my fault. Arham's giggling increases as he tries to squirm away from me. He keeps talking about his desire to make peepee.
I yank him harder than I should and force him back into his seat. His smile is still there, but behind it I can see he's confused. He struggles to get up and I pin his arms to his sides. Tiny veins, so small they look drawn on, pop out along his neck and he scrunches his eyes to little slits, won't look at me.
"Pee. Pee," he says, more of a breath than a word, pushing himself off his chair as far as he can.
"Yeah, yeah," I say.
Hendrick seizes the moment and disappears behind me, grabbing my plastic container of treats. I'm forked. Either I have to let Arham go, at which point he'll fall back onto the floor, or I can let Hendrick help himself to as many Gummi-Bears, M&M's, and Cheetos as he can cram into his mouth before Angela gets to him.
I drop Arham, which apparently he wasn't expecting, because for a moment, as he sails through the air, his smile vanishes and he looks completely baffled. He hits the deck, banging his head on the lap desk.
"Ouch. Ouch," he says, rubbing his temple.
Hendrick sees me coming and tosses the container into the air. Gummi-Bears disperse across the carpet. M&M's scatter. Hendrick takes off his fireman's hat and stands giving me the evil eye. I reach down to start picking up the mess, and as I do, Hendrick winds up and hits my hand as hard as he can with the helmet.
"Broccoli!" he yells, rolling the r with a look of profound ecstasy on his face. Broccoli is his favorite word.
If I had a gun, I would shoot everyone in the room, including myself.
My supervisor, Ceci, appears in the doorway. I imagine we've been making a racket.
"Is everything all right in here?" she asks. She is wearing her hair up in a ponytail today.
I sit on the floor, holding my throbbing hand, red and blue and green light from the craft paper spilling across my body. Ceci straddles the safety gate we use to keep the retards con- fined like barnyard animals.
She bends over and starts to help gather the fallen candy and snacks. I see through her cotton skirt that she's wearing a thong.
ARHAM IS GONE. Hendrick is gone. My fingers hurt.
I'm sitting outside at a picnic table. I'm sweating without really moving. My hair is matted all around my head. I refuse to cut it, mainly because it pisses my mother off.
The John W. Manley School employee handbook dictates that no one is allowed to clock out until four on the dot. Our supervisors are very clear about this at weekly staff meetings. In nonviolent protest I have begun staging sit-ins at the picnic table, silently letting the final ten minutes of the day expire.
I count the moments till I can leave. I emphasize each second by picking flakes of red paint off the table. After work, I'm meeting a Realtor to look at apartments. I'm anxious, filled with a strong urge to just take the first place I'm shown, anything, as long as it isn't my parents' house. I've been riding the seesaw of false hope and delusion all day: upward swings of happy thoughts about the prospect of once again living life outside that house, followed almost immediately by the dreadful remembrance that it's all a big farce I'm orchestrating because I don't actually have the money to rent my own place. My apartment hunt is nothing more than a waste of this Realtor's time, my time.
Thinking about all of this conjures images of my aunt Corrine. Before she lost her mind (the fate of every Moretti, it seems), Corrine worked in real estate. She was the one who put my parents in their current home. The house where I grew up. The house where I once again find myself living.
Corrine isn't really my aunt. She's my grandmother's cousin, so I don't know what that makes her to me. She's seventy years old and lives down the street from my family. I drive by her house every day on my way to work. She's fond of wearing oversize navy snow boots while watering the same patch of desolate garden in her front yard. I usually smile and wave if she sees me and try to forget that as a child I was made to kiss this woman's cheek on holidays. Aunt Corrine is not well. Of course, from my perspective at least, most people in my family are not well. At a YMCA line-dancing class last weekend, a widower named Stan asked Corrine to be his dancing partner. She called my mother at three o'clock that morning to inform us she was engaged.
Corrine woke many relatives that night, spreading the good news.
Last winter, during my mother's annual Christmas party, I found Corrine standing out in the backyard, shivering. There were tears in her eyes. I asked her what she was doing.
"Looking for Lloyd," she muttered. "Have you seen him?" Lloyd was her husband.
"He's been dead for nine years," I informed her. She blinked at me, confusion welling up in her gaze. "I haven't seen him. Let's check inside." I ushered her back into the house.
She's not well, and her brother Harold (this is a guy who had a new mattress delivered over a year ago and still hasn't carried it inside off his porch) has found a solution to her dementia-related problems. He's gone ahead and secured a new place for her to live, and from what I understand, Aunt Corrine has signed a very long lease. As of this morning, she's a permanent resident of the Four Winds Hospital over in Katonah.
I'm not sure who's going to water Corrine's fallow flowerbeds now that she's been relieved of that duty. In forty-six years I'll be her age. I wonder if I'll bow out of the race in similar fashion.
BACK INSIDE THE SCHOOL, I head to the staff kitchen to get some water. Angela is there, sitting at the table, looking exhausted.
