Sunday, July 19, 2020
This is the cover of my new book, STORYTELLER, scheduled for release next month. It's a Best Of collection which features 50 of my favorite stories and it's my 4th and final essay collection. I was so happy to have graphic artist Dane Egenes design this great cover. He's designed all 5 of my bookcovers and is Lennon to my McCartney or McCartney to my Lennon, whichever way, we aren't quite sure. Either way, I always love the work he does!
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
I remember the first time I was amazed by my mother. I was in the first grade and had a friend from my class over to play. Her name was Jenny and she had truly noteworthy speech problems. I don't know if she was ever diagnosed properly, and it's pretty unlikely she would have gotten any speech therapy, but on that day she was terrifically excited to share some news.
"I fodeeyed a roke!"
She had told me this several times, each time looking excited and hoping for some reaction from me. I had no idea what she was saying, so she just kept repeating it, hoping. My mother came into the room and Jenny tried the sentence on her.
"I fodeeyed a roke!"
And my mother, without missing a beat, repeated back to her:
"You swallowed a rock?"
"Yeah! Yeah! I fodeeyed a roke!" Jenny was thrilled someone finally got this story.
Her family lived on the outskirts of our neighborhood and every day they had two things working against them: they were poor, and people hated them for being poor.
They would have denied this, if asked, but it came across loud and clear in a million little comments muttered under the breath of the grownups, and in the tone of voice they seemed to reserve only for this family, the Bakers.
Unlike most of the other families, who had moved into new or almost new houses, the Bakers had an older house that had once been white with green on the bottom. Many painting seasons had passed the house by, so each year the white grew a little dingier. The lawn didn't really look like a lawn but a burned brown field, scattered here and there with clover and dandelions.
Years later, when we were in the fifth grade, Jenny would comment to me about how she hated how ugly their yard was.
There was a row of rosebushes next to their back fence. "But those roses over there are pretty," I offered.
"Those. Those are from the funeral," Jenny would say, and her voice would drift off a little, like there was more to say but she couldn't think of what.
Her father was much older than her mom, and he was on disability. He spent much of every day sitting in a chair in front of the TV, wearing an old man back brace. Her mom was enormous and plain, with light red hair always pulled back in a bun. She never wore a trace of makeup and had the quietly pleasant look I associated with church people.
There were five kids in the family and they always looked neglected and underfed. They were thin, only kind of clean, and their pants were always too short and worn out at the knee. When we were younger, only the parents seemed to notice these things, but as we grew older, the other kids noticed them too, and they avoided Jenny, and started wearing the same look of disgust their parents wore.
The neighbors objected to almost every detail of them: their worn out house, their burnt lawn, the kids who wore rags, the father who didn't hold down a job. But the thing that bothered them the most was that they didn't watch their kids.
Maybe this really was the thing that offended them the most; maybe it was the thing that didn't sound petty and so they led off with that one and added the other complaints as details to add to the case. Often the topic would turn to the Baker's youngest child, a boy named Michael who had a developmental disability.
Of course, we didn't call it that back then. I don't remember what term was used, but the general observation was the child seemed much younger than his age. He was blonde and had the eternally happy look that many intellectually challenged people seem to have. He viewed everyone as his friend.
One neighbor, Mr. Middy, seemed to despise the family more than anyone. He lived up the street from the Bakers and had to drive his car past their house every time he left or came home. He had two blonde daughters who resembled dolls more than children, and Mr. Middy had noticed the Bakers allowed their son to squat and move his bowels in the front yard.
"Like a goddamned dog! He CRAPS in the front YARD like a GODDAMMNED DOG!"
He repeated this complaint often, to anyone who would listen. It outraged him to think that his daughters might witness this spectacle and be scarred for life. He marched right over and complained to Michael's mom.
"We think he saw the dog do it and sometimes I think maybe he's pretending he's a dog too," she told him.
She told Mr. Middy this in a voice full of reason, like it made perfect sense and was kind of cute.
