From Chapter 8
Got to Get a Handle on It First
Children cannot be surprised by the extraordinary who have not been made aware of what is ordinary. A generation knowing top hats only as props for conjurers does not think it so remarkable when rabbits emerge from them.
--Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Book of Children's Verse
I remember discovering my feet.
"Awww, look at his little feet," I had heard huge, looming presences say, one HLP to another, as if my feet were present but I wasn't. Remember how it felt to be little, with no way to speak out besides bawling or smiling, and all around you flourished a conspiracy of presumptively superior beings who talked knowingly among themselves, right in front of you, about how precious and impossible you were? And they didn't sound all that well-informed! But you had to reject that notion--if they weren't well-informed, who was?
Sometimes you'd be dozing off and you'd hear a chorus of overbearing oohs and awws and an enormous voice would say, "Aren't they sweet?" (They? I'm "they" to them?)
And another such voice: "In their sleep."
Chuckles, and then they would slip away, quietly, so as not to disturb me.
The other day I saw a mother leading a tiny boy in a hooded sweat suit into a seafood store. The proprietor, an older man--well, he was probably my age--said, "Can I see how it feels to pick up a little boy like this?"
The mother nodded proprietarially.
"Isn't he solid?" the mother asked.
"Why yes," said the seafood man, hefting him.
"He's just a chunk," shesaid.
The man looked like he had about exhausted his curiosity with regard to the boy, but when the mother said "chunk" he hefted him again, and said, "Mm."
"He's just as chunky as he can be," the mother went on. "All my children are solid like that. He's as solid as a little rock."
"Why yes," said the man, setting him back down. And dusting his hands, an odd gesture.
"Of course he's spoiled rotten," said the mother.
On the boy's face there was no expression. He didn't look all that solid to me, nor that rotten. Stolid, yes--on the outside. On the inside, who knew?
I believe we remember things from birth, but we don't realize what we're remembering because we had no way of knowing what was going on at the time--just that it was so outlandish, the most outrageous thing until, presumably, death. We remember flashes from birth, and everything else we remember collects around those flashes.
But a foot is fairly solid.
"That's your foot," adults said, or "See your foot? That's Little Roy's foot." What? I would feel them touching me, pointedly, somewhere.
I could tell the difference between contact with a person, no matter how insensitive, and contact with the side of a crib, say. But it wasn't at all clear to me that the difference was of quite the requisite quality. It wasn't clear to me that this touch was taking me adequately into account. I cried a lot. It made my mother anxious.
I was too critical. The boy who cries "Bull!" It's a bad strategy. Because what comes back is, "You're so critical!" or even, tragically, "I don't please you!" and now I've got to apologize, the issue is me, my complaint is lost. I pretty much don't complain anymore. I live alone.
But I hadn't worked all that out yet, then.
"Noey has officially begun crawling," Ennis E-mailed me the other day. Noey is what we call my second grandchild, Noah. "He waited until the day after he discovered his penis--which took up most of his spare time." When I was an infant, adults did not encourage that sort of thing.
And I guess there wouldn't have been much point in their telling me, "There's your nose," because I couldn't have seen what was indicated--no there there. But a foot: voilà.
My attitude, however, was: You just keep me fed and refrain from crushing me until I figure things out, and then I'll decide what is or isn't my "foot."
Then one day--after a lot of random scanning, back and forth, and putting things together bit by bit, same way I figure things out today, when and if I do--I got a grip on it: the thing, and the concept. Foot.
I liked it. The word foot connected admirably with the thing itself. I have never been such a chauvinist, so to speak, as to assume that Anglo-Saxons were the only people capable of coming up with the right words for things (I'm Norman-Celtic genetically, and lococulturally Celtico-African), but there's something gratifyingly solid about foot. Le pied is
too . . . prancy; der Fuss puts on heavy airs. Whereas getting the word foot is like receiving a nice easy pitch in a well-broken-in catcher's mitt. Foot.
