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The Monster

by Melanie Sumner
 

When I was little I worried that one of my arms and legs might come off, or that my head would roll away, and then nobody would recognize me. In the family portraits that I supplied for the refrigerator door, in which I loomed out from the center of the page with a tiny parent on each side of me, none of us had all of our parts. I liked to walk up to people with my arms pulled up inside of my shirt sleeves and say, "Shake my hand."

My father let himself be horrified. "Is that my girl?" he'd ask. "Is that Rickie?"

"No!" I roared. "It's the Monster!"

Sometimes we played the game too long. Then I would pull my arms out of the shirt and wave them to show that I was normal.

"Oh no," he'd say then. "Don't try to pull the wool over my eyes. You're that mean old Monster. Where is my sweet girl?" He'd call out for me in a lonesome voice, and I answered until my throat was sore.

"Why, it is Rickie!" he'd say at last, folding me up in his arms to press my face against his rough cheek.

He was killed when I was fourteen, and until then I didn't really believe that people died. If asked, I would have said that people die and go to heaven, or turn into butterflies, or rot in the dirt, according to whatever I was reading that month, but I didn't really believe any of it until I saw my father lowered into the ground. He had just been crossing the street and was hit by a green Chevrolet.

That year I wore hats and talked out of the side of my mouth. "Oh, God," I said. I practiced saying it in the bathroom mirror, or in the reflection of the oven door; I practiced looking bored, derisive, and inwardly amused. On a high school form, in the space marked FATHER'S OCCUPATION, I wrote, GHOST. School failed to offer me anything I needed to know. One day I tore all the class notes out of my ringed notebook and divided it into new sections, labeling the first one, RULES TO LIVE BY. Rule Number One was: DO NOT CRY.

I began listening to my Uncle Carl's radio show because he sounded so much like my father. I would fall asleep with the radio turned down too low to hear the words, imagining that my father was just in the next room, talking to my mother. "Now this time I believe he has found his niche," my father had said when Carl took that job. It was the same thing he'd said when Carl had become a preacher, when he'd been a used car salesman, and for the two weeks he tried his hand at marriage. My mother thought Carl was immature. When she told me she didn't like his radio show I started listening to the words.

On the show, broadcast from Nashville, he called himself Dr. Foxx. He claimed to have crawled inside of the radio to escape his ex wife, who he called Wickedness. HELLO OUT THERE, he said at the beginning of the hour. THIS IS DR. FOXX, THE LITTLE MAN INSIDE YOUR RADIO. THAT'S F O X X AT WXYT, PLAYING WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR. WICKEDNESS, HONEY, ARE YOU OUT THERE?

I wrote Rule Number 15: BE SARDONIC.

My mother sent me to a psychiatrist. At first I liked the idea, because I was reading The Bell Jar, but I dropped out of psychotherapy in much the same way I had dropped out of ballet and tap and piano. "What happened?" my mother asked. "He's retarded," I told her. "He plays with blocks."

"People want to help you, Rickie!" she cried, going on in this dramatic voice about my personal life, but I didn't listen. Since the funeral she wore houseshoes all the time and just sat around the house, circling the want ads in the back of the newspaper. Sometimes when I woke up early I found her sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, her head down in her hands. She said I was shutting her out, and I was, but I couldn't make myself act any other way. The balance was gone in the family, and I had to be careful. She and the shrink inspired Rule Number 18: NOBODY BUT YOU WILL EVER COME INSIDE OF YOUR MIND. IF THEY TRY THEN JUST MAKE FUN OF EVERYTHING AND CONFUSE THEM, OR JUST BE COLD.

My only friend was the little man inside the radio, and on a dare to myself I wrote Carl inviting him to visit me. The letter was addressed to Dr. Foxx and signed Wickedness; I didn't think he would come.

My how you've grown," he said at the airport. In the last year I'd gained twenty pounds and gotten braces on my teeth. I wore one of my father's undershirts and kept my hands shoved down into the pockets of a pair of camouflage army pants.

When I saw him I waved my hat. For the occasion I had stuck a cardinal's feather in the band. He wore a suit with country and western stitching and carried a briefcase. On his hand he wore the ring my father had left him in the will. He talked to my mother about the flight, weather, and old relatives. None of the sardonic things I had planned to say came out right, so I just followed behind them. If one of them turned around and said something to me I acted surprised.

That first night he sat in my father's lazy boy recliner in the den and talked to my mother about his new plans. "I'm thirty nine years old," he said, "and I think this is my last chance to do what I really want to do in life." He had decided to leave WXYT and take some correspondence courses that would enable him to become a certified psychological counselor. He was talking about a Ph.D.

