Watch Your Mouthby Daniel Handler
Tolstoy wrote that happy families are alike and that each unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.In Watch Your Mouth, Daniel Handler takes "different" to a whole new level....
Tolstoy wrote that happy families are alike and that each unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.In Watch Your Mouth, Daniel Handler takes "different" to a whole new level....
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THERE'S NEVER BEEN an opera about me, never in my entire life. Normally this wouldn't bother me. There hasn't been one about you, either, and besides, I'm still young. If my life were a play, this would be the last few minutes before the lights lowered and everything began. The audience would be milling aroundthe older couples in formal, non-funky suits with pearls hanging around the women's necks like drops of semen, and the younger people in black shirts and jeans because the formality of theater is an elitist tyrannical paradigm and lots of people in the clothes they wore to work because, frankly, by the time they got home and jumped into the shower and changed their clothes they'd either be late, which they hate, or they'd be on time but so stressed out that they couldn't really enjoy it, and frankly, if you're going to pay that much for tickets what's the use if you're not going to enjoy it, so what they do is just wear some slightly dressier work clothes to work and then go right to the theater, locking the briefcase in the trunk and sometimes even having time for a cocktail or something, but not for dinner because they hate wolfing down dinner and rushing to the theater, it's so stressful, they might as well go home and shower and change if they want to be stressed out before the show even starts.
This is some snatch of lobby-talk that Stan, the manager of the Pittsburgh Opera, overheard and never forgot. And never forgot to repeat. "That's our audience, Joseph," he said to me. "Just regular working folk. We have to create opera for them that's not justinteresting but fascinating, mesmerizing. So that they transcend all the stress about whether to change or where to have dinner or parking or whatever, and really hear the music. That's what opera's for. Do you have any more of those candies?"
Because this is, you know, an opera. Fiction, like all operas: a lie, but a lie is sort of a myth, and a myth is sort of a truth. All summer long I was watching things happen with Cynthia Glass and her family that were melodramatic, heart-wrenching, and absurdlytrulytragic. Dire consequences lurked around their house like the growl of cellos when the jealous fiancé, or the enraged father, or the Old Spirit of the Mountains descends on the lovers, flushed with horniness and the effort of singing over a fifty-piece orchestra La Forza Dei Glasses. Le Nozze Di Incest. Cyn. They were an opera and now the lights are lowering and here we are, reader or readers. No need to stress. An opera in book form is more convenient than the real thing, because you can eat when you want and wear whatever pleases you. Nothing, maybe. Read it alone in bed, the sheets lingering on your bare belly, your hips. Read it when no one's watching. Go ahead.
I know there are some operas that start right up, but this isn't one of them. Like Beethoven, whose only opera clears its throat with not one but four possible overtures, I've written a bunch of openings, all introducing the subject matters and what surrounds them. As somebody said in a book I've since lost, all behavior exists within a social and cultural context, so I hope these overtures will not exactly influence you, but tap you on the shoulder to get you looking in the right direction. Their purpose is similar to those hyphened taxonomies you can find clinging to the back of the title page like mold on a shower curtain, infecting your naked and vulnerable skin. You know the words I mean. I know that deep down you know what I'm talking about. Those Library of Congress things:
Our story begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where, the guidebooks would have it, "geography demanded a city." As if rich river-soaked land wanted nothing better than a bunch of greyed-out buildings dumped on it. The Ohio River is born where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet in a wet intersection of sludgy vowels. As in all American cities, the areas are named after what was destroyed to put the houses there, and most of Pittsburgh is named after Indian things: tribes, land, activities. Cyn's neighborhood was between Shadyside, where all the trees had been trimmed to regulation width, and Squirrel Hill, where the only woodland creatures to be found were iron-cast and holding bagels in front of the upscale Jewish market. Johnny Appleseed is from Pittsburgh.
Say you spent an erotically scarring summer in Pittsburgh and later find yourself in an opera about it. If you want to appreciate an opera you read some background material, so you phone up the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. The volunteers who answer the phone will be aghast at your interest. Nobody wants to go there. Nevertheless, they'll brush the dust off the full-color gloss and send you beckoning brochures.