I could feel it. And I could feel it feeling me. Mutual contact. Of a sort that did have a certain clarity. The toucher, the word, the touchee: a complete loop. Feel foot, foot feels back, ergo: my foot. But wait. I felt a qualm. It was empirically mine, this foot, but was it not also said to be the foot of someone else? Of someone else who was a smaller version of some third party? Contact should lead somewhere. This time--because of the qualm--it led to this: my foot is Little Roy's foot.
Then I must be Little Roy! I was seventeen.
No, I'm kidding, I was just an infant.
Then these, I thought to myself, would be my fingers . . . hand . . . arm . . .
And what is this other thing that looks just like my foot? Oh, duh. Other foot.
I lay there, turning these things over in my mind. I didn't think of it as my mind then--I still don't with any clarity. Expecting anybody to know how his or her own mind works is like asking a dollar to make change. I could turn things over in it, though:
I have body parts. Ergo, I have a body. This is my body, which I have, and also am: where would I be without it?
Wait. Somewhere along in there I started making this up.
"Write it as fiction," my fellow rock musician Stephen King once advised me. "Then the other people who were there at the time can't tell you it's wrong." But I have some kind of block against that. When my fellow sportswriter Dan Jenkins was a kid, he and his friends made up fake names for themselves, in case they ever got in trouble with the law. His fake name was Bob Roberts. Then one time he did get picked up for some sort of mischief, and the cop asked him his name and he said, in a small, muffled voice, "Bob Roberts."
"What?" snapped the cop.
"DAN JENKINS," he blurted out.
But a memoirist needs details. So, finally, I did consult a hypnotist.
"You want the implants?" he said.
"Certainly not. All I want is a little hypno-suggestive help in getting past whatever blocks have kept me from retrieving the richness of my past as it actually was, the texture of it, the way a single broken live-oak leaf slanted down . . . made its lop-winged way . . . along a something ray of crisp September sunlight and, whatever, you know--as I took my first faltering steps toward school that fateful day in the second grade when--"
"Were you paying attention to this leaf and this ray at the time?" asked the hypnotist.
"No, I had things on my mind," I said.
"I can get you the implants."
"How can you possibly implant the stuff of my own unique history?"
"I know a guy," he said.
I do remember certain moments, over and over. Once I heard Merle Travis remark, on a recording, to a banjo player who was working out real strong: "They say if you pick it, it won't get well." But I can't help it, I keep going back, worrying at these memorable moments, wondering, Did that really happen that way and that's why I am this way, or do I just think it happened that way because I am this way?
And I don't even remember what I was like at these moments. People say, "If only I knew then what I know now." But in that case, you wouldn't have learned anything since. What I'd like to know now is what I knew then. I'm at least as insubstantial in my recollection, myself, as everything else is. I don't think I have ever been any more solid, inside, than, say, soup.
I remember wetting my pants, dramatically, in the second grade. Okay?
During reading period. There I was, in a circle of chairs with all the other fast readers at the front of the room, in plain sight of the slower readers as well, and suddenly . . . Little kids wore short pants in those days, and I was splattering the floor. I'd like to say that I saved the situation with a quip, but I didn't. I assumed the closest thing to a fetal position you can assume while trying not to attract attention. Mrs. Lindsay was a kind teacher. She told the class, "Roy is sick," and let me go home. I remember wondering in the darkness that night, How will I be able to go back? But I did. Hunkered down, got back on the horse, buried myself in my work. Life went on.
So that won't serve as my defining incident. Generally you can find in the childhood of a significant humorist some event so absurdly traumatic that there's no way to make straightforward sense of it. Mark Twain looked through a keyhole and saw his father being autopsied--his organs being lifted out and held to the light. Richard Pryor looked through a keyhole and saw his mother turning a trick. Robert Benchley, when his brother died, overheard his distraught mother crying, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?" How can I be a significant humorist if I can't lay claim to any such moment?