"Sorry about earlier," I say.
She is slouched forward with one hand propping her head up.
"I shouldn't have let things get out of control."
"Around here, it happens," Angela says. "Don't worry."
I fill a cup with water from the cooler and sit down across the table from her. I check the time. Although I've stopped wearing the watch my grandmother gave me as a college graduation present, my cell phone tells me it's 3:55.
"Can I ask you a question?"
She sits back and looks at me.
"Is this the job you saw for yourself when you left El Salvador?"
She seems to turn the question over for a minute.
"No," she says.
"Is your life better because you left?"
"I have more money here than I could ever have there."
"Is this what you imagined? The John W. Manley School?"
She shakes her head.
"My life looks absolutely nothing like what I thought it would."
Why am I telling this woman these things? Sure, we sit in the same room together for hours every day, but we hardly ever speak more than a few words to each other. The only explanation is that I'm losing it.
"Life doesn't follow the plan you lay out," Angela says.
"Yeah, well, at least you don't have to deal with your family here. My family is killing me."
"Are you kidding? My mother calls five times a day and gets mad when I can't talk for an hour. I send money back, for her, for my father, for his new wife, for my sister and her kids."
"You know where my money goes?" I tell her. "Student loans. I'm broke all the time. I'm angry all the time."
"Bills. Calling cards. Babysitter. Food. Heat," Angela is ticking off her expenses one finger at a time.
"I live with my parents."
"I have two kids. No husband."
"I think this talk is depressing us."
We both laugh at the absurdity of it all.
"Family is family," Angela says. "Sometimes you need them."
"I don't," I say. "I want out."
Angela doesn't respond. Maybe she's right, but at the moment, life just feels like a mountain of frustration. I finish my water and check my cell phone again. Time to go.
I WALK INTO my supervisor's office, to where the time sheets are pinned with a thumbtack to the wall. Ceci is on the phone. By the tone of her voice I surmise she's talking to her fiancé.
"That sounds like a great idea," she says. She oohs and aahs. God knows what these two nimrods are discussing. She makes a lovey-dovey face. He can't see you, asshole, I think. She doesn't even look at me as I pull down the time sheet and sign out. I put the time as 4:05.
"You look hot today," I tell her as I tack the folder back to the wall. Ceci cups her hand over the receiver.
"I said, 'See you tomorrow,' " I call out as I slip through the door.
"Listen, Cal. I'd like you to present a graph next month. It's been a while."
"Sure thing," I say, but really I'm gone. I'm out of her office before she finishes her sentence, past the main doors and down the very long, very green sloping lawn to the parking lot. I climb into my hatchback and turn on the radio. It feels like a British postpunk evening, so I rummage around the garbage littering the floor of the car until I find something to fit that bill. I listen to Entertainment! Angular guitars, tin can drums, chugging, staccato bass lines. It sounds like heaven, and I'm off, shifting into reverse and pulling out of the lot faster than I should. Tires screech and I'm around the corner heading down Route 9 toward Yonkers. When I hit Palmer Avenue, I have a brief moment of guilt. I should really go home and see if my father needs help. I shouldn't be trying to pass myself off as a renter with good credit or savings of any kind. But then again, he always needs help. They're always looking for something from me in that house. It sucks you in. Fuck it.
When the light changes to green, I continue. I'll keep playing out the charade. I'll pretend I'm something I'm not.
Chapter TwoShe opens the door. Her blouse comes down just far enough in the front so I don't have to try very hard to imagine what her breasts look like. We step into the apartment. Her name is Pam Kittredge and she immediately tells me about other rentals she has access to. I tell her I wish to see them all.
"What do you do for a living?" she asks as I follow her to the kitchen, which is separated by an island counter from the living room.
"I'm a teacher." It's only half a lie, and it doesn't matter anyway, because my financially crippling student loans and barely existent salary prevent me from having anywhere near the sum needed to sign the lease, which would require me to pay the broker's fee, security deposit, and first month's rent up front.
"That's great," she says. "The landlord is definitely looking for someone responsible."
"I'm that person," I say.
"And what do your parents do?"
"Well, my father is sort of out of work at the moment," I tell her.
"He was laid off?"
"More like disability."
"I see," Pam says. She sees nothing.
I sum up my mother's existence with a vague "She makes sure the bills get paid."
The place is cavernous. Exactly what I had in mind. Giant raw space with exposed piping overhead and colossal paneled windows looking out on an industrial park across the street.
"These lofts are getting popular," Pam tells me. "Like a blank canvas. You can do whatever you want in here."
The previous tenant constructed a corner bedroom with drywall, the sides of which don't quite reach the ceiling.
"The building is full of artists and musicians," Pam says. "All sorts of creative people."
Excerpted from The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D'Agostino Copyright © 2012 by Kris D'Agostino. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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