The brochures refer to Pittsburgh as the Emerald City because it's surrounded by green hills. The city of Pittsburgh is crazy about color, having sprinkled the primaries all over the city in the form of Color-Coded Wayfinder signs. Like the curved stripes of the rainbow, the appropriate roads encircle the city, keeping you lost but at least monochromatic. Whenever I drove around trying to use the Wayfinders I could always, say, find all the Blue things I wanted but could never figure out how to skip to the next rung on the spectrum. But all this fascination with color is more than inappropriate; it's wrong. The color of Pittsburgh is a bitter black. Racially too. The great lumbering steel industry has left a dark powder on a brick that once photogenically matched the color of the people driven out of Duquesne Incline and Monongahela Heights.
It's a wonder, beneath all the smokestack sky, that the city can host "one of the nation's most spectacular collections of live birds," twittering away in the North Side. A regular field trip for campers at Camp Shalom, a Jewish day camp in the area. Also of note is the Benedrum Center for the Performing Arts, which seemed to me named onomatopoetically; as I drafted all this in the Center's library I could hear the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra sounding it out: Be-ne-drum, Be-ne-drum. Across the street is a smaller music hall named for a ketchup company founded in Pittsburgh which celebrated an anniversary in the early '60s with a robot shaped like a ketchup bottle. The tririvered city would never see anything like it again until the third month of this tangled summer when an unearthly figure, cooked up in Mrs. Glass's basement laboratory, rose out of the Ohio and lumbered across the prestigious Old Jewish Cemetery. The brochure describes what goes on in August as "hot fun": "Grab your suit and sandals and head for the water. Summer in the Emerald City is hot fun. Make sure you take some loose cottons for the riverfront scene after dark, where there are plenty of deserted crannies for fucking Cyn. Average highs in the low 80s."
The trouble with marking poisonous medicines with a skull and crossbones is that cabinet-curious youngsters associate the symbol with pirates. This was the problem studied by a special committee at the Pittsburgh Children's Hospital, which is one of the sites of renown here in town. And of course the bridges. Cyn was considering an American History major, the seed planted, so to speak, by a high-school teacher obsessed with local history. Here George Washington rallied the troops, set up a fort demanded by geography. Two forts. Routed the British. The bridges were spun like strands of a web: Veteran's, Smithfield Street, Liberty, 16th, 9th, 6th, 7th, Duquesne, Pitt. Forts meant injuries and injuries meant hospitals, one of which drew up Mr. Yech, the new non-buccaneer warning of poison. Mr. Yech had few features but a big mouth which, it was clear, had just swallowed something that little kids did not want to swallow. As the frontier was tamed the Jews felt safe enough to settle in the only city in America able to compose an internationally-recognized face of distaste. They needed somewhere to send their little Jews and Jewettes during the schoolless months and thus Camp Shalom was founded, and that's how Cyn and I ended up living in her parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the summer before my senior year at Mather College. The curtain rises.
Laundry Roomslove affairs begun inFiction
Our story begins with a clothes dryer. Cyn and I met in the laundry room just as she was discovering the Dryer of Eternity. Heedless of the coin slot, it kept spinning and spinning and dried everything, every time. That made it the direct opposite of all the other dryers. She was just peering into the empty, spinning machine when I rounded the corner. My chin was weighing down the pile of clothing in my laundry basket, making me feel sheepish and decapitated. She smiled and I told her about the Dryer of Eternity, and for the rest of our cycles we made small talk while around us the laundry room lurched in erotic rhythm. Inside the machines all of our clothing was getting wet and being tossed around.
The rest of it went like one of those pornographic magazines where people write in about their true experiences: "Let me help you with that," I said, taking her wet clothes out of the machine and catching a glimpse of her heaving tits under her tight shirt. I accidentally brushed against her and her eyes widened as she felt the size of my bulge. "Only if I can help you with that," she said, dropping to her knees and unzipping me. She opened her mouth wide to accommodate my nine inches of man-meat as I lifted her T-shirt over her head and pinched her bullet-hard nipples. She tried to swallow all my creamy love juice but I pumped out too much and she gagged, taking her mouth away and letting the rest of my cum spray all over her like pearls around an operagoer's neck. "We're not done," she panted, as she eased her shorts off and guided my fingers to her wet, gaping hole.
