Tuesday, December 14, 2010

THE FIRST ANNUAL CRISPIES AWARDS: PART II: that which struck my fancy in the biggest ever way over the course of this year

To DINOSAUR BEES, for being brainy enough to publish this long delight from Taryn Amina


PEOPLE LOVE to tell children that they can be whatever they want when they grow up. People love lying to children. They love Tooth Fairying, Easter Bunnying, Flying Reindeering, God Fearing to children.

The truth is, you can’t be whatever you want when you grow up. All my papa wanted to be was a carpenter, but he could never find any work, even though he kept his eyes big and looked all over, so he had to be a drunk instead. And all I wanted to be was a dancer, but I couldn’t be because I was a boy, and my papa and my papa’s papa pappy said that dancing turns boys into faggots, and I couldn’t wind up a faggot, if I was any boy of theirs. So you can’t be whatever you want to be when you grow up. But you can be whatever you want to be when you grow down.

That is, unless the fishes fish you back. Then you don’t get to choose what you want to be. Then you have to be a fish.

If you’re a perceptive person – if you pay attention to things – and if you’ve rowed in boats before, on lakes, then you’ve surely noticed that a lake is really an eye which stares at you from below. And you’ve surely figured out that a lake can see a lot more of you than you can see of it. For that’s the way it is with eyes: you look into them and see yourself – a murky, wobbly, only sorta yourself, to be sure, but still yourself – and they look out past you and see the whole world.

Humans have big eyes, and big boats, and big bodies in those boats, and big hungers. Big bigness. This is unfair, if you’re a fish who wants to stay being a fish. And so, long ago (but maybe not so long as you might think) the fishes called upon the lakes to help tip the scales.

Now, let me just say that fishes can tip scales on their own, of course. Fishes have a fair amount of scales; enough to do a fair amount of tipping. They know some tricks that humans haven’t even begun to know that they should know. But fishes don’t have big bigness. And lakes have big bigness. So the fishes called upon the lakes for help, and the lakes were kind enough to agree (for as lakes have big bigness, they so too have big hearts).

The lakes let you look into them and see yourself, but they don’t let you see the wide-eyed, eyed-wide, scale-tipped fishes below. Or the crayfish (who are the love-children of the aliens and the dragons) or the leeches or the mosses, for that matter. But they especially don’t let you see the fishes. And while you sit and hold your pole and smoke your smokes and see your only sorta self, the fishes keep watch, and they keep count. For the fishes only let you fish fish for so long before the fishes fish you back.

Before she got shot, my mama was a waitress, which was not what she wanted to be when she grew up. What she wanted was to be a painter.

Before she got shot, my mama did get to paint, some. She painted our backyard to look just like our backyard (except for she gave it mountains), and she painted apples even shinier than real life, sometimes. And she hung up her paintings in the kitchen. But this was only sometimes. It wasn’t all the time, like how she wanted, because when you have mouths to feed you can’t feed them paintings, even if the paintings look like apples.

Before she got shot, my mama was a waitress at a place where you could get pancakes for your breakfast, pancakes for your afternoon, and pancakes for your suppertime. All-the-time pancakes. My mama wore a uniform that she didn’t like that was pink as a nose with flu, and a hat the same color that she didn’t like, either. She had red smile lips when she gave her customers their pancakes. (Unless they talked about her breasts, which they did sometimes. Which gave her red pissed lips. So she had red smile lips or red pissed lips, depending.)

When my mama got shot it was by my papa in the middle of the pancakes place, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the heart (or thereabouts). My papa shot himself soon after. I learned this from Loretta, my sister, when I was lying on the top bunk, even though I was afraid of heights, because she was older and she got to choose.

There were fireflies (who are the love-children of the aliens and the angels) glowing then not glowing on the walls and on the ceiling. I asked Loretta about Heaven. She was older, like I said, and a perceptive person, so she knew these things. I asked her if she thought papa would be comfortable in Heaven, considering that it was all white and there might not be any professional sports to watch, and surely not any liquor. When I said this Loretta sighed like I was really stupid and said that I was really stupid.

Loretta said, “Papa isn’t gone to heaven, stupid. He shot mama in the goddamn chest and then he shot himself.”