Mr. Middy would also comment to his neighbors about how the Bakers didn't watch their children but when he talked about it, he frequently added an ominous note: "You mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of their kids."
And so their lives went on like that for awhile. Their kids went to school and had to sit next to well dressed kids, and they didn't get invited to anything, and the teachers took one look at them and didn't bother. The kids got older and felt how poor they were and they took it, day by day, with the same quiet peacefulness their mother had.
The other grownups hated them, but they seemed to fear them a little too. Or they feared looking at what they viewed as their worst nightmare. Maybe they feared poverty might be contagious, like a cold. Or they feared their kids might get used to the way that family lived and find it acceptable and set out to be just like them.
Then, for once, something happy was going to happen to this family. That's probably what they thought. They were going to a family reunion, and an actual campsite had been reserved. There would be tents and cookouts and hiking and friendly faces. In fact, it was probably the first time this family had gone anywhere, or had reason to pack anything in preparation for it. It must have seemed thrilling; for once, they were going to get to do what everyone else got to do, and they'd get to know how that felt.
But of course, it went bad right away.
When they met the man, they didn't know he was a monster. They thought he was just the guy who had rented the campsite right next to theirs. He was not a Suddenly Crazy type of monster. He was a Watching and Planning type of monster, the worst kind because they seem like everybody else, right up until the second they do the monster thing.
There were four Bakers on that camping trip: the mom, the dad, Michael (who had just celebrated his 10th birthday a few days before but who still seemed about five years old) and their second to youngest, 11-year old Beth.
The monster, who was 19 years old, took a dislike to the family right away. This raised no red flags for the Bakers, as they were so used to getting this reaction everywhere they went. The monster was different though: his dislike didn't take the form of dirty looks and snide remarks--it took the form of him making angry remarks about Michael and about the family in general, right to the faces of the Bakers. Then it got worse: he made verbal threats to physically harm the family.
I hear you wondering: Why didn't they leave? Why didn't they move to a different location, or better still, why didn't they get in their car and get the hell out of there?
That detail is a blank space in this story.
Maybe they'd gotten a ride from someone else and didn't have a vehicle of their own to take off in. Maybe they'd paid a lot for the campsite and had promised their kids for weeks and weeks. Maybe they didn't really believe the monster would hurt them; no one who disliked them had ever hurt them before.
How the Bakers reacted, I can't say. What I know is on that first day, the afternoon passed, and night fell, and the Bakers went to bed. The monster went to bed also, full of hatred for the family. What I think is this: he hadn't decided NOT to hurt them; he was deciding HOW to hurt them. If he beat them up, that hurt would be temporary; they would heal. I think he tried to figure out a way to hurt the family in a permanent way, one that would hurt and keep hurting for the rest of their lives.
On the second day of the camping trip there was a grand barbeque. Nephews and cousins and friendly chatter and running around and hotdogs and potato salad and ice cold pop. At some point Michael needed to use the bathroom and that was why when he was ten (but really much more like a five year old, due to his disability) he set off for the campsite bathrooms by himself.
I imagine him walking away. I imagine the echos of dozens of neighbors and the phrase they used to say about the Bakers: They don't watch their kids. I hear the sound of angry Mr. Middy saying: Mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of those kids. It would be easy to place blame on the parents. Certainly, later on, a lot of people did. They didn't say so out loud, but they did.
But the kid I was (and at some level, deep down, still am) wants someone, anyone, to for once be kind to this family. Maybe there was a reason Michael was alone when he walked away. Maybe it had nothing to do with whether or not they kept an eye on him. If this family had been a wealthy one, that's the kind of thing people would say, so let's say it. Let's be human. Let's remember how random the world can be on any given day.
Maybe the mom or dad had planned to go with him and had told him to wait one second and Michael had just gone off alone. Maybe one of them had started to go with him and someone spilled her pop, maybe some kid fell down and scraped his knee and started to holler. Maybe Michael wanted to go by himself and felt proud he could do so. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the day. Maybe his mother thought it was safe.
Whatever the reason, he went off alone.
