The autumn I turned thirteen, I went through, for about
a day, an aborted stage of trying to be egalitarian. All my life I'd been
squishing it to pictures of women. So this one afternoon I decided to
give fair play to the men.
I sat down with the encyclopedia's reproduction
of Rodin's The Thinker. He was nude. Intellectually, this sex stuff
concerned getting nude with other nudes. Both participants dropped pants,
danced about, rubbed around, mutually discovered a state of wicked innocence;
and ecstasy was achieved.
Thus far I'd been achieving it strictly with half the population. Taking
as representative of that half such convenient springboards as Venus
de Milo, Venus on the Half Shell, Peter Paul Reubens, Renoir,
Goya and/or whatever Life, Look and The Saturday Evening
Post sneaked in by way of photos of more or less naked females.
Recently, for instance, I'd spent a month
of afternoons stroking to a Look special on Nude Descending
a Staircase -- not only featuring the blurry painting, but a black
& white stroboscopic of an actual starkers young woman obligingly
stepping down the risers. Science demonstrating art. What a scene! I hadn't
for that whole month experienced a single thought of de Milo's armless
harlot. No need to. In fact, it was largely to get outta mind this ghostly
slut descending through her self-images that prompted the idea of hey
-- suppose I'm missing something by ignoring the two billion nude men
in the world? I mean, I was thirteen -- fully aware of the hazards of
obsession; how too much of the same good thing can narrow the mind to
the capacity of a sardine can.
Down in the rec room I lay on my side under
the ping pong table. Volume 10 of The World Book opened before
me to page 214. I had, out of the cage, in my hand, the rednecked canary.
But in vain, I hunched on the wall-to-wall, fist pumping as if conducting
a Sousa march. The bird wouldn't sing.
This Thinker guy wasn't much. He had muscles
-- granted. Kinda romantic grimace. Good legs. Maybe it was the low penis
OK. I zipped, swinging out from under the
table. I'd go fetch the Cistine Chapel. Lotsa balls and wieners dangling
up there. Exited rec room. Dashed upstairs.
Mom was vacuuming. Dragging that tiny jet
engine around at her heels. A slave to the demon's lust for dust, be it
ever so microscopic. She wore a scrubbed faded white-polka-dotted gray
cotton dress. Wore it the way a castoff covers a scarecrow. She looked
unhappy; but her usual determined self, Mom was nothing, if not stubborn.
She never wanted anything to happen. In particular, she desired
all those around her to stay alive. House dust might kill. Especially
the invisible bits.
I walked in front of her elephantine progress,
arcing the attachment back and forth tightly over the shag. Combing the
nap for atomic rays. Or bubonic plague spores. Or maybe next week's flu
she could prevent us from getting. I reached into the bookcase. Withdrew
Mom was pushing fifty. They'd started late.
I was the baby of the family. She yelled something, not looking up from
frowning at the rug, words drowned in Hoover roar.
I nodded impatiently at her scrawny, short
frame. Even at thirteen I stood two inches taller.
She was probably telling me what time dinner
was. On weekdays, dinner fell between five-thirty and six. It didn't seem
to much matter, but she always announced what time it was going to be.
It was like four; I couldn't tell; didn't
have time to consult a watch or the grandfather beside the shelf (after
the rug, she'd change to the brush attachment, de rigueur vacuum
shelf); I hadda get back downstairs, finish business.
I winced. Loped the two flights below into
the (slamming door behind) rec. Scurried back under the ping pong table.
Threw open Volume 7 to page 86...
No. That was David. Well, he had a peachy
unit, it's true; pertly displayed... I flipped to page 89. Yes: loosely-attired
God finger-zapping Adam -- huge torso, itty bitty string weenie; mouse
nuts. Well... I flipped back... actually David's gear at the moment looked
groovier. I rolled the cocoon of my jeans down to my ankles. Returned
to the experiment with the grimness of a physicist searching atom-smasher
pix for new particles.
Down went the boxers. Out came the bliss
ticket -- good for minimum one free ride every twenty-four hours. But
Still zilch. Chaff, dross. Not a grain,
not a glint. Droopy sloth bags. Some dumb cluck head. One-eyed sausage
gone stale. Worse'n straining on the pot.
Maybe tits. David did -- when you thought
about it -- possess pretty nifty nipples. Unimaginably exquisite chiselwork.
Examined results of steel on stone. Goose-bumpy
bee stings above taut chest. Contour map to an Olympic gold medal no doubt.
Suspended experiment. Got out. Got decent.
Double-timed back up carpeted stairs. Hell with this chickenfeed. I'd
fetch the staircase nude.
Sure enough, Mom now had attached the brush.