She paused. Then she added, “And there isn’t any Heaven, Lucien, ’cause there isn’t any God.”

She paused. Then she added, “God.”

I considered this. The day that mama got shot, I didn’t know she got shot. My papa’s papa pappy and my papa’s mama mammy came and told me that my sister and I would have to go live with them because the angels had flown my papa and my mama up to Heaven. They said it was just their Time. And not to ask any questions. Because God works in mysterious Ways.

People love to lie to children.

Now Loretta was mostly always honest if it meant she could be mean, so I knew I could believe her about papa and mama. I wasn’t so sure about the Heaven bit, because if there was no Heaven there could be no angels, and without any angels there could be no fireflies. And there were fireflies. But I knew I could believe her about papa and mama, at least: that they didn’t get carried away, in God’s mysterious Way; that with papa’s shot they’d grown down. And the truth is I was happy. For I’d seen in pappy’s westerns what happens to people who happen to get shot, and what happens is a burst of wet, shiny, runny, red. Not smile lips red or pissed lips red but wet, shiny, runny red.

Like red paint, from the paintbrush of a painter.

Like shinier than real life apples.

Maybe even like make-pretend mountains, if you’re really ready to make-pretend.

(You can be whatever you want to be when you grow down.)

Now (although I can’t, I must say, confirm any of this), my sister was supposed to come into the world a politician, for she was no morals and, as I said before, a lot meanness, but she had to come into the world an older sister instead because she didn’t care about money. She didn’t have to. She was a dazzling thief.

Into Loretta’s bra, sweets and tubs of blue eyelid dust vanished without a sound. Sodas and Seventeen magazines found their way inside her purse like they themselves had wished it so. I’d once seen her lift up her skirt in the hair dye aisle of the drug store, stuff a box of Chardonnay Shimmer Medium Gold Blond into her panties, and flirt for five minutes with the store clerk before making her way out the door. Loretta couldn’t be a politician because to her money didn’t mean a thing. If you wanted something from Loretta, you had to imagine up a different kind of currency.

But that was okay because I was seven. And when you’re seven money is hard to come by, but imagination is not. So I would imagine and imagine and imagine and then I’d say

“Loretta, I’ll pop the zits on your hard to reach spots if …”

“Loretta, I’ll watch out for pappy so Tommy can sneak through the window if …”

“Loretta, I’ll pretend you’re having female problems so you won’t have to go to church if …”

with my if always being the same if: if I could wear her dresses while I danced, and if she’d not tell mammy or pappy about it.

On Friday nights mammy and pappy would drive into the next town over to play bridge. At five o’ clock (no earlier, no later) mammy would put a plastic-wrapped pot-pie on the kitchen counter and pappy would say “no funny stuff” to Loretta and they’d be gone until ten o’ clock. (No earlier, no later.)

What would happen would be this: at four-thirty Loretta would take off her school outfit and throw it on the floor. She would sit on the bottom bunk waving a mascara wand over her eyelashes while I’d kneel behind her, squeezing the flush-faced pimples on her shoulders and neck until they threw up between my fingers. Then I’d help pick out which outfit mammy would most likely like the least so Loretta would know which one to like the most. We’d wait to hear the front door close, we’d count to one-hundred-Mississippi-three, my sister would say “the dresses are all yours, Fairy Boy,” and she would leave.

Now I was seven, and a boy, and Loretta was a girl, and fifteen, so her dresses didn’t fit us each the same way. On me, there was too much spaghetti to the spaghetti straps and a lot of wasted space in the waist, and to find a solution I had to stand on a stool in the bathroom to reach the box of safety pins in the vanity cabinet, stretching my freckle-spackled arms the longest they could go. (At school recess I’d started hanging from the monkey bars the whole time, so that the longest my arms could go would become longer, so that reaching the safety pins would become easier.

If this idea sounds crazy to you? That’s because you’re not seven.)

From the time I fixed my safety pins until the time Loretta and her boyfriend crawled in through our bedroom window and I’d hear Loretta shout, “Hey Lucien! Fairy Boy! Time’s up! Mammy and pappy’ll be home any minute!” – for that whole time, the whole house became my ballroom.