The monster watched Michael walking off alone toward the bathrooms, and followed him inside.
There are things I'll never know about Michael's death, little gaps between the known details.
At some point, the people at the picnic noticed Michael hadn't returned. We can imagine the progression of emotions: curiosity to wonder to worry to panic. Maybe the search began casually and then someone tried to get it organized: you look over here, we'll look on this side. At some point, the searchers would involve strangers: we're looking for a boy, he's 10. Describing what kind of clothes he was wearing. Trying not to panic, reminding each other he could turn up at any moment.
We can imagine the moment someone wondered if the police should be called. The fear that if they did that, it meant the child was missing. The decision being made: Yes we need to call them.
Someone had seen Michael after the time he'd left to use the bathroom. He'd been walking off with the monster toward a bridge that ran over a lake.
In fact, it was likely that by the time they started searching for Michael, he was already dead, left lying on top of the rocks beneath that bridge. Years later, I wondered who had heard this eyewitness tip and then set off for the bridge: the searchers or the police. I hope it was the police.
I hope it wasn't his mom and dad.
The monster had followed Michael into the bathrooms and at some point promised him candy. I don't know how they got to the area under the footbridge; maybe he told Michael the candy was there. The monster beat him into unconsciousness and then held him underwater and drowned him. And he did other things. Then he left the broken boy there and went back to his tent.
This is a point of confusion for me. The monster didn't leave. Did he imagine he'd never be suspected? Did he know he would be, and just didn't care?
The eyewitness saw him being the last person with Michael, and Michael was found that same day, but the monster wasn't arrested until the following day. That first night, did the other campers know he was a monster? Had some of them stayed that second night or had they all gone home?
The Bakers, now three instead of four, had they gone home that night? And when they arrived back at their house, greeted by their other children, what was that moment like?
In my mind I imagine their sad, faded house, filled suddenly with pain. I imagine the parents, trying to decide which words to use around their younger children, which details to include for the older ones. I wonder how they lived through that first night, or any nights afterward.
Months later, when Jenny mentioned those rosebushes in her backyard, I remember being confused. When she said they were from the funeral, I was thinking: roses at funerals are in flower arrangements; they aren't rosebushes in pots. I'd never been to an actual funeral but felt certain of this, based on what I'd seen of pretend funerals on TV shows. I didn't ask Jenny about it though; her spooky sad look told me not to say more.
As an adult, I wondered if the friends of the Bakers just didn't know better. Then it occurred to me: flower arrangements die. Rosebushes could be planted and bloom again and again. So maybe the Bakers had friends who had thought of that. I wondered at myself, that I should have been so quick to assume people who were poor must also be stupid. Maybe their friends thought rosebushes would be a nice idea. For Jenny I think it just meant that every time she saw them, she thought of the crime.
I was 49 before it occurred to me that my parents didn't go to Michael's funeral. I can't imagine why they didn't; he was a child in a neighborhood filled exclusively with families who had kids. The shocked grownups who read the story in the paper and followed the story on the TV news had known this little boy's face, had waved to him through passing car windows. In the club of Kids They Knew, Michael was a longtime member.
And yet they had not gone. In my mind I saw the images of the dozens of kids in that neighborhood, a jumble of gap teeth and ponytails and skinned knees, and wondered: if it had been him, if it had been her, would they have gone? And of course, for those other kids, they would have.
I remember all the adults wearing the same expression of shock and hurt and fear. It made their faces rigid and their voices lower. They exchanged the scant details known and then stood, not knowing what to say. The air went heavy somehow, filled with this new thing that had no words to describe it or make it make sense.
When Mr. Middy was around, there was another feeling, like a breeze of anger blown his way. The grownups seemed to be thinking their old thought: the family didn't watch their kids, but were keeping that sentence inside because it would be too cruel to say anymore.
Maybe they remembered Mr. Middy saying "like a dog! Like a goddamn DOG" and him saying
"Mark my words, someday something is going to happen to one of those kids." Maybe they thought his words had been like an evil spell. When he was near, the eyes of the other neighbors went hard, and their mouths looked pinched.