Was doing the bookcase. Working over the encyclopedias, as if helping
the vacuum select its favorite literature.
I hopped over the cylindrical body of the
machine. Squatted beside the brass-plated log holder -- a relic from the
old house, in another development, where we'd had an actual fireplace.
These days used as a shiny receptacle for neatly stacking magazines recently
received in the mail.
I delved into the couple dozen slicks piled
chronologically. Searched for the Look; or was it a Life,
or the Post? I'd recognize the cover. Although, at the moment,
couldn't recall exact appearance. Whatever, know it on sight...
At my back, a click, coupled to a descending
whine. Fluff of hose flopped to floor, Over my shoulde, Mom's worried
voice, "Honey, do you need to find something?"
"Schoolwork," I muttered. "For
"History?" she repeated, as if
-- aimed in the wrong direction -- the word might explode.
"History of art," I gritted, not
needing this annoyance, retracing several issues, realizing I had failed
to register the cover images; too much in my head to see.
"Oh..." she sighed, intuiting
this alien discipline might someday make me rich, famous, happy -- she
whom the Great Depression had denied a secondary education, forced to
become a shopgirl at fourteen.
"Are you okay by yourself down In the
"Yes. Fine." Again I doubled back.
Still failing to concentrate on the matter at hand.
"Your father will be home late tonight.
What I was trying to say before when you came up."
She had married Dad the month Hitler overran
Poland. Housewife ever since. He, too, poor; education incomplete. Nose
to the grindstone twenty-five years government job. Nosed his family squarely
into the middle class.
"He's going bowling with friends from
the office. Sis has a date. It's just us two. What time would you like
"Whenever," I stared at an especially
stupid Norman Rockwell on the July Post, "you want."
"Fine." I scrutinized a blown-up
Eisenhower on an August Look; even the guy's smile looked bald,
flanked by faded freckles -- or were those age spots?
"Liver sound good? With french fries,
canned peas, apple sauce dessert?"
I grunted. Stopped at a new Buick Special
plastered across the September Life.
"Because we could have hot dogs instead.
I know you're not always in the mood for liver. Liver is your father's
favorite. We could eat liver some other night, Also in the freezer, I
have that hamburger."
Bowling. Meaning Dad would come home around
ten schnockered. His hamburger-liver-hotdog-nose hallucinated across the
powderblue specimen of the newest Buick. The fins were reduced. The portholes
more pronounced. Rocket exhaust belched from Dad's nostrils. His bulbous
schnozz sleek with vodka sweat. He was a closet alcoholic. We were not
allowed to say it. Not allowed to say we were not allowed. Forbidden by
frowns, conversation gaps and subject changes to so much as bring up why
it couldn't be brought up. The office exhausted Dad. He came home
tired and angry and clumsy and violent. It was all a big secret. Just
like next year's cars.
"So all this time you're down there
studying the art of history. Honey -- why don't you ever come up here
Wait -- I grasped the Life in both
hands; this ish featured the beginning of a woman's ass crack! Dad's satanic
pâté melted into a Vaselined photo I remembered was the focus
(for me) of the spread inside:
A fleshtone-and-cream 4-door Belair Chevy
parked in the bayou, under a Spanish-moss-draped cypress alongside a pond.
A gorgeous automobile. Anybody would gladly trade 3,000 hours in a government
office to possess such a treasure.
In the foreground, obscured in rising vapor
stood nude -- spine to us -- barely hip-deep in the water -- a statuesque
brunette. One shapely alabaster arm held coiled to her head of raven locks.
To keep them dry. She was saving the hair for you. Who had driven her
The Chevy had so pleased her, her dress
had vanished. She had taken a little dip. And now was wading ashore. Eager
-- in the backseat to explore ecstasy. Or why not on the hood? on the
roof? in the dirt? nobody around...
"I need to do homework alone. You know
She chuckled nervously. "You don't
hafta snap, Honey!"
I'd not yet tested the Chevrolet nymph.
(Glad at the moment I couldn't see Mom's hair; just sense its steelwool
hovering over my shoulder). Issue only arrived other day. Still scoring
with the staircase nude; figured another handful of thrills there. Just
then I spotted in the Buick's portholes the alternating views of the stair
gall's wobbled-into-one-another nipples. Such treats: thick and
plump, dark. Put to shame David's teeny zits; all the failure a man's
would ever amount to...
"So how about if I thaw that burger?
Save the liver for some night your father can eat with us?"
Orgasm functions like poison ivy. You get
the itch. You try to ignore the itch. The itch builds.
"Hamburger is fine."
Learned orgasm over the summer. Got
a Greek root. Comes to us through the French. Still preferred my pet name:
"Are you sure?"