I would roll up all the rugs in all the rooms (for the floor under them was secretly slippery; meant for gliding). I would leap and spin and pirouette with my freckle-spackled arms stretched up way over my head again – not for safety-pins this time, but for pleasure. The swirling silky skirts would kiss my heels all delicious. I would bow before applauding appliances and potted plants.

I didn’t know it then, but I was speaking in the tongues of the fishes – or the fins of the fishes, as it were. I was learning to speak Finnish – the fish-fin variety.

My pappy didn’t speak Finnish.

My mama (before she got shot) would let me wear dresses and dance all over, sometimes. I would dance and she would paint. This was only sometimes – when she wasn’t waitressing, and when my papa wasn’t home – but it was a lot more often than after she got shot; after we had to go live with mammy and pappy.

There was once that my pappy caught me dancing. It was on a day in the summer where my sister lay in the backyard with just one piece of her two-piece bathing suit on, as she would take the top off when sunning her back, you see, so as to avoid tan lines. A glazy sweat stuck her Shimmering Chardonnay bangs to her forehead and stuck her skin to the plastic lawn chair like maple syrup sticking to an all-the-time pancake (or any pancake, for that matter). My sister said it was too hot to dance, but she was wrong. She was right that it was too hot, but wrong that it was too hot for dancing.

I had taken a bath towel and made it into a skirt. I had put on Loretta’s swimsuit top. I was fluorescent-pink-polka-dots a twirl, floral-print-terry-cloth a flap, seven-year old-sticky sweat alive, and Loretta didn’t say anything to try and stop me, just maybe rolled her eyes behind those rhinestoned, big bigness sunglasses of hers.

Without any music I was having to do all the djoom dja djoom djoom, djoom djoom djooming myself, with my tongue and the top of my mouth. Which I didn’t mind, because I was, truth be told, pretty good at it, for I spent a lot of time by myself practicing. In the backyard, with my eyes closed so that no dust got into them – for grass never seemed to grow at mammy and pappy’s, even though we lived out in what would be considered the boondocks by most; even though our neighbors had a big grassy lawn – I beat, beat, beat my feet to the beat of my own djoom dja djoom djoom.

And I dja djoom djoomed right into my pappy.

Into my pappy’s belly, to be exact. Pappy entered and exited the world belly first. In fact, my being seven, and thus not very tall, I got to know my pappy’s belly in a way that I never got to know his face. I knew it on Friday nights before he and mammy left for bridge: all buttoned up, tucked in, belted over, in whatever clothes mammy had picked for him. Looking almost reasonable-sized. And uncomfortable. I knew it on Sundays in the living room watching football: only partly covered by a cotton sleeveless shirt, one that used to be white but had grown full of pale yellow stains, like the kind I would make on my sheets at night while I was sleeping and scared and couldn’t help it. I knew it every mealtime when we all (except for Loretta) were saying ‘grace’: squeezed into the table’s ledge, a little bit of flub hanging over and touching his plate, like the nose of a child pressed against the glass of a toy store.

I knew his belly better than his face, and so I knew immediately what I had collided with, what I had dja djoom djoomed right into, even though my eyes were closed. And I froze – in the middle of summer, in the syrup-sticky heat, I froze. Because I knew how pappy felt about my dancing. My papa had paddled me for it once, when mammy and pappy were visiting, and after I got sent to my room I heard them talking. About how dancing turns boys into faggots. And how there wouldn’t be any faggots living under my papa’s roof, no sir ee, uh-uh, not gonna happen. My papa and my papa’s papa pappy both agreed.

It was after hearing this conversation that Loretta first started calling me Fairy Boy.

Is it a coincidence that faggots and fairies and fishes all sound the same? I think not.

After pappy caught me dancing, he didn’t paddle me and he didn’t call me names. He just started making me sit with him while he watched football games, and taking me fishing all the time.

Now the only thing I knew about football was that Loretta’s boyfriend Tommy used to play on a team in school before they kicked him off because he couldn’t give a clean piss. But it seemed like all pappy expected me to do with football on was to stare at the screen, and cheer when he cheered, and swear when he swore, and ignore mammy the first time she asked that we wash our hands for supper. So the trouble wasn’t the football. The trouble was the fishing.