I think he noticed because I remember him trying to say he hadn't meant he WANTED anything to happen, he was just stating the facts, that was all. I think he hoped someone would agree with him or pat him on the back and say "Sure, we know what you meant," but nobody did and a few months later, Mr. Middy packed up his wife and their doll-like daughters and moved away.
And the monster, the one who had hated the Baker family on sight, the one who had now injured them permanently, was put in a jail cell. A big talker, he was, and once they put a cellmate in there with him, he went on and on talking about the crime: admitting he had killed Michael and describing why and how.
The cellmate listened, and remembered the words he was hearing.
He would repeat them later, on the witness stand.
The trial didn't take long. The Monster pleaded not guilty but there were two witnesses who were devastating to his case: the eyewitness who had watched the Monster and Michael descending to the creek together and then, 20 minutes later, the Monster climbing back up alone, and the cellmate who had listened as the Monster admitted to the crime and then described it in detail.
There were photos that broke the hearts of everyone.
He was found guilty of premeditated first degree murder, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Time started to go by and Michael's sisters got older: Jenny, the one in my class, dropped out of school when she was 16. She'd faded into the margins by then: people hadn't really noticed she was there so they didn't really notice when she left.
Beth, the youngest sister, the one who had gone on that doomed camping trip with Michael, started volunteering for a victim rights group. The group had reached out to the Bakers with kindness, probably the only people to have ever done such a thing. Eventually Beth received a seat on the board of directors. Then she went one step up from that and became the Executive Director.
Michael's parents, who were older than the other parents in the neighborhood, died, one at a time, of natural causes.
The Monster came up for parole in 2000 but Beth was there, reading a Victim Impact Statement to the parole board, trying to put into words the pain her family had suffered. The board denied the Monster's parole, not just that day, but every time it came up.
The Monster, who had entered prison at the age of 19, stayed there until his death, just last year, at age 59.
I tried to find my old friend Jenny on Facebook. I was hoping that maybe her life had taken a different direction. I wanted to look for that girl who as a child had fodeeyed a roke and I hoped to find a page filled with photos of a nice house, a good looking husband, a family of her own. I wanted to see a picture of the finished adult version of Jenny, one who had enough money, not just enough to get by but enough to have extra to spend on fancy outfits, nice vacations, maybe a zippy car.
But when I found her, there were only two photos. Both of them featured an older version of Jenny but with the same clothing style: worn out and ill-fitting. In the photos she stands awkwardly, seeming to not want to be there, looking at the camera not with a smile but with a cautious, weary look, as if she's worried about what may be about to happen.
I don't think losing her little brother did that to her. When I look at our first grade photo, Jenny is wearing the same look. In her world, hurt was already a regular thing.
I didn't contact Jenny. I left her alone. I let her slip back into the background, back to the place she'd always been.
Thursday, January 24, 2019
My older sister is not a warm person. Jessie hates the world and wants the world to know. Why that is or when it began, we never knew. Smile at her and you'll get a glare. Say anything nice and she'll ask you what the hell you mean by that. Just exist and she'll probably want to hit you. My mother used to sum it up by saying: it's just her way.
And then, when she was 24, my sister made an exception and liked something: her cat, Tommy, a black and white kitten named for a rock opera. You might imagine we found it nice to hear her speaking softly, to see anything actually bringing a smile to her face. But it wasn't nice. On my sister, it just looked wrong. And since it proved she was capable of kindness, it only showed she was being intentionally mean all the rest of the time.
And so we all carried a little resentment toward the kitten. Not that he bothered anyone. In fact Tommy was as dull as dust while he was alive but after he died he made things very exciting at our house, as you will see.
We had had numerous pets and always felt bad when one of them died but part of the process always involved getting the deceased pet out of there ASAP. For some reason, when my parents discovered Tommy dead in the garage they decided to leave him there until my sister could see him, if she chose.