The way to soothe poison ivy is to hold
your blistered wrist under the faucet; turn on the hot. As the water runs
hotter, the affected area itches with increasing fury. But when the stream
reaches about 120 degrees...
"Yes I'm sure. I hate liver.
...the torture bursts into euphoria.
"...when he sits at the table with
eyes closed, sweating profusely, head bowed, hair falling in his face
-- I doubt it matters what he eats."
When steam clouds from the sink and you're
pushing maybe 145 degrees, it feels fabulous. Sheets of raw pleasure
envelope the arms. Echo in the spine. Give ya goose scalp. The blood skips
like piano wire rope. An extremely pleasurable experience. Lasts
about three seconds. Then the water hits 160...
I stood up from the log holder. Still beholding
-- held in both hands a foot from my face - the Life, doggedly
ignoring my mother. Out of the corner of an eye glimpsed her wrinkled
face gray with anger.
"Don't say that about your father!"
she hissed in church tones. Mom didn't go to church. The family -- her
A spinal reflex yanks from the near-boiling
water the hand the instant agony explodes.
The scenes dissolved through one another
into an anonymous car on slick paper. Poison ivy choking the bayou, the
last fading fancy...
"Hamburger will be fine. I like hamburger.
I'll let you know when I'm through studying, you can come down vacuum
the rec, you want."
The affected area then ceases to complain
for up to two hours. Feels at peace. Sometimes a trifle scalded; especially
if you strive to override the reflex, reaching for some novelty beyond
"Quiet dinner be nice... for a change."
As if itch accelerated through euphoria
-- savaged into a wall of excruciation -- temporarily kills the nerves.
Not exactly stopping beating your head against the wall; but rather hammering
your skull into the plaster till consciousness enters a simpler, more
primitive space. This treatment -- like the Squish itself -- my very own
I descended the stairs, at each step imagining
adorning myself one article of clothing less.
"Honey! What does Life,"
she hollered over the railing, "have to do with the art of history?"
Maybe if I didn't live in a poison ivy patch
I wouldn't so often hafta scratch.
"It has an article in here," I
babbled, kept going, in my mind removing underpants, "on the Old
Masters. Assignment concerns that era. I need to find a date."
I envisioned her snarling: "Don't huff
off like that -- your father works hard to buy those magazines."
But no. Just the silent stew.
I didn't care. I worked hard, laying
in bed awake in the dark, putting up with midnight alcoholic rages. If
I slept better, maybe I wouldn't need to masturbate.
A Latin word. Another dead language.
"I worry about some of those pictures!"
she yelped at the top of my skull (now obviously leaning over the railing
(she on to me...?
(Nah -- she didn't have anything on
(Glanced down, to make sure still had on
clothes,belt buckled, zipper zipped, buttons buttoned, laces snarled in
double knots ... ))
"You don't look at the wrong
art -- do you?"
(How did she (did she) know?)
"Because some of it is... dirty!"
Tilted head back. Trapped her crow's-feet
eyes -- for the first time that afternoon -- in my own. "No, Mom.
Strictly the classics. Graeco-Roman landscapes, Dutch interiors. Say...
could I have a slice of provolone on my burger? Melted like you always
do just right?"
Three seconds lumbered by. An interval long
and wide and heavy as a Mack truck. The better to let it pass, my mind
switched lanes. The grandfather ticked stickily.
(Sis the only family member went to church.
A nice good clean place to meet dates. Everybody glad Sis attended --
Oh, Dad made the occasional drunken snipe; but you could hardly decipher
the wording; then he would start screaming and swearing. Sis would leave
for choir practice (she the organist). Mom fall angrily to polishing silverware,
putting away dishes, scouring whatever; and I would creep off with a book...)
Against the background of the popcorn ceiling,
Mom slowly brightened, The wrinkles smoothed. The thin lips upturned.
Her eyes softened. "Sure, Hon. I know how you love cheeseburgers.
And they're better for you."
My small smile died, as my head again slumped
and I hurried down the rest of the stairs, muttering, "Yeah."
"Just be careful," her afterthought
trailed off, "with that Life. "
No response required. Showdown headed off.
Situation renormalized. All clammed up.
Or why not Venus on the Half Shell?
Volume 2, page 48? Well... mean another trip up. Risk further hassle.
Nah -- go with the bayou babe.
Slammed rec door shut. Crawled back under
table. Shoved aside encyclopedias. Flung open the Life. Flipped
to section on next year's autos.
Realized -- stripping to feel at one with
the skinny dipper -- I'd had a belly fulla equality. No sense in being
too logical. This sex stuff rooted in the insane.
Clutched the ticket.
From now on -- turned her mentally around
to smile my way -- I'd just stick to my own stinking instincts.