"That's all fine," my mother said, "but whatever you do you have to stick with it this time. You run from one thing to the next. You were gung ho about the ministry too, when you got into that." She paused for a moment and then launched into her next topic. "I never understood how anybody could get a divorce after being married for just two weeks. I never heard of such a thing."

Carl lit a cigarette. Nobody smoked in our house because my mother didn't put out ashtrays, so I was waiting to see if she was going to get him an ashtray, or if he would have to ask.

“Adele, let's not bicker," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes."

"We learn from our mistakes." He sighed and looked over at me. "What grade are you in now?"

"I'll be in the tenth."

"I bet you have to beat the boys off with a stick. " He was holding the cigarette very still now, so the ash wouldn't drop. She gave a little cough. "Would you like me to put the cigarette out, Adela?"

"No, smoke if you have to," she said, getting up to look for an ashtray. I picked up a Better Homes and Gardens magazine from the coffee table, sucking my cheeks in to make myself look thinner.

The next day I drove Carl to the country club to have a golf lesson. He said the first thing a doctor had to do was learn to play golf, and I needed a licensed driver in the front seat. My mother often cried when I drove. She would walk to the car with a determined step, her face carefully fixed in a blank expression. When she had fastened her seat belt, locked the door, checked it, and gotten a good grip on the door handle she said, "I'm not going to say a word this time, not a word." Throughout the trip she repeated, "I'm not saying a word." When I made a mistake she screamed, "Oh Lord God, help us!" That's not why she cried though. She cried because when we were in the car together I said things to make her cry. Afterwards I felt sick about it, but I couldn't help myself.

Now she followed us out to the driveway, calling out, "Carl, you make sure she sits on those cushions!" She claimed I was too short to see over the dash. "Watch her Carl she doesn't yield!"

As I pulled out onto the street I took the cigarette he offered, driving perfectly straight while he leaned over and lit it in my mouth. By now I was confident of my ability to smoke in any position. "Adele is a very controlling woman," he said. "She still treats you like a child, and that's not the impression I have of you at all. I hope you don't mind me saying that." He was not even watching me drive. In his Dr. Foxx voice he read aloud the church signs: GET RIGHT WITH GOD, JESUS IS COMING—ARE YOU READY?, HELL IS REAL.

At the club when he pulled my father's golf cart to the green, I wondered if anyone thought he was my father, just at a glance. I settled myself at an umbrella table by the pool, wearing a caftan that covered my body from head to toe. I thumbed through my note book, which now had several sections. My notebook contained all of the important information about me, and I was always afraid someone was going to steal it. On the denim cover, I had printed in fat letters, I WOULD NOT DO THIS TO YOU. At home, I kept a tiny pile of powder on the cover, so that I would know if it had been disturbed, but I usually carried it with me. Sipping Diet Coke from a straw, I propped my feet up on the edge of a chair and waited for a new rule to come to me.

Across the low stone wall that encircled the patio, the bright green grass of the golf course looked as flat as paper, dotted with carts and the thin, arching lines of golfers. The balls popped and cut through the air. From the pool I heard screams of Shark! and turned to watch the slippery brown bodies of boys dive into the deep end. The girls in my class didn't get in the water until they began to perspire, and then they only waded in the baby pool. They lay in lounge chairs, oiling their skin and combing out their hair, alternately whispering and shrieking. This summer they all wore big sunglasses that made their heads look small. I had grown up with most of them; we dug tunnels to China with flatware, went through attics, and slept side by side in rooms glowing with night lights, but although I could identify each voice with my back turned, I didn't know any of the girls anymore. I lit a cigarette. One of them stared at me, whispered something, and then they all turned and stared. I wrote Rule Forty Five: NO MATTER WHAT YOU ARE DOING, ACT LIKE IT IS THE NORMAL THING TO DO AND PEOPLE WILL BELIEVE THAT.

After his golf lesson Carl came over and ordered two Bloody Marys. When the waiter gave me a second glance I put on my sunglasses and tried a smoke ring. I had never had a Bloody Mary before and didn't know if I was supposed to take the celery stick out or leave it in the glass. "If you say Bloody Mary one hundred times you will die," I said? watching him stir with his celery stick. "It's a game I used to play on long car trips, when I was a kid."

"Did you ever say it one hundred times?"

"No."

"I'm glad." He looked at his watch then removed two amber plastic vials from his pocket, taking one pill from each, washing them down with his drink. When he removed the celery stick and began to eat it, I did the same, although I normally didn't eat celery because it stuck in my braces.

If you want people to find you interesting, ask them about themselves, I had in read in a book called, How To Make Friends and Influence People. "Who are you now?" I asked, "Dr. Foxx or Carl?" He lit a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring.