This horrified me and I told them so. And was voted down.
And so, late that night, my sister came home and did indeed want to go see Tommy. She stayed in the garage for three hours as my parents and I exchanged looks and wondered what she was doing in there. When my sister came back into the house my mother asked her, gently, if it was okay if we "took care" of Tommy and my sister became hysterical.
"DON'T YOU DARE MOVE MY CAT!" she yelled.
And so they didn't.
We lived in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle, and you've probably heard it rains in Seattle all the time. It doesn't. Sometimes, in the summer, the weather can go up into the 90s and beyond. Sadly for us, Tommy died in the middle of a weirdly hot July. Day One of the dead kitten became Day Two and it was 88 degrees by 10am. My father kept the garage doors shut because, as he confided to my mother and I, "otherwise the neighborhood dogs will smell that cat and drag him all over and we'll have little busted pieces of Tommy all up and down the street."
Day Two became Day Three (90 degrees) and then Day Four (92) and the garage became a scary place. My sister was spending over seven hours a day out there. We didn't know what she was doing and were afraid to guess. When she was inside the house she would wander up and down the hallway, wailing, sometimes in gibberish and sometimes almost coherently. She wailed things to God. She wailed things to Tommy. Sometimes it was unclear which one she was speaking to.
"He's a pinball wizard," my sister told my mother.
"Yes," my mother agreed, "yes."
The family began to organize shifts to be sure one of us was at home with Jessie at all times. Each time my parents said they worried she'd do something crazy, they corrected themselves: "crazier."
Day Five was a recordbreaker (95 degrees), and my sister stopped being aware of things going on around her. She might have still been vaguely aware where she was, we weren't quite sure, but she was disconnected, and didn't seem to see or hear anything going on around her. This was frightening but also convenient as we could now discuss her behavior while standing right next to her without her noticing a thing.
My sensitive parents had stopped being sensitive. "What if I need a wrench or something?" said my dad. "Maybe we need to put her in a place," said my mom, using her euphemism for mental hospital. "I don't know," said my dad, "but we need to do something." It was a serious situation: they had lost access to their garage.
It was my suggestion we take advantage of my sister's altered state by waiting until she was asleep and then just removing Tommy and telling her God had taken Tommy to Heaven. I was voted down.
And then in the middle of Day Six (91 degrees) my sister agreed we could move Tommy. We could put him in a box and put the box in the trunk of my mother's car, but that was it. We couldn't move the box out of the trunk until my sister gave further instructions.
The rest of us all had the same thought at the same time: we needed to call David. David was in the third grade and lived next door. For a long time we all found him creepy until we discovered we could ask him to remove any dead offerings our cats left on the welcome mat. Birds, mice, squirrels, you name it, one phone call and David would say "Sure!" and come running over, happy to do the deed for a dollar.
And so we called him and he said "Sure!" and my mother gave him instructions. Two minutes later he came to the front door and reported the cat was in the box but that he couldn't get the lid of the box to fit. This was too much dead cat conversation for my mother so she told him that was OK and thanked him and sent him home with two dollars, since this was a big job.
My dad, who had served in the military and liked to remind us how tough this made him, went into the garage to fix the box problem and swiftly ran back into the house, gagging. On his second attempt he was able to fit the lid on the box but confided to me later this was easier said than done.
"Well the thing is, after six days, there's rigor mortis," began my father, under his breath. He looked carefully to the left and right to be sure my sister wasn't around to overhear his words. "I couldn't fit the lid on. I had to bend him and break him." We both burst out laughing and then immediately stated "It's not funny, it's really not funny," which, as you know, must be said following clearly inappropriate laughing, to undo the bad karma.
So Tommy, dead cooked bent and broken, went into the box and the box went into the trunk of my mother's Cadillac. She said it was like transporting "some guy whacked by the mob."
My dad bleached and bleached the garage floor. My sister seemed to come back a little at a time. "Thank God we have the garage back," said my mother, and then, almost as an afterthought, "and thank God your sister is getting back to normal."