Actually we went to dinner first, several dinners, after running into each other at parties about as accidentally as our lothario and his bulge-brushing. And don't you love how he can lift a T-shirt over the head of a woman giving him fellatio? Oral sex is a Möbius strip, porn boy. Truth of the matter is that in Locust, Pennsylvania, there is precious little territory to pioneer any sort of relationship. It's about as big as its buggy little namesake and because it's a college town the three restaurants are packed with everyone you know: "Hey! Are you two, um?" It's not a good place for dating. For peace and quiet we went to each other's roomswell, we both went to one of our roomsand yes, it wasn't too long before Cyn eased her shorts off and guided my fingers to her wet, gaping hole.
Incessant. All year long. We'd miss classes. The dining hall would ring its last-chance bell while we probed each other across campus. We'd forget about people who were stopping by to return books until they knocked and we'd greet them, rumpled and impatient for them to leave. We got clumsy, bumping into end tables until the vase tipped and dumped the wilting flowers I'd bought at the Campus Center onto my bare back, the grimy greenish water onto her wriggling chest. We broke two lamps. We were falling in love like falling down drunk, like falling down stairs.
By midterms we didn't need to talk much, we understood each other so well. One afternoon while driving somewhere, I broke a long silence by admitting I'd never had sex in the back of an automobile; she pulled over and we went at it as the sweaty ghosts of her high-school lovers watched over us. Before she'd met me she'd barely ever had sex not in the back of an automobile, and it was the same automobile. She'd driven it to Locust, Pennsylvania, with duffels of clothes and graduation presents (unabridged dictionary, popcorn popper, coffee maker, unabridged dictionary) stacked in the backseat where she'd made them all come: the soccer-playing redhead, the pimply actor who got her in trouble with Dr. and Mrs. Glass for leaving cigarettes in her car and the tall one who played drums in a band and coaxed panting polyrhythms out of Cyn with stick-calluoused hands. It was like the car was some mad scientist invention that ran on bodily fluids instead of petroleum. She kept in touch with the actor, talking to him on the phone while I reached under the old shirt of mine she slept in. He was offering her a summer job at Camp Shalom. She accepted as she squirmed on the bed, covering the phone receiver to moan at me, and when he said he needed one more staff member she didn't have to look further than her own tongue and that's how Cyn and I ended up living in her parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the summer before my senior year at Mather College. The curtain rises.
Postal System, United StatesmistakesFiction
Our story begins with a lost box. Each year, more than eighty trillion pieces of mail go through the United States Postal Service and more than fourteen percent of them are lost. Actually, I made up those statistics, but the person on the twenty-four- hour help line probably made up his, too. I could hear his pimples on the phone, pulsing like bubbles in lava as he told me all about my lost box in the tone of voice you use when some guy calls you about his lost package and you're getting off work in a half hour to go home and watch some rented porn.
I had an incomplete in a class it now seems too ridiculous to even mention. As the Mather College Undergraduate Student Handbook reads, "A grade of `incomplete' can be designated for any credit class for a number of reasons. A major paper or exam hinging upon research that cannot be completed during the traditional boundaries of the semester would be suitable grounds, as would a true personal or medical emergency. Requesting an incomplete because of an overextravagance of sexual activity, Joseph, is really pushing it. Unless the completion of the course requires research to be done elsewhere, it is expected that a student will remain in the Locust area."
Well, that wasn't going to happen. In the summertime, any questions on the origin of Locust, Pennsylvania's name are resolved in a cloud of gnats. Plus, I had been offered a job in Pittsburgh. Cyn, who licked my stamps, kept in touch with an ex-boyfriend of hers, an actor. I had seen pictures; he was a pimply little thing who'd gotten Cyn in trouble for leaving his cigarettes in the family car after she'd get extravagant on him. Even after all those hand jobs, he was still looking for a stiff member. "Shut up, Joseph. I said a staff member." Two, in fact: Cyn and me. She was going to teach singing and I was going to run the Arts & Crafts Shack, spreading thick white glue out for children to play with. I couldn't possibly stay in Locust.
