Problem Child's Play
Maybe it was because I was the baby of five. By the time I was coming up in little Lake Worth, Fla., my much-older siblings had long since scattered the Parcheesi pieces to the four corners. With most of the brothers and sisters off at college and all the Monopoly money pushed under the refrigerator and buried in the yard and kicked out into the Intercoastal Waterway behind the house, I was forced to come up with my own brand of fun. And boy, was it odd.
First there were Geek, Gock, and Purse, my imaginary friends. They came along when I was maybe 3. I don't recall what they looked like, but I do remember hanging out in the attic with them a lot. According to family folklore, one day my mom asked me what Purse looked like and I, little snotball that I was, shot back, "Haven't you ever seen a purse?"
Next, from out of the blue, came a fascination with Lincoln Continentals, which kicked in at about age 7. Whenever my eyes fell upon one of these Detroit-made behemoths, I'd shudder with satisfaction. Those boxy lines, that eccentric tire hump, the incredible heft -- ahhh. During family trips I'd meander in hotel parking lots, trying to spot a Mark V. When I did, I'd stand there and stare at it, working myself into a near-euphoric state. I loved those trips. It was the long stretches at home, ensconced on a quiet street with no traffic, that were a bitch.
When my Lincoln love dried up, I moved on to drawing peculiar characters and building stories around them. My third-grade teacher, tapping hard into my weirdness, sat me down and got me to write little books, which she laminated and stuck on the school library's shelves. Mrs. Kals also put a smock on me, whipped up some papier-mâché, and told me to bring the characters into the here and now. In the only story I remember, the protagonist was something called "the Philacroxiet," a psychedelic red creature that looked like a duck with no bill. I still have the papier-mâché likeness of the Philacroxiet. It sits in my bedroom and sheds red paint if you so much as think about looking at it. I curse myself for not saving papier-mâché Woxitbronblonz, the Phialcroxiet's archenemy, whose physical features are a blur to me now, except that I think he was baby blue.
After my stint as a Renaissance girl, I turned to meteorology. Of particular interest was the garden-variety South Florida summertime storm, which you could watch coming in over the Atlantic Ocean, looking like a thick, ominous dust bunny. Once they hit, these storms would pound the hell out of the coast, sending shutters to blapping and branches to plummeting.
One Saturday morning while following my usual ritual of laying on the carpet watching cartoons and popping Flintstones Vitamins, I saw a storm making its way toward me across the Intercoastal, the lakelike body of water behind the house. Just beyond the Intercoastal was a thin strip of land that constituted South Palm Beach, and just beyond that was the ocean.
I decided for some reason that I wanted to feel this storm, from the first menacing hint of rain to the warm first shaft of light when it was over. I slipped out the sliding glass doors, and picked a random spot in the center of the backyard. Arms crossed in front of me, with only my jammies and a quilted red robe between me and the elements, I watched as the black streaks of rain barreled across the water at me. I stood firm during the prestorm winds. I let the first fat drops of rain storm fill my eyes, then let the torrent, so thick it obscured my house from view, soak me completely. I didn't move an inch -- not when coconuts popped off nearby trees, not when the thunder rose to deafening levels. About 20 minutes later, calm restored and sun returned, I went inside and changed. God, I was weird.
Then I had a short retail phase. The outfit was called The Butt-Shit Store. My friend Valerie -- a freckly redhead my mom just loved -- would come over and we would pretend to be phone operators taking orders for The Butt-Shit Store. We'd alternate who got to be the customer: Valerie would go upstairs and pick up the phone, and then I'd pick up the phone downstairs in the den and say, "The Butt-Shit Store. Can I help you?" And she'd say, "I'll take three, please." Then I'd pull an index card out of a shoebox, write down "three," and file it away, feeling very efficient. Then we'd switch.
What did The Butt-Shit Store sell? I don't remember any specific products, and I certainly don't remember anything related to butts or shit. I think either Valerie or I had just recently learned the word "shit" and wanted to find a way to say it as much as possible, and in the most official-sounding way we could. The Butt-Shit Store lasted about a month, probably closing down due to inventory problems.
It was around this time that I decided I was going to need to have a horse. Since I knew that wasn't going to happen, at least not then, I started straddling and riding the tall, thick cement fence that separated my babysitter's house from her neighbor. I'd swing a leg up over that thing and kick it and pet it and talk to it for hours -- "You're the best Lipizzaner stallion I ever had," or "It's lovely in the forest with you," and the like. I wonder how that looked from across the street.