I should explain, so as not to confuse you, that in the mornings, for breakfast, mammy would cut open a grapefruit for me to eat. Before she got shot, my mama would give me grapefruits in the mornings, too, only she would carve out each section before putting it in my bowl, so that the little pink wedges would pop out easy in my spoon – sparkly with sugar, soury sweet, just waiting to be tasted. But mammy didn’t do this. She gave me a cut-open grapefruit and a spoon and the bag of sugar and then she disappeared into the bathroom, where her hairdryer groaned like it still wanted some more sleep.
Now I had never realized how much digging jimmying carving cleaving prying it takes to get those little pink wedges to pop up into your spoon. I had never realized this until I had my first grapefruit at my mammy’s. And I started wondering if maybe my grapefruit was in pain.

If maybe it was crying “Uncle! Uncle!” from the table but I couldn’t hear it over mammy’s hairdryer.

Or if maybe it wasn’t crying out loud at all, because it was trying real hard to be tough, trying not to be a faggot Fairy Boy, but it was hurting nonetheless.

(If this idea sounds crazy to you? That’s because you’re not seven.)

So I began to worry about the things on the table that might be hurting. I wasn’t so concerned for orange juice or tea. I wasn’t so concerned for tomato soup. I wasn’t so concerned (though I was a little concerned, to tell you the truth, what with all of the chewing involved, but I wasn’t so concerned) for Cheerios. But I was quite concerned for grapefruit, and I was very, very concerned for fish.

I started faking stomach aches every time mammy would cook up one of the fishes pappy would catch. Pappy would snort and mammy would sigh and Loretta would roll her eyes and I would excuse myself from the table. I would go to my room and wait till dark, wait till everyone else went to sleep, and then I would climb down from my bunk and have a green or red or blue (but never purple) popsicle for my supper (being careful not to use my teeth).

I trust you can imagine, then – if you’re an attentive person, if you’re listening to my story – how I felt about going fishing. Every time pappy would say “come here, boy” and reach for his fishing pole on the wall I wouldn’t have to fake the ache in my stomach, because I would really get one. Pappy would hand me a bright orange lifejacket and my hands would be so shshshaky that I couldn’t fasten the buckles and my pappy would say “what’s the matter with you?” and my mammy would have to get up from doing her crossword puzzles and fasten the buckles for me. Then we would get into pappy’s pick-up (the one with the boat on the hood and the doors who complained and the missing side mirror, not the one that he drove into the next town over to play bridge on Friday nights) and bump along through the bumpy side roads till the lake came into view.

Out on the lake I couldn’t watch while pappy hooked the squirmy worms. I looked into the lake instead, at my only sorta self, all wobbly and freckly and seven. And then I would sit with my pole and hope that Loretta was wrong; that there really was a God, or if not a God then at least a way for the angels to hear me praying and praying that the fishes had bad eyes and wouldn’t notice the little squiggling thing who pappy’d sunk a hook through at the top of the water.

Pappy would smoke a smoke. He would hum a tune. He would swear and swat at the mosquitoes (who are the love children of the imps and the fireflies). He would sigh and belch up reheated night-before lasagna. Softly. And let the smell settle into the air. He would look down at his belly, which would be sweating under a flannel shirt, his Fishing Shirt, even on the hottest day of the year.

He wouldn’t talk.

I never caught a fish, but pappy would. And when he would he would put them in a pail on the seat by his side, and then a curious thing would happen to me. I would (even if I tried and tried not to; tried the hardest that I could) tap my foot along to the beat.


What beat?

Are you wondering, right now, what beat?

That’s understandable. It was the beat of the heart of the fish in the pail, a beat that my pappy couldn’t hear, because he didn’t understand Finnish. But I was a dancer, and thus knew Finnish quite well, even though I didn’t know it yet, and wouldn’t know it till the fishes fished me back.

It was on a Thursday that became a Sun day when the rain stopped and let the sky fill up with yellow rays. In pappy’s pick-up I kept leaning out the window, hoping a rainbow would happen. Pappy said

“what are you doing, boy?” so I said

“waiting for a rainbow to happen” and he snorted and said

“only a faggot would be waiting for a rainbow!” and then he told me to get my head back in the truck.

I got my head back in the truck. But I didn’t agree with my pappy that only faggots would wait to see rainbows. Even without knowing what a faggot was I didn’t agree. For anybody who can like to see a pretty thing can like to see a rainbow. Surely even Loretta couldn’t have argued with that.

Where the tall grass gave up growing and let the sand take over, that’s where we parked. I helped pappy bring the boat to the water, pappy burping and swatting and me praying and praying. The boat was old and wood, rough and splintery, gray paint-flaky, and I imagined it was kind of cranky, as it always croaked a little croak when pappy first sat in it. I knew I would be cranky if I was old and had to tread water with a little boy and a pappy on my back (truth be told, I wasn’t much good at treading water to begin with). So I didn’t blame him – the boat, I mean – for being tired and wanting to rest, but when I helped pappy carry him I worried that he would send some of his slivers through my fingers, as a way to get back at me, and maybe get me to put him down. Like a porcupine letting loose some of her quills. Or like a skunk stinking a dog in the face. Not that I would blame him, like I say. But it just worried me, so I tried to carry the boat with as few fingers as I could, which made pappy say things like “what’s the matter with you, boy?” all the way to the lake, every time, between burps and swats.

I didn’t answer. When he asked what was the matter with me, that is. I didn’t answer, because I’d never asked my pappy, but I was pretty sure he didn’t believe that boats had any feelings.

On this Thursday which was also Sun day the boat was kind enough to not give my fingers any slivers. He croaked once and then slid his belly through the water till he reached the middle of the lake. Like always. Pappy took a worried, purpley worm from his tackle box and set about hooking him, like always, and I looked away, down at my only sorta self. Like always.

Only this time, something that was not at all like always happened.

Up through the nose of my only sorta self burst a wide-eyed, eyed-wide, scale-tipped fish from below. A catfish. With long long purpley whiskers that looked a little like pappy’s purpley worm.

And what he did with those whiskers?

Well, why do you suppose catfishes come with whiskers?

I’ll tell you why: to give them a way to whisk you away. You see, if ever the fishes decide to fish you back, you will be fished back by a catfish. Whisked away by catfish whiskers. For this is how it is with every lake.

The catfish (whose name, as I would learn later, was Tobias) whirled his whiskers around my neck, pressed his fishlips to my ear and whispered something to me in Finnish. We know it’s the old man who’s been doing the fishing. But he’s far too fat to make a proper fish, see. And, besides, you’re a dancer. We hope you’ll understand.

Of course, I didn’t at all understand, just yet. But as Tobias tightened his whiskers and whisked me into the lake, I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t reach for the boat with my freckle-spackled arms. I didn’t try to fight. Because the way Tobias sounded when his fishlips whispered? That’s how my sister’s skirts sounded, when they kissed my heels all delicious.

As Tobias whisked me deeper and deeper, I giggled – whiskers are ticklish things, after all – and my giggles turned to bubbles which floated about my face. I was whisked through tangles of slimy weeds and past gaggles of slimy rocks, I was whisked past slimy piles of goose goop just waiting to be stepped in. Past slimy leeches. Slimier mosses. And then, finally, right as I was starting to get dizzy (feeling a little slimy in my stomach, if you must know), Tobias stopped the whisking, and there were fishes everywhere I looked.

Little yellow fishes like sunrays on a Sun day.

Glitzy sparkly fishes like Loretta’s rhinestoned (big bigness) sunglasses.

Red smile lips, pissed lips, painter’s paintbrush fishes.

Fishes who were pink as noses with the flu.

Fishes white as the Heaven where my mama and my papa didn’t go.

Fishes like every flavor popsicle there is.

These fishes, they were all set in motion, but it wasn’t like when people are set in motion, and have Places to Go, Things to See. No. No, quite different, in fact. The fishes seemed to be moving for the love of moving. For moving’s sake. They floated, darted, spun. They whirled and twirled and pirouetted.

They reminded me of me.