You could make a case for the time when I was, I don't know, five?, and my mother walked into the bathroom as I sat in the tub innocently swushing soapy water around my nether area in a pleasurable way, and she said, "No, we don't do that."
The qualm kicked in. (Qualm. A word of unknown derivation.) It seemed a shame, but I respected her judgment. She wouldn't say anything to hurt me, would she?
Then, since I had brought the matter up, she took the occasion to tell me this:
"When you were born the doctor cut a little too much off your, you-know. I don't know why in the world he wasn't paying better attention!" She sounded vexed. On top of all the other difficulties of my birth, she had had that to worry about. She bustled on off with an armload of laundry.
I sat there and thought to myself, Well, gee.
That's all I remember.
There ought to be more to this scene. Boy's mother tells him something's wrong with his you-know, and leaves him sitting there in his bathwater. The moment must have made an impression on me, since I still remember it after fifty years. For one thing, it was the first time I'd heard anything about anything being cut off of anybody's you-know. It was also the last time, until I was in college and read in a magazine that people were beginning to argue that there was really no very clear medical reason for circumcision. And it wasn't a Methodist thing.
But you know, I think I just sort of took it, gradually, bit by bit, on board.
I told a woman I was going out with about that moment once and she said--this is what she would always say, as in a catechism:
"How did that make you feel?"
I don't know. I was five. I don't even know what it made me think, other than, Well, gee. In retrospect I am inclined to believe that my mother was not what you might call a phallophile. But would I have wanted her to be one? No.
You can't expect a woman to empathize in that area. Once when a friend of mine's daughter was a tot, she walked in on her father when he was taking, as we guys would say, a leak.
"Well, that's a silly way!" she said.
Hey, okay. That's natural.
I was a little put off recently to read this by Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, in a review of a book by Carolyn G. Heilbrun: "Ms. Heilbrun, like many of us, is quite fond of the particular men who share her life, but mistrusts the genotype."
But, hey. Okay. Sexist, surely, but quite possibly wise. My first wife hated the idea of mutuality as a basis for marriage. But maybe mutual mistrust would work. Someone once said to me, with regard to two unsavory people we knew, "They hold each other in mutual contempt. Which speaks well of both of them." Mutual mistrust is something that two people just might be able to depend on. Would they ever get naked, though?
At any rate it wasn't a man who beat my mother. Her daddy was sweet, she said, the few times she mentioned him to me. He gave her a quarter that she kept all her life.
Certainly I don't judge my mother by contemporary parenting standards, at least as represented by Nancy Friday, author of Women on Top: "I'm always saying, raise your little girl to masturbate--it's the best sex education, and it's the safest education she can get in her life." (When girls do it, is it called jilling off?) Personally I think masturbation should be left to the individual. It seems to me nothing would put more of a crimp in it than a parent calling upstairs, "Have you masturbated yet, dear? No television for you, young lady, till you've at least made an effort. . . ."
We don't do that. A classic parental expression. I admit, I've said it myself. When, for instance, one of my children would lie right down in the middle of the dirty grocery-store aisle, wallowing around on the floor so that people were steering their carts around the child in question. That's something I don't think I ever felt entitled to do as a child, but there must be something distinctly gratifying about it, if only because it galls parents so distinctly. The other day in the hardware store there was a man trying to pay for some Spackle and his little girl was lying flat out on the floor pulling on his ankle.
"We don't do that," he said to her. Well no, we don't, but she did.
"You don't love me!" the little girl shouted.
I would never have dared shout that to one of my parents. They were always saying that to me.
I must say, however, that it does seem to me that any parent, male or female, even in Georgia back in, like, 1946 or whenever this was, however much she may have been offended by the sensual swushing, might have thought to herself, Well, I don't want to make a big deal of this, don't want to dwell on it with him, but I do want to take the time to make it clear--I won't even have to go into the whole thing of how he will be calling upon it down the road--that there's nothing wrong with his you-know, it's just a little more skint back than other people's.
That's pretty much what I worked out on my own. But only over a period of some years, during which I could have been learning to play the guitar.