Tommy rode around in the trunk for two days and then my sister let my mother take him to the vet. He was diagnosed with feline leukemia, cremated, and put into an urn, which my sister kept on her dresser. Every day she'd talk to Tommy and every day we'd pretend to not hear her doing that.
But if you asked my sister how she was, she'd snarl "Go to hell!" and that's how we knew she was back to her old self: despising the world, which was her way.
Amie Ryan is the author of essay collections Green Shoes Mean I Love You, Starfish On Thursday, Secrets From The Star Jar, and the Marilyn Monroe biography Marilyn: Loved By You. Tommy is one of 23 stories found in Starfish On Thursday, available at www.amieryan.com
Thursday, November 29, 2018
Two months ago I was able to put two of my books, Green Shoes and Starfish, in the Netflix/HBO procurement catalog, which is where producers go to look for fresh story ideas for films and TV. Last night I checked my email and learned an international film studio has expressed an interest to option the Film and TV rights to my book, Starfish On Thursday. Next week I'll be speaking with the company to discuss negotiations.
As a relatively unknown author, there will be a limit to how much they'll offer me for the initial option--I won't be on the Anne Rice plan quite yet--but as far as I understand it, there's a payment for the option, along with contracts, and during the period of time the option is (12 months-5 years) they decide if they want to purchase the full rights and make the film or tv show. If they decide to go ahead then there would be more money and more contracts, and probably an agent.
I looked up the company and noted they seem to have a bunch of big name stars in their projects. I saw Colin Firth and Laura Dern and Alec Baldwin and Selma Hayek and Ben Kingsley, so this sounds like a serious company indeed.
I'm not sure yet if they have specific stories in this collection that they're interested in, or all of them, or just one of them. Anyway, it should be interesting to find out the details and I'll keep you posted.
Thursday, November 22, 2018
This is from my first book, the essay/poetry collection GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU. It's a poem based on my mother's memories of what it was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis when she was a new mother of 19 and my big sister was a year and a half old. For more information about this collection, please visit www.amieryan.com
Friday, August 3, 2018
In 1974 my family loved watching Marlo Thomas on her TV show, That Girl. My mother would always refer to her as 'that darling Marlo Thomas' or by her longer name, 'that darling Marlo Thomas I just love her'.
We also loved I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched. Jeannie had a master who stoppered her into her bottle when she was bad and Samantha wasn't allowed to be her true witch self unless her husband couldn't fix his ad campaign and then she was allowed to do magic, so he could take the credit. These things we accepted without question. For awhile, when I'd daydream about what kind of a grownup I'd be, I thought of only these two choices: a Jeannie or a Samantha.
That Girl threw us for a loop because the star of the show (Marlo) was a career girl who had a handsome man who wanted to marry her (which is usually where the story would end, with happily ever after) but That Girl loved her boyfriend AND her career, and she wasn't ready to get married. She had stuff to do and so handsome man would have to wait. It was the strangest thing I'd ever heard. I was five.
And when Marlo Thomas (not as That Girl, just as herself) went on TV and told everyone to watch her special, Free To Be You And Me, we made sure to watch. Marlo and her famous friends sang and did skits about new ways of thinking about men and women. My favorite part was when Marlo sang a song called Parents Are People. It featured Marlo doing all sorts of things I had thought of as being Man Jobs: Marlo as a cab driver, Marlo as a police officer, Marlo as a baseball umpire. Marlo sang "Mommies can do almost anything" and the world felt bigger when I heard her sing those words.
A few months later, I used that show to almost win an argument with my mother and that was when she started referring to Marlo as 'that damned Marlo Thomas'.
When I wasn't at kindergarten, I did what a lot of kids did back then: I got shooed out of the house and told to Go Play. This was partly due to the fact that times were safer then but it was also because my mother had no interest in spending time with me. "Amie entertains herself very well," my mom would tell other grownups and I'd know this was supposed to be a compliment. It never felt like one.