I was looking and looking, looking and looking, wide-eyed and eyed-wide as a fish myself, before it occurred to me that I was a fish myself. Indeed, it had to be so, for how else would I be treading water so easy? I lifted a hand in front of my face and saw that it was not a hand but was a fin. Freely flowing as a silky skirt. And freckle-spackled.

Oh wow.

The fishes began to crowd around me, fussing over me, making sure that I’d had a safe whisk, did I like the color of my new scales? And I said yes, yes, I was fine, and my scales were lovely, but I must know…well…

What in the world is going on?

It was then that Tobias patted me on the back with a sympathetic whisker and told me everything I wanted to know.

He explained the agreement between the lakes and the fishes, an agreement that had been decided long ago (though not so long ago as you might think). How the lakes use their big bigness to help the fishes keep watch, and how they will only let you fish fish for so long before they – the fishes – fish you back.

But you fished me? Even though I never fished a fish?

Yes, we fished you, answered Tobias, because your pappy would have made a horrible fish. Too heavy. Too slow. Too tough to teach Finnish. You – why, you have spoken Finnish almost from the beginning. There are some people who just have a sense. Like the dancers. The dancers often have a sense.

At about this point I got a little confused, and wanted some clarification, for after all, how did the fishes know I was a dancer? To this question Tobias smiled a fishlipped smile and he said, There are many ways to answer that.

What did you do when your pappy wanted to take you fishing?

I thought about this. And then I said, in Finnish, well, I shshshook.

That’s right, Tobias said. We could tell by your shshshaking.

And by those long, long arms of yours.

And by how silly you looked in that orange lifejacket.

Tobias paused. Then he added, And because your mama told us.

I gasped. My mama! But how did you –

Ah, breathed Tobias, giving another fishgrin. We fishes, see…we work closely with those who have grown down. For without a God in Heaven, who else would angels talk to?

I wanted to ask more questions, I wanted to know everything all at once, but Tobias waved a fin in front of my face and I fell silent. In good time, he promised, I would know all there was to know of the ways of the fishes. But for now, he told me then, just remember that a lake can see a lot more of you than you can of it.

So I learned what I could. I learned that those schools of fish swimming around me (moving for the love of motion) were in Finnishing school, and I began to swim with them, putting the finishing touches on my Finnish. I learned that dancers aren’t the only ones who make good fishes – that musicians do, too, and puppeteers, and poets, and those who hop on trampolines. And prostitutes. I haven’t yet learned why prostitutes make such good fishes. I’ve learned to keep some things a mystery.

It’s true that you don’t get to choose what you want to be when you grow down if the fishes fish you back. It’s true that then you have to be a fish. But you do get to choose what you want to be called, and you can pick any name in the whole world. I know a fish named Turquoise, even though every single scale of his skin is silver. I know another fish named Slovadan Kizbekistan Hulluciman Ostwichez (who we all call Oz for short). And me? When it came time for me to choose what I would be called, I imagined and imagined and imagined and then I thought of the last time I ever imagined so hard. I remembered that it had been with Loretta. And, if you must know, even though she was mean – and knew I was afraid of heights but made me sleep up on the top bunk anyway – and even though I knew that I shouldn’t, truth be told, I missed Loretta. So when it came time for me to choose my name, I chose to be called Fairy Boy. For it isn’t a coincidence that faggots and fairies and fishes all sound the same.

I keep watch now, with the rest of the fishes. When I see a worried squirmy purply worm floating in the water, I tell them all to stay clear. I make sure they can all recognize the belly of my pappy’s cranky croaking boat. But the next time I see my pappy out on the lake, I’ve made up my mind to swim up above the water and give him my biggest, fairiest, most fishlipped smile. For you see, I feel bad for my pappy – that he’ll never know how it feels to go dancing, because he’ll never choose to do so, even after he grows down.

Because he’ll never wait for rainbows.

Because he’ll never utter a word of Finnish.

(If none of this makes sense to you? Maybe that’s because you’re not a dancer. Or a musician or a puppeteer, or a poet or a prostitute. Maybe it’s because you’re not a trampoline hopper, or maybe it’s just because you’re not one of the fishes.

Not yet.)

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