By Mr. Fish
In his satirical lexicon on human nature, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defined truth as “an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance.” In deference to the profound wisdom offered by that definition, it’s not hard to see why I’ve spent my whole life being fleeced by bullshit and blindsided by a reality indifferent to truth.
The summer began with me playing canasta shirtless against my twin sister, Dawn, on my grandparents’ screened-in front porch, a freshly uncapped bottle of Yoo-Hoo by my side and a fat brass medallion the size of a hockey puck bearing the zodiac sign for Leo hanging to my navel from around my neck. It was 1978 and I was 11 and in my mind’s eye I looked like a younger, whiter version of Isaac Hayes, but, because I was wearing mirrored sunglasses, my sister saw me only as a moron she could hustle out of all his bicentennial money.
It was supposed to be the summer when I figured out girls, from learning about how their filthy mechanical innards made them run to honing my erudite skills as an aficionado of their wildly diverse design aesthetic. I had had the conversation with my best friend, Beats, some time around Memorial Day about how his older brother, Cray, who was a high school sophomore, had gone from being a hapless and hopelessly unpopular honors student with a complexion that made him appear as if his face had caught fire and then been put out with an ice pick to being a gregarious C-student with clear skin, a mustache and a top dresser drawer full of mesh bikini underpants, all because of something that happened to him at an unchaperoned Halloween party at the Cenlar twins’, Betty and Becca’s, dad’s house in Chester Springs, Pa.
“All I know is that there was a hookah and a hot tub and then, all of a sudden, my brother wants a Nehru jacket and a pierced ear for Christmas,” Beats whispered to me, his eyes bugging out of his head, over a game of Electronic Battleship in his basement. “Then my mother shows him his report card from the second semester and then he shows my mother the hickeys on his chest and then my mother asks him if Betty and Becca are identical or fraternal sluts and then my brother tells her to stop hassling him about his social life and then my mother tells him that he’s going to need more than just chlamydia and a mood ring to get into college and my brother says that he wants to talk about Christmas and then my mother says she already got him his Christmas present and that it’s a baseball bat that she’d like to get from the attic and show him 40 or 50 times.”
Whatever Cray had contracted in Chester Springs dressed as Paul Stanley from Kiss, Beats and I wanted to contract without the commute, the wig or the platform shoes, first with serious academic study of any and all schematics available on the female thingamajig and then, when we were ready, with real hands-on experience. Having lost our one and only copy of Sunshine and Health—a 1963 nudist magazine that Beats found in a church parking lot depicting what mediocre golfers, canoeists and pingpong players look like when they enter middle age without clothes on—to a fleet of bulldozers and a new strip mall, we were in desperate need of fresh research material.
“All you need to know is that there’s blood involved,” said Dawn, smoothing a short stack of $2 bills with her hand before folding them into her “Charlie’s Angels” vinyl purse along with all my bicentennial quarters.
“Blood?” I asked, feeling woozy all of a sudden, no longer invested in checking the backs of the playing cards to see whether they were marked. I removed my sunglasses and looked deeply into my sister’s face. “There’s blood?”
“Lots of it,” she said.
“Why is there blood?” I wanted to know. “Whose blood? Is it the man’s blood or the woman’s blood?”
“Listen,” she whispered, standing to go, “I’ve already said too much.” She shifted her eyes this way and that. “I could get in trouble if I told you anything else,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Then she was gone.
“What the fuck did they tell those girls in that room to make them act like that?” Beats wanted to know when I told him about the blood later that day. “It’s fucking bizarre,” he said, shaking his head and plopping himself down onto the ground to pluck and then worry a blade of grass in between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s like their vaginas are Anne-fucking-Frank or something and our curiosity is the Gestapo! ‘Look, I’m a uterus! Here comes somebody with a penis! I better breathe into my sleeve so nobody hears me behind this bookcase!’ I’m sick of it!” He was referring to the early afternoon at the end of the school year when all the sixth-grade girls were kept inside from recess and crammed into the nurse’s office for 45 minutes with the door closed and Mrs. DeWitt standing guard outside. “Zeeker said that Vivian Petropoulos started to hyperventilate so hard when she was in there that some of the other girls closest to the window started writing HELP in the condensation on the glass hoping that somebody driving by would notice.”
“The thing is,” I said, “I know that my sister left with a pamphlet that day and if I could just find out where she put the goddamn thing …”
“Well, like I said before,” interrupted Beats, “Plan B is going to Uncle Paul’s and grabbing one of those cakes in the red boxes from the walk-in.”
“What’s that going to teach us?!” I shouted. Beats was talking about his mom’s younger brother who was a racetrack tout who had recently come into a lot of money and had purchased a tiny bakery in Upper Darby called Cake in the Box. In addition to wedding, birthday and bar mitzvah cakes, the shop also sold erotic novelty cakes for bachelor and bachelorette parties, something that was trending like crazy at the time.
“It’s a start,” sighed Beats, falling backward and rubbing his face in exasperation. “At least it’s a start.”
Q: How do you know if there’s an elephant in your bed? A: He has a big ‘E’ on his pajama shirt pocket. Q: What do you call a cow with no legs? A: Ground beef.
That’s what it said on the Dixie Cup full of rubbing alcohol and dead fleas that I had next to me while I sat cross-legged on the floor, staring up at the sky through the window in my bedroom and doing my best to ignore the playing card-sized pamphlet in the corner, its title, “My Period,” pressing maniacally into the bruise that my mood had become. I was waiting to hear the cartoonishly inaccurate crow call from Beats, pausing every so often to pluck a bloodthirsty flea off my ankle and to toss it into the cheerful cup of alcohol, where it would sink and die almost immediately, its only crime being its refusal to live contrary to its cosmic design, its body a black period signifying the end of something.
“Are you sure we’re ready for this?” Beats panted, his watery eyes pleading with mine for some corroborating cowardice that would’ve slowed the momentum of the previous five minutes to a speed that, had either one of us wanted to jump off and retreat from the moment, we wouldn’t be killed by the fall. We were alone in our treehouse and Beats was looking at me, breathing hard like he was struggling against drowning, his chubby freckled face a declaration of unconnected dots, his strawberry blond hair perspired into the color of exploded peanut butter. On the floor in between us sat a red cardboard cake box with its lid taped shut.
“Yeah,” I said, staring hard at the greasy spot pooling cruelly at the box’s rear and imagining how different my life was about to become once that hopeful square of shiny tape was peeled back and the lid was allowed to open. “We’re ready.”
“And you don’t feel any sense of doom in the air?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said, lying.
“You’re not worried about this turning out like Pandora’s box?”
“Yeah,” he said, his heart still racing to catch his breath. “You know, releasing all the contents of hell into the world?”
“Jesus, I would hope that your uncle worked out all those little glitches before setting out his Open for Business sign,” I said.
“Maybe we should go through the Bible once to make sure we’re not breaking any rules,” he said, his unblinking eyes wide enough to be emitting a sound that I swore was just beyond my decibel range, something I imagined capable of driving termites out of wood or forcing entire fleets of corn crop to miscarry.
“Listen, the Bible isn’t going to tell us anything worthwhile,” I said. “There’s no scientific reasoning in there. I remember reading in Deuteronomy that a zebra was really just a gray pony that wasn’t vibrating fast enough to appear gray. It’s all crap.”
“You’re not thinking about the story of Lot’s wife?”
“No, don’t be silly!” I said.
“What if my brain can’t comprehend what I’m looking at inside that box?”
“Dude,” I said, “it’s a fucking cake! What are you, a C-cup? If there’s one thing that you comprehend a little too much, it’s cake.”
“You know what I’m talking about!”
“No,” I said, “I really don’t!”
“Aren’t you afraid that whatever is in that box could rob us of our innocence?”