All this was fine with my laid-back professor, Ted Steel, a large, oversensitive man the likes of which make political conservatives rant and rave about the leftist dogma passing for academia nowadays. Although Mather was named for a Puritan, nobody read him there, and the permissive climate had torn the pedagogy apart like a hymen. Did you catch that odd phrase in the Handbook, the one that didn't belong? "The traditional bounds of the semester"? That's how Professor Steel talked. I let him think I was sleeping with my first man and he agreed to mark me "incomplete."
Cyn and I were taking her family car to Pittsburgh for the summer, but we couldn't fit everything in the trunk and we wanted to leave the backseat free because it was a six-hour drive with plenty of deserted side roads. Steel had signed off on special library privileges so I could write my final paper while exploring my gay identity in Pittsburgh. I wasn't sure what I was going to write my paper on, so I withdrew the maximum amount of books and shoved them into a big box at Mathermail, where every September wide-eyed freshmen retrieved heavy trunks filled with clothes and graduation presents (unabridged dictionary, popcorn popper, coffee maker, unabridged dictionary). Some sullen high-school part-timer, probably saving up for a car so she could tug orgasms out of pimply actors in relative privacy, took my money and said the box would arrive in Pittsburgh. It never did. Every so often I still get letters from Mather's Library informing me of approximately three hundred thousand dollars in overdue fines.
I called and called. I called everybody even remotely connected with the postal service. They all had pimples, lied about statistics, and couldn't locate my box, and that's how Cyn and I ended up living in her parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the summer before my senior year at Mather College. The curtain rises.
Waspscircumstances as the result of attacks byFiction
Our story begins with wasps. Like the head of a grandmother, a grey and wrinkled nest was perched high in the corner of the Arts & Crafts Shack of Camp Shalom, a Jewish day camp in the Pittsburgh area. It was pretty much Shalom's inactive volcanoabout eight years back somebody got stung but nobody else, and eight years back it was a kid nobody liked. So went the rumor.
But the Stock twins, Abby and Pinchas Stock, were readying the Arts & Crafts Shack for the onslaught of little Jews and Jewettes. They were scheduled to be counselors and were earning some extra money cleaning up the camp, a job which nobody but the Stock twins thought was anything but lounging around the grounds, taking a dip in the lake, and shooing gnats away from the nightly barbecue. The Stock twins took their job with a rabbinical seriousness. The Stock twins thought that they should clean up the camp, and when they saw what first looked like Grandma Stock, decapitated at last, they figured they'd better get that wasps' nest down before it hurt somebody.
For the camp-wide barbecues, the fat and friendly lesbians who worked as cooks used the mausoleum-sized brick barbecues by the side of the lake, but for counselors-only get-togethers there was a bright blue kettle on wheels. Abby Stock wheeled it over to the Shack while Pinchas found a stepladder and a broom with whiskers so dusty that the act of sweeping with it was a textbook example of dramatic irony. Having gleaned from somewhere that smoke was the thing that one did to wasps, the twins got a fire going in the bright blue kettle and threw some construction paper on the grill. A thin pillar of smokePinchas, something of a Torah nerd, made a Moses jokewafted its way toward the nest whose wrinkles suddenly seemed to be wincing in distaste. The Stock twins thought about two handfuls of paper should do it. The Stock twins thought that the few wasps hummingbirding around the nest were probably the last couple of survivors. Pinchas went up the ladder.
Angry wasps clouded the air in strict arrow-shaped formations more like angry wasps in cartoons on television than you'd think. The arrow pointed first at Pinchas, who fell from the ladder and led the wasps to his partner in crime. Both of them were so covered in stings that their faces looked like seed cakes. Plus the failing ladder broke Abby's leg. The wasps made a quick lap around the Shack before returning to the nest, so that by the time the lounging counselors arrived on the scene it looked like pain had just descended on the Stock twins, out of nowhere.
Pittsburgh Bug-B-Gone, who rid Temple Ner Tamid ("Eternal Light") of the cockroach problem spoiling their kosher catering facilities, took care of the nest, but the problem of finding two more counselors at such short notice fell to the Head of Staff, a theater student who hadn't been accepted into any summer stock programs and so was spending the summer exiled in his hometown. Chastened, he was living in the sweaty bedroom of his youth and after dark would stroke himself remembering a girl from high school who would pull over halfway home from cast parties to bring him to a shuddering ovation in the backseat of her family's throbbing car. So when the Stock twins were peppered he didn't have to look further than his own sticky body. He was buzzing with panting reunion fantasies when he called Cyn, but he had to put his acting skills to use when he said of course she could bring her boyfriend Joseph, and that's how Cyn and I ended up living in her parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the summer before my senior year at Mather College. The curtain rises.