One of my mother's favorite phrases was "find something to do" and that was how, one day, I decided what I'd do would be to go see how my rabbit was doing. We had buried her four days earlier.
Actually she'd only been my rabbit a few days when my mother decided living in a cage was making my rabbit sad and that being set free to live in the woods behind our house would make my rabbit happy. When I disagreed, my mother sang the Born Free song and said it would be SELFISH to make my rabbit live in a cage and GOOD to let her go free and asked me which I wanted to be: selfish or good. So I was stuck. I had to say Good.
So we set her free (as free as the wind blows) and the next day my rabbit was dead in our vegetable garden and my dad said "Oh look at that, the slug bait pellets look just like the rabbit food we were giving her" and that was the end of my rabbit. We had a pet funeral and my dad said serious words and I played my kazoo. Solemnly. Kind of.
I can only guess the death process had not been clearly explained to me. I wasn't sure what I'd find when I used my mother's garden shovel to dig up the shoebox. I thought either it would be empty because my rabbit would be in Heaven or she'd look like she was sleeping.
What I found was a LOT more interesting. I had no idea any of it was supposed to be icky and so none of it was. I looked and looked and felt like a scientist (I thought maybe I already was one). My rabbit was all bones but she still looked kind of rabbit shaped, just like dinosaur bones were dinosaur shaped and Halloween skeletons were people shaped. A thing's bones on the inside looked like the thing's outside. I felt smarter just thinking about it. After a while I reburied the box and ran in the house to tell my mom all about what I'd learned.
She was washing dishes, a cloud of suds under her hands. When I told her I'd seen my rabbit, she asked me if I was pretending. Once I started describing the worms (great big fat ones that wiggled but didn't seem to be going anywhere, and how did they get in there?) she turned and vomited into the sink. Right on top of the soapy dishes.
Have to wash those again, I thought, but did not say.
Once she recovered, she was all voice. It was disgusting. I was disgusting. "Everyone knows you don't dig up dead things and LOOK at them!"
"What about dinosaurs?" I asked. "People dig them up and look at them and then put the bones in museums and people go and spend money to look at them."
"That's different," my mom tennis whacked the argument right back to me. "Those are scientists that do that."
"Then I'll be a scientist!" I announced. This was becoming a great day.
"You can't," my mom said, and she was wearing her mean smile. "Only men can be scientists. Ladies can't, they don't let them. It's a rule."
I paused, hearing this wrong thing. And then I said the thing that would forever cast a pall over Marlo in our house. I said "What about that Marlo Thomas song, Parents Are People? She sang Mommies can do anything."
And then my mom's smile went a little bigger as she went in for the winning point: "She said ALMOST anything. And don't forget, Marlo Thomas is an actress. Actresses say made up things all the time."
I hadn't figured that one in. I had forgotten about that word: almost. ANYTHING, that word was as big as the whole world but that word ALMOST was a tricky one. It could erase stuff at the last minute. I dropped my mother's gaze and studied the pattern of the green tile floor and felt small again.
My mom reminded me we were going to my grandma's later and told me to get cleaned up. Grandma was my mother's mom. "And use a lot of soap!" she reminded.
I liked going to see Grandma. She wore her hair in a beehive (some of it real and some of it bought at the store and clipped in) and bright lipstick and sparkly earrings. I'd always draw her a picture and she'd always make a big deal over it. It was our thing. This time I spent a lot of time on the picture. I wanted it to be really special: a grownup picture, a scientist picture. I took a big piece of white paper and began by drawing a line down the middle. I would draw two pictures and I would call it: My Rabbit Before And After. It was going to be great.
My parents were used to me bringng a picture along so neither of them thought to look it over. They would later regret this decision.
At my grandma's, a lot of relatives were there: aunts, uncles, and they all fussed over me. I was everyone's darling, even more so when I told them I had a picture to show them. I remember my grandma clapped her hands together and said "Oh! A picture! Oh Amie I can't WAIT to see what you've drawn for me!"