During this period, my babysitter's niece, Carolinda, and I discovered slugs. We began hunting them down with the fervor of war-crazed GIs. Once we'd find one, we'd pour salt on it to bring about its quick demise -- then have a sudden, passionate change of heart and conduct a sad funeral and mourn with all our might. I'd love to see a therapist's take on all that mess.
When Carolinda and I tired of the violent mood swings, we'd pick these over-ripe orange-red berries off a tree in the yard and lob them hard at the side of next-door neighbor's white house. By the time we'd used up all the really ripe berries available that day, it looked like 1,000 oversized and freshly fed mosquitoes had dive-bombed this poor retiree's little cottage. This signaled the beginning of my creep phase.
At home, I took to climbing up into our house's big, spooky attic and spending whole afternoons going through the sea of forgotten boxes up there. When I found the album box, filled with my siblings' and parents' old records, it was like coming upon buried treasure. Not because I wanted to spin the vinyl. Instead, I lugged the box to the window, pulled it out onto the roof with me, then proceeded to lob each one of those records into the Intercoastal Waterway, Frisbee-style. Bobby Sherman, John Denver, the Guess Who, Frank Sinatra, the guy who sang "Put the Lime in the Coconut" -- they all found their watery graves over the course of the next week or so.
That sort of behavior soon gave way to something more productive, but equally odd. One day, while crews were tearing up the roads in my neighborhood to put in new sewer lines, I saw that there were large, fossil-like shells underground. I was fascinated, and starting sneaking into the construction sites to extract all the unbroken shells I could get my hands on. That led to much studying up on shells, and also to many bike rides to a tiny shell shop a few blocks away. The allure got even deeper when I discovered the existence of the "bleeding tooth," a little snail-shell-looking thing with two white teeth-like protrusions at the opening and a red smear that looks like blood. Nature makes this anomaly over and over again? I was smitten.
My taste in shells got more exotic, and more expensive. I started bugging my mom to drive me to West Palm Beach, where the bigger shell shops were. Then I was pestering her to take me to Sanibel Island across the state, because the shell-store lady had told me funky shells just washed up at your feet there, like something out of a dream. The shell books I was by now poring over backed up her claim, and also revealed that Sanibel was home to the world's most expensive, exotic shell, valued at $1,600 and housed in a glass case armed with an alarm.
After several months, I succeeded in wearing my mom down to the bone with my whining. She took me to Sanibel Island for the weekend. The shell-store lady was right: A striking shell did wash up at my feet early one morning. It was striped with chocolate brown and brilliant white and had threatening-looking spiny things all over it. I swooned. I danced a jig. And when I got in the water and found myself surrounded by swimming scallops with their myriad eyeballs, my own two eyeballs rolled back in my head, so intense was my satisfaction. It didn't even bother me that much that the shell shop that housed that big, famous shell was closed that weekend.
Upon our return to Lake Worth, I discovered a local shell collectors' group. They met at the YWCA in West Palm. I harassed my mom into taking me up there for a meeting. I was surprised to find the room chock-full of gray and craggy Palm Beach senior citizens, and they weren't what you'd call nice. In fact, they shot me evil glares through their Gucci trifocals. But my enthusiasm was deep, and I was undaunted. I strode into that room like a proud peacock, my burgeoning, fanciful shell collection filling a white department-store sweater box that I held in front of me. The glitzy grandmas and grandpas were gathered in a closed cluster, comparing and contrasting their prized possessions from the sea. I pushed into the dusty clique. I opened my box. I pulled out one of my shells. I held it up for inspection.
"That's just a common whelk," one old asshole said. "Where did you get that -- on your street?"
I held up another. "That's a bleeding tooth," interjected a wizened old battle ax. "Those are a dime a dozen."
Thus did my love affair with shells instantly wilt, like a spent penis. I think I transferred some of my anger over that episode into my next hobby, Hate Clubs.
The first one was the Hate-Bruce Club. Bruce was a lovely, lovely musician who started hanging around my house when I was 8 or 9. Ah, pretty, blue-eyed Bruce. Winning Bruce, with his tousled black hair and skin as white as a Hartz-Two-in-One flea collar. Strapping Bruce, with his manly cologne and infectious way. Why he was there or where he came from I had no idea. I just knew that suddenly he was over a lot, playing his guitar, singing Barry Manilow songs, and drinking scotch and sodas with my mom.
"Why not take guitar lessons from him?" my mom offered one day when she saw me gazing at Bruce from behind the couch. So I did, and was a jittery, crush-laden mess the whole time. I don't think I learned a damned thing thanks to my heart trying to leap out of my chest cavity as Bruce tried to get my little fingers to curl around and reach the strings.
But one day I figured out that Bruce, my beautiful Bruce, wasn't coming around because he was taken with our family, or with me. He was coming around because he was taken with my mother. And right in front of my startled eyes, the two started a love affair.
I couldn't have my mom come down off her mom pedestal yet; I wasn't ready for that. So I loaded all of my feelings of betrayal, loathing, and disdain into an emotional missile and aimed it at Bruce. Thus was born the Hate-Bruce Club.
I drew my little friends into it, and after school we would meet under the mango tree in my yard and plot ways to insult Bruce. When he came around, we were unspeakably rude to that beautiful man. His strong cologne was an easy mark for us; our finest bit was coughing uncontrollably and grabbing our throats as though asphyxiated when he was anywhere near. We were awful. Then one day he was gone.
Next came the Hate-Paula Club, aimed at torturing Paula M. from down the street. Again, I was the ringleader, convincing innocent little minds in my neighborhood that Paula must be stopped. Paula was the biggest goody-goody at school, and I was obviously going in the opposite direction. She was a snitch who seemed to be focused on bringing me to my knees. I had to go on the offensive, establish dominance, propagate fear. So I got five or six malleable girlies to gather with me under the mango tree and discuss ways to ruin dorky little Paula, with her boy's haircut and prominent teeth.
I'm sure we unleashed all manner of untold horrors on that poor thing during our reign of terror, which probably lasted a few weeks. I only remember one incident, and it's a pretty bad one. One day we called Paula and told her it was time to establish a truce and be friends. She hesitated, but we convinced her we were for real. "Let's meet at 11th Avenue Park and have picnic to celebrate," we said. She must have been a true idiot to trust such a pack of jerks.
So she showed up at the park, and we spread a blanket and treated her real nice. Then we broke out a Ziplock bag and started ranting about these great new crackers we'd found. "They're amazing!" we squealed. "You must try them!" So Paula gingerly took a bite. Then she ate a whole one, and another, and then she started talking about how great the crackers are. By this time we couldn't stifle it anymore. Uproarious laughter spread through the group like Ebola, and someone let fly, "It's dog food!" And Paula got up and ran home.
Not yet done with humiliating people, I spent a little while targeting my sister Lisa, the last one besides me left at home. One afternoon when Lisa was sitting on the couch making out with her boyfriend, I went up into her room and fished around in her underwear drawer until I found the most beat-up, unflattering bra and skivvies. I hooked them to the end of a long rope, opened the window, lowered them to eye level outside the living room's sliding glass doors, and waited for the shrieking to start.
After I got sick of humiliating folks, me and my pals started going door-to-door telling people were collecting money so that our elementary school could get air conditioners. "It's awful hot over there during the day!" we'd simper. The gullible townspeople would say, "Oh, you poor dears!" and drop a couple bucks into our bucket, and we'd go buy gum and air-brushed T-shirts.
When South Grade Elementary actually did get air conditioners, we switched to Plan B: sneaking into people's gardens, cutting their flowers, and selling them door-to-door. That worked great until the day we got sloppy. We tried to sell a rare form of hibiscus to a guy who recognized it from his garden. We ran off.
Luckily, at that point I decided to return to innocence. I launched headlong into the world of crafts, covering wine bottles with masking tape and slathering them with brown shoe polish. I must have made about 50 of these things before I realized they were ugly and no one wanted them, including me. So I turned to breeding parakeets -- or, rather, trying to get my two parakeets to become parents. I read up on it, got this special little nesting cage, separated the female from the male after mating season, and voila, Tweety pushed out a perfect little egg. It never hatched. I moved on to something else.
I can't help but wonder if my future spawn will be as fickle and odd as I was. I can only hope. Then I won't need to have any sort of entertainment budget; I can just sit home and watch my babies ping-pong from weird hobby to weird hobby. Better stick my record collection in a safe-deposit box, though.
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Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
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