Golemrevenge through attacks bylegends concerningFiction
Our story begins with a golem, a figure in Jewish mythsort of a Jewish lie, sort of a Jewish truth. Just as God, breathing into clay, created something that was in the shape of, but not as good as, Himself, man can breathe into clay and make something man-shaped but not man. Or in this case, not woman.
The trick, of course, is the ritual. The mythology of the golem sprung up in the sixteenth century in Worms, Germany, when a beleaguered rabbi, exhausted by the usual government evil, created a new ritual and with it a seven-foot-tall man made of clay. In many ways Pittsburgh is a perfect place for what was surely the first American golem, because although stories of the ritual differ, they usually say that river mud is the best flesh.
The sixteenth-century Worms fad in Jew-hating was a fairly common one in those days: the blood libel. Jews were accused of killing Christian babies and using their blood to make unleavened bread for Passover, a charge that's particularly laughable if you've ever had even a bite of dry, tasteless matzah. This is a reason why the Glass home is also a perfect locale for a golem revival, because Mrs. Glass cooked her delicious meals using mysterious ingredients obtained at dawn at the downtown market. Who knows what was in that sauce, or what creature previously owned those bulbous objects, rendered unreadable by carmelization?
According to the records, some Christians would kill their own babies, break into rabbis' homes and place the baby-bodies in the basement, returning the next morning with a mob. Now that's anti-semitism. Rabbis set up patrols to block this baby-planting, but all the Christians would have to do was toss the infant corpses directly into the rabbis' arms and return the next morning with a mob. The ghetto-hood watch wasn't working; the congregation wanted a better guardian.
The clay is laid out in the shape of a man and the creator is dressed in white. Candles are lit and the body is circled a number of times argued over extensively in horrifically dull texts on Jewish mysticism. The prayers are of course also in dispute, but my favorite is an alphabetical one sung by a hopelessly Gentile tenor in Golem, one of the productions that summer at the Pittsburgh Opera: "Ah, By Clay Destroy Evil Forces, Golem, Help Israel: Justice!" This brought the clay to an obedient, powerful and creepy life.
The fact it's the alphabet is worth noting. The golem, like so many aspects of Judaism, is inundated with the power of the Word. God's name is a secretabbreviated "Ha Shem," or "The Name," most of the time. In the beginning, of course, was the Word. It's generally agreed that a short prayer, inscribed on a scroll of paper, should be placed in the golem's mouth; if he ever speaks, the Word of God tumbles out and the golem turns back into clay. Pretend you're an evil Christian, sneaking through the ghettos of Worms with a dead baby, when a seven-foot silent figure of clay steps out of the shadows. No way are you returning the next morning with a mob. That's the power of the Word. The name of the beleaguered rabbi was Rabbi Liva. The name of the river from which the flesh was taken was the Moldau River. The name of the first golem was Joseph. The name of the story where all this is told is The Wondrous Tale That Was Widely Known As The Sorrows Of A Daughter.
Cyn had not the slightest interest in her religious heritage, but one time we were caught in a freak thunderstorm while walking around the campus cemetery, one of those picturesque old ones where people are always doing rubbings. We huddled underneath a tree, getting damp, then soaked, then horny: we did a rubbing. Cyn always preferred being on top and I always submitted, even when that meant my bare body pressed into mud and her hair and face dripping on me like a wet tree. Even when she shifted her position and moved her hands from the mud to my chest, leaving a thick handprint of clay on each shoulder, I didn't mind. As she constricted around me I felt like I was coming to life, obedient to her will. She stuck a clay-stained finger into my mouth and though the taste was bitter I was afraid to say anything and ruin it. The rain stopped but we didn't; I was afraid that somebody might see us, stepping out of the shadows on their way somewhere. But I didn't speak. I'd do anything for her.
And that's how Cyn and I ended up living in her parents' house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the summer before my senior year at Mather. The curtain rises.
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