Fiction and Poetry Contest
“The Universal Sewer”
Fiction, First Place
Published: December 1, 2010
I’m in my dad’s Top eight on MySpace, but it’s kind of meaningless because so are his new girlfriend, and Cousin Ira, and Jacques Cousteau. And besides that, Cousin Ira is dead. But everyone’s really into the thing where anything can be a family now. Mom, dad, kid. Kid, kid, kid, kid, uncle. Uncle, aunt, family friend, kid. Dad, dad, mom, kid, dad. Sister, brother, cousin, dog. Husband, wife, kid, no kid, whatever. And I’m fine with that, actually. But what I don’t get is why all those men were living next door with that dog named Smuckers. And why they were such different ages, and how could that house be a home, I wondered. And I wondered about this a lot.
In this city, houses—not apartment buildings, but houses—are pressed up right against each other. Not even touching but pressed, so that your wall is their wall. And if the neighbors you have on either side of you decided to knock down their houses, yours would go down along with them. And you’d realize you’d never had a house to begin with. You just had some people living in houses on either side of you with a roof stuck up between them. That’s why we have to trust each other a little even though we live in an urban setting. That’s why we’re afraid a little, but a little bit not afraid too. Because they could knock down their houses if they wanted. But we could knock down our house too.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about here. What I wanted to talk about here was the time my dad paid 15 dollars so I could fight a bear in the Carousel Mall.
I have a letter-writing correspondence going on with the dog next door. It began because I’ve always slept in the massage chair in the parlor. When you’re small like me, a massage chair is a fine place to sleep. It’s cozy and upsetting at the same time. Like you’re on a ship but the ship is constantly trying to annoy you or remind you of something you forgot before going to bed. Like unplugging the toaster even though sailors don’t like toast. When you sleep in the parlor it’s like you could at any time be awakened to a party, a guest, someone wanting to hang up their coat somewhere. Your private place where you snuggle up for the night is really a room meant for socializing. For servants to enter and offer you something if this was a time or a place when people had servants. Dazzling things have happened there maybe. Someone could end up kissing someone else under the mistletoe right around where you put your bed, and that might be the beginning of something wonderful.
So that’s what I’m saying, is: What good would it do for any of us to knock down our own houses?
My dad slept upstairs in the Master Bedroom, which has a closet and one of those windows with a ledge you can sit on, but it’s still not like I’d consider us a proper family. And because I slept in the parlor I was constantly awakened not to parties or guests or smells of pies, but instead to a crying by the side of my head. A whimper coming from the other side of the wall. As though Smuckers The Dog sat up against the other side, singing like how dogs do when they cry, squeezing out tears that he hoped would bore a hole from 3320 right through the bricks to 3322, where I live. He never managed to actually do that, but I wrote him a letter with the hope that we could come to some kind of understanding.
His first letter back demanded that my father and I take care of the weeds in our yard. They had grown so high that they dipped down over the fence and had spread into his yard, covering the grill, the dog house, the quince tree, the lawn mower.
From his bedroom my father said, “What’s a dog know about letter writing?”
“Well, I think it’s more about the weeds,” I said.
And then he held up a picture and said, “Look at your grandmother in this photograph. You recognize those shoes? Those shoes are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art! Those shoes are original Ferragamo shoes! She met Mrs. Ferragamo in Italy on a cruise with your grandfather. I have the tag here too. It’s signed.”
He showed me the tag from the shoes. Signed by Signora S. Ferragamo. His eyes looked like wonder, like magic, like how your dad’s eyes would look all the time if your dad was a dinosaur hunter and he was constantly finding dinosaur bones.
“I’m gonna scan it,” he said. “I’m gonna scan it and blow it up so you can read the signature. And then I’m gonna scan the photo of Grandma wearing the shoes, and put ‘em next to each other in the same document. And then I’m gonna e-mail them to your sister as an attachment.”
“What should I tell Smuckers about the weeds?” I asked.
“Tell him your father has a back problem and that you’re only 11.”
“But I’m not 11, dad.”
“You look 11.”
“I didn’t even look 11 when I was 11!”
“What’s the difference?” he asked. “Listen. I’ll tell you something. When you get to be older—like an adult, I mean, every person who isn’t your age—you can’t tell no way how old they are. It’s just true. No Way. Kids make such a big deal about age but only because that’s how we sort you out in school to keep things simple for ourselves. Nobody much cares. What difference does it make?”
I wrote back to Smuckers telling about how things are on our side of the bricks, the fence. How the weeds grow so high because we don’t really think about the difference between weeds and other things. We don’t care. We burn easy. We like shade. To us it’s a plant. And plants are mysterious. Even when you know one’s name, and even when you can predict the way a plant will behave, still, a tremendous mystery exists. Think about a human and a chimpanzee. And then try to think about a plant. A weed can trick you into thinking that the soil’s real good when they grow so high. But tall weeds don’t mean good soil. Tall weeds just mean a lazy person lives here. Or a person with back problems. Or a person with allergies who burns easy.