"You strike me as a perceptive person," he said. For the rest of the afternoon I tried to keep a perceptive look on my face. He was telling me about women. "My ex wife was completely crazy," he said, leaning forward. "I didn't know that when I married her. I just thought it was time for me to get married. Your father thought it was a good idea, although he had never met Nancy. She was attractive enough, and intelligent, quite a bit older than the women I usually date. 'My biological time clock is running out' she told me. Can you believe that?"

I shook my head.

"As soon as I married her I realized it was a mistake. I slept on the couch. She tried all kinds of things to get me to come into the bedroom, but I had absolutely no desire for her."

"Oh," I said. I tried to imagine him having sex. Then I didn't know where to look.

He smiled. "I shouldn't talk about this to you. Are you uncomfortable?"

I removed a rubber band from my braces and shot it into the bushes. "Forget about it," I offered. "It was just two weeks, like camp.”

"Camp," he said. "I like that."

As we walked to the car he put his arm around me. "I like you," he said. "I feel like I'm entering a brand new world." I imagined us driving up onto the ball of a new world.

In my room I leaned out the window to smoke a cigarette. I was directing a movie. Then I was wearing a long black coat, pushing past photographers on a busy street in New York City; Carl standing on the corner, hailing us a cab.

"Rickie! Supper!" My mother yelled. During the meal he talked to my mother about how nicely I had driven, old relatives, and the weather. I couldn't find a way into the conversation and wondered if he was doing that on purpose. Leaving my mother alone to do the dishes, I went back to my room and opened the notebook. Referring to a magazine article that gave the dimensions of the ideal face, I documented my measurements in a section of the notebook called RECORDS AND LISTS. I was sitting cross legged on the floor, with a hand mirror on my lap, measuring the distance between my eyes, when he knocked on the door.

"Hi," he said, standing in the doorway. I didn't know whether to invite him in or not. I wasn't allowed to have boys in my room, but he was a man, and besides that he was my uncle. "So this is where you live," he said, looking around. My room was decorated to look the way I imagined a film director's penthouse in New York City might look. The walls were painted a stark white; the floor was bare except for a director's chair and a small glass table holding a telephone and a radio. On one wall shelves were crammed with books and manila folders holding the scripts for films I had created, arranged in order of their ratings. "Where do you sleep?"

"I have a mattress rolled up in the closet." I decided not to invite him in because he might ask about the notebook on the floor.

"If you get lonely come downstairs; I'm just reading. Adela has gone to bed."

I waited until he had gone, shut and locked the door, put some lip gloss on then wiped it off, then went downstairs. He sat in my father's chair, and I sat on the couch with a pillow covering my legs, because they spread when I sat down and made me look fatter than I was in reality. He spoke in a low, easy voice, glancing at my eyes while he talked. He told me his theory on the various planes of existence. Animals and rednecks live on the first plane, average people on the second, and people like us on the third.

"How can you tell that I'm on the third plane?" I asked.

"Very rarely in my life have I met another person I felt could understand me. Maybe I'm just shy, but I don't feel comfortable around many people. With you, there was an immediate connection. I feel like I could tell you anything, and you would understand."

I widened my eyes some and gave him my priestess stare.

"When I do the radio show, I am Dr. Foxx. It's not just a joke."

He lit a cigarette for me and one for himself. "You're the first person I've ever said that to."

Rule Number Forty Six was: STAY ON THE THIRD PLANE. DO NOT LET SHALLOW PEOPLE DRAG YOU DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL.

Every night that week, after my mother went to bed, I sat in the den talking to Carl. Each morning when I woke up I felt years older. He moved to the couch, under the lamp. We kept the rest of the lights off in the room, because the light hurt his eyes (light colored eyes are more sensitive to light, he said.) I told him anything that came into my head, and he listened, asking a question here and there, letting me pause to form my answers. I imagined that this is what it would be like to be married.

"Do you think I'm too young?" I asked him one night. "Too young for what?"

"To be living on the third plane."

"You strike me as quite sophisticated."

"I'm pretty juvenile, actually." I was wearing a pair of cut off army shorts, and my feet were bare, each toenail painted a different color. I wanted to undo the ponytail in my hair, but I thought that would be too obvious, so I just leaned back against the couch to hide it.

One night I brushed my hair out of the ponytail and put on a long black skirt with my sweatshirt. I put on eye shadow and root beer flavored lip gloss. Before going downstairs, I practiced my facial expressions in the mirror.

"I like your dress," he said, looking up from his psychology textbook.

I sat down on the other end of the couch and didn't know where to look. It wasn't a dress; it was a skirt. I pushed my hair behind my ears, trying to think of a way to change the subject. Obviously, he thought that I had gotten dressed up for him.

“You took your ponytail out," he commented, still looking at me.

"It was just getting on my nerves."

"Oh. I liked it."