“How innocent are we?” I wanted to know.
“Pretty goddamn fucking innocent,” said Beats, mopping the sweat off his brow with the palm of his hand.
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
“Well,” he began, “we’ve never given birth or lived through a world war.”
“You call living through the last few years under the constant threat of a national metric conversion easy? You know how many nights I lay awake staring at the ceiling and trying to remember if kilograms is a measure for a liquid or a solid?”
“Well,” said Beats, rubbing the back of his neck, “we’ve never seen a baboon shoot a billiard ball out its ass before.”
“That’s your measure for lost innocence? Seeing a baboon shoot a billiard ball out its ass?”
“One of them, sure,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “we did see Nina Sussenberg pull down her pants and take a leak into her own rain hat.”
“What does one have to do with the other?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “The only thing that separates Nina Sussenberg from a baboon is a prehensile tail!”
“What are you talking about? A baboon doesn’t have a tail.”
“That’s what I just said,” I said.
“Oh, right,” he said, sighing.
Somewhere in the distance a dog barked and then stopped. Beats sighed. Then I sighed. The afternoon breeze moved through the massive mushroom cloud of leaves above our treehouse, momentarily fooling us into believing that we were adrift on a limitless sea and that we were destined to never set foot on solid ground again.
“Do you think that maybe we should consider not opening the box?” Beats asked sheepishly, fingering a rotten tooth of dirty rubber at the back of his sneaker.
“No!” I yelled. “Absolutely not! We have to open it!”
“What if it’s too much information?!”
“There’s no such thing as too much information!”
“How can you be so sure?”
“That’s like saying that to find out that the dot over the letter i is called a tittle is too much information for somebody who already knows there’s a dot over the i but just doesn’t know what it’s called.”
“The dot over the i is called a tittle?”
“Yes!” I shouted. “That’s why there are no words with two i‘s in them—at least with two i‘s that are next to each other.”
“Why?” asked Beats.
“Because reading comprehension would disappear if you had a word with a pair of tittles staring you in the face, don’t you think?”
Beats didn’t answer me, his attention once again falling hard upon the red cake box before us. “We can’t open the box.”
“We’re opening the fucking box!”
“We have to!”
“So open it already!”
“Quit telling me what to do!”
“For the love of Christ! I can’t take it anymore! Would you just open the goddamn box?!”
“All right! All right!” Pause. “You open it!”
“I can’t move my arms! I think I just had a stroke! You open it!”
“All right, you big pussy! I’ll open it! I’ll open it!”
“Well, hurry up!”
“Get off my back! I told you that I’d open it!”
Perhaps it was the jostling that the cake was made to endure during the long bike ride from Upper Darby or maybe it was the disturbing imagery from the pamphlet that I’d confiscated from my sister’s room that had burned itself into my brain with all the excruciating permanence of a branding iron—that fiendish alien head, those long alien arms, those horrible pincers!—but whatever it was the ravaged hunk of exploded gore that lay inside that opened box sent me and Beats scrambling backward against opposing walls of the treehouse.
“Holy Mother of God! What is it?!” shrieked Beats, holding a hand out in front of himself like he was deflecting a blinding light. “It looks like a crab! What are we going to do?! What are we going to do?!”
Fighting every instinct that I had to flee, I took one step forward, balled up my fists, closed my eyes and punted the box as hard as I could into an adjacent wall, where the cake exploded in a hail of pulverized crumbs, leaving a cluster of revolting clumps to cling to the wood like brain matter.
“What have you done, you stupid bastard?!” Beats cried, lunging forward and sliding through the sweet-smelling mess on his knees, his hands working desperately to reassemble the ingredients of the demolition into a useful truth. “We had everything!” he sobbed. “Everything! It was right in front of our faces! It was right in front of our faces!”
And it was, this scattered alphabet no longer confined by reason, suddenly set free to disperse itself like seedlings in search of higher ground.