“Did you hear,” Smuckers wrote back to me, “about all those severed left feet washing up on the shores of Vancouver? And how everyone was excited (but in a bad way) because they figured there must be some murderous lunatic on the loose—a lunatic who cuts off left feet and casts them into the sea off the coast of Vancouver! And everyone was excited (but in a bad way) because Canada’s not supposed to have murderers. Here in America we have a lot of murderers, but we’ve also got a lot of Nobel Prize winners. Canada hardly has any! And the thing about a murder is you only murder one person, usually. Or sometimes more than one, but usually not that many. But the Nobel Prize is something you get for making life better for lots of people, generally.”
He went on to suggest that I find a positive outlet for my energy and hormones and brain power. He included a clipped advertisement from the newspaper about how One Day Only At The Carousel Mall, Fight A Real Live Bear And Get Your Picture Taken And Everything! Dogs and bears don’t get along well, which is dumb because mammals should all just agree to get along and not eat each other, because instead we could team up against the rest of the animals, right?
I walked around the yard for a while, worrying the newspaper ad between my fingers. I’d never fought anything before in my life. I sent my dad an e-mail with a link to the bear fighting web site, and how it only cost 15 dollars, which was kind of a lot, but not for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The web site had pictures of the special suit you got to wear while bear fighting.
No law yet existed against fighting bears in cages in the mall. This was strange, admittedly. Especially because they’d already passed a law about committing suicide in the mall, which had been a popular thing with teenagers for a while, but had quieted down of late. Still, they passed a law. But you can’t expect the people making laws to think of every single thing. That’s why they’ve got to put warnings on buckets about drowning and things. Because if they’d really thought of everything they would’ve just outlawed buckets from the get-go.
The bear had a muzzle on, and also mitts on its paws. It was really, really big, like the kind of big you don’t know exists until you’re actually standing right next to it and you’re in the cage and you paid 15 dollars—or your dad paid 15 dollars—and you didn’t know that animals—furry animals, animals who look so fat and fuzzy from a distance could have that kind of weight, could be something other than stuffing and beads for eyes. You forget about how animals have a smell. But with mitts on its paws and a muzzle on its mouth it seemed more like a chaotic, haywire steamroller thing than anything else. You take away our abilities to confront the world how we do—with our teeth, our hands, our anything—you take that away and we’re more like machines with no conscience. Any of us will thrash around blindly, wanting to destroy whatever when you take away those things from us. Of course that’s true. How else would it be?
But I looked at my dad through the bars of the cage. He took pictures of me with his cell phone. His girlfriend was there—she’s a new girlfriend who’s mostly OK. My dad’s always posting comments on her MySpace page that are these animated GIFs of a really skinny guy trying to hide his huge erection when Betty Boop walks by. Things like that. Or a lot of “X-O-X-O” kind of stuff. She posts back things like, “Aren’t we too old for this?” and it’s got asterisks all around it like decoration. Like stars. Like to imply that she’s not being serious, she’s being coy. Which it turns out, depressingly, you’re never too old to be.
Before the bear knocked me out with one paw, the last thing I remember thinking about was Smuckers’ letter to me. And how the stumped forensic experts they called in to investigate the Vancouver left-foot murderer deferred to an oceanographer on the matter. The oceanographer told them that there was no murderer. The ocean had simply picked Vancouver as the place to dump all the left feet of the world. When a human corpse decays in the ocean, the hands and feet fall off first. And left feet float differently than right feet because of the curves. And because, as Jacques Cousteau once said, the ocean is the greater sorter-outer, the left feet, left hands, right hands, right feet, all end up in different places, taken by different currents. Like a perverted game of Twister. Like the island made of garbage in the Pacific. Like all the ocean wants to do is to take everything that’s so tremendously fucked up and if it can’t fix it, well at least it can make it somewhat organized. Waking up in the hospital, my dad sat next to me, showing me lots of old pictures on his phone. Like this one: “Don’t you see the resemblance between you and your cousin Ira?”
Cousin Ira fought in World War I, was stationed out in Asia or something, and wrote poems that he mailed home to his wife. Every time his wife received one, she’d type it up. She did this out of that boredom that’s 90 percent longing. When Cousin Ira came back from the war she presented him with the book she made of the poems, which she’d paid a bookbinder half a week’s pay to stitch together in leather. Cousin Ira threw the book in the woodstove without opening it. And then, despite how crappy Mrs. Cousin Ira probably felt right then, I have a feeling that they made love and she cried—both of them probably cried. Coming face to face with never being able to really understand another person. Because sometimes, even organizing doesn’t help. Sometimes you have to realize that maybe you were born to be a lot of things, but as long as you live you will never, ever, ever be the ocean.