I stood in front of the group and began my presentation. The left side of the picture was my rabbit Charlotte, the way she'd looked when she was alive. The right side was labelled with words (in careful capitals) and arrows pointing to what I was describing. I had labelled WORMS and EYE HOLES and MORE WORMS. You get the idea. For some reason, my audience looked strange. I took this to mean my presentation needed more pizzazz.
"You may be wondering about the worms. I did too. My dad explained it to me, these worms are called Maggots and a maggot is a worm with a really important job" (cut to my mother shooting a lethal look at my father). I explained my father's theory to them: how maggots are like garbagemen who do an important job and we're glad they do (I had pounced on my dad the instant he stepped in the door and asked him about the worms. He'd be in trouble later, for 'helping').
Still silent, my audience. I pulled out the poem. "I've written a poem too and this poem is called The Maggots and My Rabbit." I began the first few lines and suddenly my mother was yanking me by the arm, hustling my butt into the kitchen. This made me very upset, not the arm yanking but having my poem interrupted when I wasn't even done.
"NO MORE," she ordered. "No more talking about the rabbit. No pictures. No poems."
I got a thought in my head and my mother read my mind and squashed the thought: "And before you say it, no SONGS, either."
She meant business. And there was more. I wasn't allowed to say the WORD rabbit for a whole month. I tried for a loophole (the Easter Bunny) and another loophole (Bugs Bunny) and my mother said if I said Bunny or Rabbit even one time in the next month, the Easter Bunny would be told not to come to our house ever again.
I was ordered to sit at the kitchen table and think about what I had done and then to apologize. I sat there awhile, thinking about how unfair it was I should have to apologize for making my grandma a really good picture. I sat there a lot longer than my mother expected so when she came back in she had a piece of cake on a plate, a bribe she set down in front of me. When I apologized, I could get cake. Also I should draw my grandma another picture, "a nice picture" my mother specified.
She had more: I shouldn't even know the word Maggot, it was a yucky word and no one should know it. I told her it was the right word, that it was in the dictionary so somebody had thought that worm was important enough to have its own name and to put it in the dictionary so people could know it.
My mother glared at me and I stopped talking then.
I drew another picture. I drew it really badly, on purpose. The lines were all over the place and I colored outside the lines and it was a yucky mess and I was glad. It was a brown scribble with a dash of gray scribble. It could have been anything. I took the picture into the living room for my grandma and told her "Here, it's a picture of a cat. It's just a cat. It doesn't do anything."
My grandma had gotten lots of my pictures and knew how well I could draw. Even though this picture was an on purpose mess, she said "Oh I love it, oh Amie I like this picture" which proved that either my grandma had no taste and didn't know a good picture from a bad one or that she was just a big liar.
"And what else?" my mother reminded.
"I'm sorry you didn't like the special one I made for you," I told her. I thought maybe if I reminded her it was special, she might act nice. I was wrong.
My grandma continued to ham it up. "Oh Amie, that other picture! OOH it scared me!" She made an elaborate scared face to demonstrate. I wondered if she was lying some more or if my grandma could really get ooh scared from a kid's crayon picture.
And so I was forgiven. And offered cake. I said "No thank you" to the cake.
When it was time to go my mom helped me into my coat and handed me my rabbit drawing. "Oh you forgot my drawing!" I said to my grandma, and tried to hand it to her.
"Oh no Amie, I like the other drawing you did. I'm scared of THIS one."
I responded as my mother's daughter: I gave her a guilt trip. "You don't have to keep it. If you really hate it, you can throw it in the garbage can." I looked so pitiful, I thought I had her for sure. No way would a grandma ever throw a kid's drawing in the garbage can in a million years.
But my grandma was a master. She bent down so she was at my eye level and said "Amie, I wouldn't want THAT picture even in our garbage can!"
My mouth fell open. And before I could recover and say anything else, my parents got me out of there.
This story originally appeared on the website SMITH: The Moment, and can be found in my first collection, GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU, available at www.amieryan.com
PS: I happened to send this story to Marlo Thomas herself and was delighted to get this response: