Barrel fever

David Sedaris has been acclaimed as one of America's funniest writers. Here is a whiff of his dark, hysterical world
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
hortly after my mother died, my sisters and I found ourselves rummaging through a cabinet of papers marked poison, and it was there, tucked between the pages of a well-worn copy of Mein Kampf, that I discovered 15 years' worth of her annual New Year's resolutions. She took up the practice the winter after my father died, the same year she found a job and bought her first rifle. Every Christmas afternoon, after placing the artificial tree back into its box, she would grow reflective. "Do you think I overuse the word 'nigger'?" she would ask. "Was it wrong of me to spit on that Jehovah's Witness girl? Tell me the truth here. I need a second opinion."

On New Year's Eve she would sit with her notes and a coffee cup of champagne, glancing at her watch and tapping a pencil against the legs of her chair. She would write something on an index card and, moments later, shake her head and erase it. The process was repeated until she wore a hole through the card and was forced to start fresh on another.

The next morning I would ask, "So, what was on your list, Mom?"

"Smother those homely teenagers who call themselves my children is at the top. Why do you ask?"

"No reason."

I always got a great kick out of my mother, but my sisters, for one reason or another, failed to get the joke. They have grown to be humourless and clinically sensitive: the sorts of people who overuse the words "rage" and "empowerment" and constantly ask, "What do you really mean by that?" While I would often call and visit our mother, they kept their distance, limiting their postal or telephone contact to the holidays.

"Did I tell you what your sister Hope sent me for my birthday?" my mother asked during one of our late-night phone calls. "A poncho. Who does she think I am that I might want a poncho? I've written her back saying I'm sure it will come in very handy the next time I mount my burro for the three-day journey over the mountains to the neighbouring village. Poncho, indeed. I've thrown it into the garage-sale box along with the pepper grinder Joy sent me. The thing is two feet long, black and shiny - what do I need with a thing like that? It doesn't take a psychiatrist to recognise that pepper grinder for what it truly is. I bet she spent weeks knocking that one around with her therapist. And, oh, it arrived in a fancy box wrapped in tissue paper. You can bet she paid out the ass for it but that's Joy for you, thinking she can impress people with the money she makes 'consulting'. That's what she calls herself now, a consultant, as if that means anything. Anyone who answers questions can call themselves a consultant, am I wrong? A telephone operator is a consultant, a palm reader: they're all consultants. I thought I'd seen it all but then Faith sent me a subscription to that trade paper she's working for. She calls it a magazine. Have you seen it? Why would anyone subscribe to a magazine devoted to adobe? Is this a big trend? Is there something I've missed? I've got a house made of bricks but who wants to read about it every month? Adobe? She circled her name on the first page where she's listed as 'Features Editor'. When people ask what she's up to I always tell them she's a secretary - it sounds better. So then, a week after my birthday I got a call from your sister Charity..."

Faith, Hope, Joy, Charity, and me, Adolph.

See, she just couldn't help herself.

While my mother might threaten a yard sale she was not the type of person to invite people on to her property or make change. Following her death my sisters were horrified to discover, sealed in boxes, every gift they had given her.

"How could she not want a first edition by M Scott Peck?"

"I made these wind chimes with my own two hands. Didn't that count for anything?"

"What did she have against pepper grinders?"

Aside from a few stiff wallets fashioned in summer camp, there was nothing of mine in those boxes as, at an early age, I discovered that postage stamps, cartons of cigarettes, light bulbs, and mail-order steaks are the gifts that keep giving.

"How could she possibly be so cruel?" my sisters asked, coming upon the unmailed notes and letters stored in the poison file. "I am not the 'missing link', I am not, I am not", Joy chanted, holding a draft of her graduation card. "I am not 'God's gift to fraternity beer baths'. I am not, I am not, I am not." Charity and Faith gathered round and the three of them embraced in a circle of healing. There were letters to me, comparing me unfavourably to both Richard Speck and the late Stepin Fetchit, but in all honesty it really didn't bother me too much. We all entertain hateful thoughts every now and then, and afterwards they either grow stronger or fade away. From one day to the next, in tiny ways, our opinions change or, rather, my opinions change. Some of them anyway. That's what makes me either weak or open- minded, depending on what it was I promised the last time we talked. I'm sure Richard Speck had his share of good qualities and Stepin Fetchit was a terrific dancer, so I try not to take it too hard. My mother hadn't mailed those letters; she simply left them to be discovered after her death. Hey, at least she was thinking about us.

I have posted some of my mother's notes on my refrigerator alongside a Chinese take-out menu and a hideously scripted sympathy card sent me by my former friend, Gill Pullen. Sympathy and calligraphy are two things I can definitely live without. Gill Pullen I cannot live without or, rather, I am having to learn to live without. At the risk of appearing maudlin or sentimental it was mutually understood that, having enjoyed each other's company for seven years, we were close. Seeing as he was my only friend, I suppose I could go so far as to call him my best friend. We had

our little fights, sure we did. We'd get on each other's nerves and then lay low for a couple of days until something really good came on television, prompting one of us to call the other and say, "Quick - outstanding IV on channel seven". IV stands for innocent victim, usually found shivering on the sidewalk near the scene of the tragedy. The impact of the IV is greater when coupled with the Wind-Blown Reporter, a staple of every news team. Prizewinning IVs have no notion of vanity or guile. Their presence is pathetic in itself but that is never good enough for the WBR, who acts as an emotional strip miner.

"How did it make you feel when that man set fire to your house?" the WBR asks, squatting to the level of the dazed and blanketed five-year-old. "I bet it really hurts to watch your house burn to the ground, a nice house like yours. Somebody told me your cat was in that house. That's sad, isn't it? Now you'll never see her again. You'll never see your cat or your shoes or your mother's boyfriend ever again. Can you tell me how that makes you feel inside?"

A PCD was another common icebreaker. Nothing pleases me quite so much as the ever-popular Physically Challenged Detective. Nowhere else on television do you find the blind, deaf, and paralysed holding down such adventurous and high-paying jobs. Gill once had an idea for a show about a detective in an iron lung called Last Gasp for Justice. The clients, eager to track down their kidnapped daughter, would gather by the bedside and stroke his forehead, begging him to take the case.

Gill was always full of good ideas. So it shocked me when he changed so suddenly. I never saw it coming. We made plans to meet for dinner at an Indian restaurant that doesn't have a liquor licence. You just buy it down the block and carry it in with you - it's cheaper that way. So Gill and I were in the liquor store, where I asked him if we should buy two six-packs and a pint of J&B or one six-pack and a fifth. Or we could just go ahead and get the two six-packs and the fifth because, why not? I was weighing the odds when, out of nowhere, Gill started twisting the buttons on his coat and said "Forget about me - you just buy something for yourself, Dolph." Dolph is the name I go by because really, nobody can walk around with the name Adolph. It's poison in a name. Dolph is bad too, but it's just box-office poison.

"You go ahead, Dolph. Don't worry about me."

Later in the restaurant, figuring he'd changed his mind, I offered Gill one of my beers. He grew quiet for a few moments, tapping his fork against the table before lowering his head and telling me in fits and starts that he couldn't have anything to drink. "I am, Jesus, Dolph, I am, you know, I'm... Well, the thing is that I'm... I am an... alcoholic."

"Great," I said. "Have eight beers."

Gill became uncharacteristically dramatic, pushing the hair off his forehead. He leaned toward me and said, "I can't have a drink, Dolph. Don't you understand anything at all? I can't."

He said it as though he was the recently paralysed lead dancer in a made- for-TV movie and I had just commanded him to take the lead in tonight's production of The Nutcracker. I responded, acting along in what I considered an appropriate manner. "You can do it," I said. "I know you can do it. But, oh, you'd rather sit there on that chair and be a quitter. Take the easy way out. That's right - you're the loser, a cripple, but when the lights go up on that stage, when all the other dancers are in place, I want you to know the only thing keeping you in that wheelchair is yourself."

Gill's face began to buckle. When he began to sob I realised he wasn't joking. People at the surrounding tables lowered their forks and looked over in our direction. I pointed to our plates and said in a loud whisper, "Whatever you do, don't order the tandoori chicken."

Ever since then things have been different between us. He quit calling me and whenever I called him I got his machine. His old message, the "Broadway doesn't go for pills and booze" line from Valley of the Dolls, had been replaced. I know he is home, screening his calls, but I always hang up at the point where the new Gill's voice encourages me to take life one day at a time. What has become of him?

I took a train home and talked it over with my mother, who, at the time, was spending a week in the hospital, recovering from surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes. The cancer was nothing compared to the punishment she endured from her roommate, a lupus patient named Mrs Gails. The woman never said a word but watched television constantly and at top volume. Possessing no apparent standards she'd watch anything, expressing no more interest in a golf match than a nature programme.

"You got any questions about the grazing habits of the adolescent North American bull moose?" my mother asked, fidgeting with the plastic bracelet on her wrist. "I complained to the nurses about the volume but all they do is point to their ears and whisper that she's got a hearing problem. If she's got such a hearing problem then why are they whispering about her? She can hear the food cart from down the hall. I've seen it with my own eyes. She perks up and rubs her hands together and over what? That foraging moose of hers will sit down to a better meal than anything she's likely to get in this place. I want that woman dead."

I talked for a brief while about my problems with Gill until my mother lost interest. "Did I tell you that your sister Charity called me? I hardly recognised her voice because it's been, what, three years since she's phoned me. It seems she lost her job at the suicide hot line and is looking to borrow some money. I said, 'Hold on just a few seconds, darling. It's a bit difficult to reach my purse with this IV in my arm.'"

I listened to her stories with the understanding that the moment my back was turned I would likely become the chief character in her next complaint. I fully expected her to turn to her radiologist and say something like, "Isn't that sweet of my only son to travel all this way so he can whine about his pathetic little friend? Maybe if I weren't strapped to my deathbed I could muster up the strength to give a damn."

That's the sort of thing that destroys my sisters but doesn't bother me in the least. I expect it in a person and am constantly amazed to hear someone refer to it wrongly as gossip and get all bent out of shape about it.

An example: until fairly recently I had the misfortune of holding down a job in the offices of Vincent & Skully Giftware, distributors of needlepoint beer cosies, coffee mugs in the shape of golf bags, and more insipid novelty items than you would ever want to know about.

I equate the decline of this nation with the number of citizens willing to spend money on T-shirts reading i'm with stupid, retired prostitute, and i won't go down in history but I will go down on your little sister. The Vincent & Skully employees were, with the exception of me, perfect reflections of the merchandise. The offices were like a national holding centre for the trainably banal, occupied by people who decorated their cubicles with quilted, heart-shaped picture frames and those tiny plush bears with the fierce spring grip that cling to lamps and computer terminals, personalised to read terri's bear or i wuv you beary much!

I don't know how it is that people grow to be so stupid but there is an entire nation of them right outside my door. I lost my job a few months ago when Alisha Cottingham went off the deep end and cornered me in the mail room. Alisha is in the marketing division and she tends to use what she considers to be concise, formal speech. Listening to her speak I imagine she must type it up the night before and commit it all to memory, pacing back and forth in her godforsaken apartment and working to place the perfect emphasis on this or that word.

"Mr Heck," she began, blocking me off at the Xerox machine. "It has come to my attention here at V&S Giftware that you seem to have some problem with my chin. Now, let me tell you a little something, sir. I am not here to live up to your stringent physical qualifications. I am here to work, as are you. If my chin is, for any reason, keeping you from performing your job here at Vincent & Skully then I believe we have a problem."

I was thinking, chin? What chin? I said something about her neck. Alisha's chins are another story.

She continued. "I just want you to know that your deliberate cruelty cannot hurt me, Mr Heck, because I will not allow it to. As a professional I am paid to rise above the thoughtless, petty remarks of an office boy who takes pleasure in remarking upon the physical characteristics of his co-workers, many of whom have fought valiantly against both personal and social hardships to make this a company we can all be proud of." Eventually she began to sob, and I might have felt sorry for her had she not reported me twice for smoking dope during the three o'clock break. So I made some little remark and it got around. So what? Did Alisha Cottingham honestly believe that by sitting beside me and sharing a bag of potato chips our bond would grow so strong I would fail to notice she had a neck like a stack of dimes?

There seemed to be no stopping her. She finished her speech and started it all over again from the top, each delivery louder until the manager arrived, suggesting I might be happier working somewhere else. Happier?

I called Gill that night to tell him about it. He must have been expecting a call because he answered it on the first ring. Rather than discuss our difficulties I just ploughed into the story as if nothing had ever happened. I talked for maybe two minutes tops before he interrupted me to say, "Dolph, I'm sorry but I really don't want to talk to you when you're drunk."

Drunk? I had, you know, some drinks but I wasn't slobbering or anything. I wasn't singing or asking in a weary voice if I will ever find love. I probably couldn't have passed a Breathalyzer test but what does that matter if you're sitting in your own home? It really ticked me off. How come he gets to make all the rules? "I'll talk to you when you're sober." So I said, "Yeah, well maybe I'll talk to you when you have red hair and a beard down to your fucking knees."

I had more to say but he hung up before I could complete my thoughts. It bothered hell out of me, but eventually I came to my senses and realised that sooner or later he's bound to have a relapse. I've read the statistics, and if I know Gill it's just a matter of time before he throws in the towel and starts drinking again. In the meantime I'll just keep my distance.

I had just become comfortable with this prediction when I ran into Gill at a restaurant, and this time I was really drunk. I was at the take-out counter giving my order when I noticed him sitting over a finished meal with three people on the other side of the room. He was wearing a shirt printed with dice, possibly the ugliest shirt I had ever seen on a North American male, but still, I was glad to see him. I approached the table and said in a loud voice, "Jesus, Gill, where have you been? Your parole officer has been looking everywhere for you."

Everyone in the restaurant looked up except for Gill, who shook his head and said nothing. Against my better judgement I pulled up a chair and joined their table, introducing myself as an old cellmate from Rikers Island. "Those were the days, weren't they? I think of that bunk bed every day of my life. Remember T-Bone? Remember the guy we all called 'The Rectifier'? Oh, what a time!"

Nobody said anything. Gill rolled his eyes and adjusted the napkin on his lap, which, I assume, sent the "secret coded" message that I was not to be taken seriously. These were the new friends he had met at his meetings, the same type we might have made fun of a few weeks ago. Suddenly, though, they were his people.

A very thin, spent-looking woman with shoulder-length hair gathered in a ponytail cleared her throat and said, "like I was saying earlier, I thought that Timothy person was very nice. I liked him an awful lot. He's a people person, I could see that right away." This woman was missing one of her front teeth.

Another woman, younger, with heavily moussed blond hair, fidgeted with her chopsticks and agreed, saying, "Are you talking about the Timothy with the olive-coloured turtleneck and the denim jacket? Oh, I loved that guy. What a nice guy. Was he nice or what?"

"I'd say he's one of the absolute nicest guys I've met in a long time," said the sullen Abe Lincoln lookalike sitting next to me. He paused, scratching at his beard, and small stiff hairs rained onto his empty plate. "I liked Timothy right off the bat because he's just so damned nice how could you not like him?"

"Talk about nice, how about that Chip?" Gill asked.

"A chip off the old block", the ugly bearded man said, at which point everyone broke into laughter.

"Ha, ha," I said. "A chip off the old shoulder."

Gill and his companions ignored me until the skinny hag turned to me and said, "You, sir, are standing in the way of our evening and I for one don't appreciate it." I suddenly understood why she was missing her front tooth.

Gill said, "Dolph, maybe you should just try to keep quiet and listen for a change." I nodded and leaned back in my chair, thinking, Listen to what? He's so nice, she's so nice, aren't they so nice. Nice is a mystery to me because while on some mundane level I aspire to it, it is the last thing I would want a table full of dullards saying about me.

"Nice job, Byron."

"Hey, Kimberly, nice blouse. Is it new?"

"I love your haircut, Pepper. It's really nice!"

I don't understand nice. Nice is a lazy one-syllable word and it says nothing at all. I prefer to surround myself with more complex words, such as heroic and commanding.

"That Dolph, is he a national treasure or what?"

I sat at Gill's table for another ten minutes or so during which I heard the word "nice" 23 times until I couldn't stand it any more. When I finally left, the idiot with the beard called out, "Nice talking to you," which I guess brings the tally up to 24

From 'Barrel Fever', a short story by David Sedaris, published by Little, Brown in the US

Comments