"Would you like a cocktail?" I regretted that immediately, because I didn't know how to get him a cocktail if he did want one.

"If you're having one, that would be nice. That is, if Adela doesn't mind."

"Adele is asleep." I had just started calling my mother by her first name, and it felt strange on my tongue.

I went through the house in my sock feet, without turning on any lights. When I got to the kitchen I stepped gingerly over the floor board that creaked and propped the refrigerator door open with a grapefruit, for some light. There wasn't any alcohol in the house except for rum that Adela used in baking and kept in a cabinet over the stove. I climbed up on the counter, pausing to listen for footsteps, then slowly opened the cabinet door. I had my hand around the bottle when a cookie cutter clattered to the floor.

For what seemed like hours, I stayed crouched on the counter. My heart sounded as loud as the hum of the refrigerator. When my foot had gone to sleep, I took the bottle again and slid down to the floor. I was trembling all over and had to wait for a moment before I could steady the tray enough to carry the drinks back through the dark house.

"The bar is pretty dry," I said, setting the tray down on the coffee table, arranging myself beside him on the couch. "Do you like rum?"

"Sure." He sucked an olive off his toothpick. "Rum and Coke?"

"Diet Coke."

"Superb." As he lifted the drink, the ring on his finger shone bright gold in the lamplight. He put his arm across the back of the couch, so that if I leaned back my head would touch his hand. I imagined a day when I would be thin and brilliant and people would hesitate before they spoke to me.

He took his vials out, swallowed a pill from each, and then said something that shocked me. "I don't suppose you know why I take this medication. Last year after your father died, I went into therapy and discovered that I have a chemical imbalance. My brain simply doesn't produce enough endorphins, the chemicals that signal pleasure in the brain. Basically, my natural level of happiness is too low. The way I see it, God makes mistakes; we all come into this world flawed."

"What would happen if you stopped taking the pills?"

He laughed. "I wouldn't try that."

"You mean you can never be happy unless you take a pill every day of your life?"

"It's not that much trouble. As I said, I'm just correcting a natural mistake. There are so many unhappy people in the world, and they feel guilty about their unhappiness. I know now that it isn't always something you can control. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but sometimes I think you're very depressed. I'd like to help you." The shadows in the room seemed to take on new shapes, making everything unfamiliar and frightening. What if Carl was crazy? What if I was crazy? I imagined us in a black and white film a young girl with sunken cheeks and great dark eyes was slowly going insane. This appealed to me. I let a few minutes pass and then said, "I've considered suicide." For a moment I saw the reflection of my face distorted in his glasses; my eyes were black holes, my mouth blown out and lopsided.

Then the lights snapped on, one after another. Adela stood in the doorway, clutching her bathrobe around her. Her face was hard and white with anger.

"What are you doing in here with the lights off?"

"There's a lamp on," I said, blinking in the light.

"What are you doing," she repeated, looking at Carl.

"We were just talking." He lit a cigarette.

"In this house we talk with the lights on. It's four o'clock in the morning." He tried to say something, but she cut him off.

Later he told me, "Adele was once considered a great beauty, but when she is angry she looks like a witch."

The night before he left I told Adela that we were going to see Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I filed my toenails and put on so much baby powder that it came off on my clothes in large white circles; I had to take everything off and beat it clean again. I wore musk and a cherry flavored lip gloss.

"So," I said, driving along with the headlights on high beam, "what do you want to do?"

"I thought we were going to a movie." "We could go to a movie, or we could go somewhere else." We went to the Starlight Lounge at the Quality Court. At the door, when the policeman asked me for identification, I fumbled in my purse pretending to look for it. In the car Carl had given me a Seconal, and I felt strong in the powers of persuasion. I was sending vibrations to the policeman, putting messages inside of his mind: She's twenty one if she's a day. Don't annoy these nice people.

"She's my niece," Carl said. "She's just going to have a Coke." I took his elbow as we walked across the lounge. In the bar it was dark and cool and quiet. A few businessmen scattered about the small round tables watched us walk by. At the bar two waitresses in halter tops flirted with the bartender.

"How's your headache?" Carl asked, pulling a chair out for me, pushing it under while I sat down.

"Fine. Thanks for the Seconal. What is it again?"

"Barbiturate." He looked nervously around the room and back at me. It had an evil sound, like something long and thin, moving along with thousands of legs in slow synchronization, something with poison in its mouth, but it felt cool and silky inside of me.

A waitress in a purple halter stood by our table with her hand on her hip. Her mouth was painted purple, and she wore purple eye shadow. Around her neck hung a silver cross. Her perfume was so strong I could taste it, and I hoped that Carl wouldn't get it mixed up with mine.

"I'll have a rum Diet Coke highball," he said, "with olives, of course, plenty of olives."

"That's cute." She leaned closer to him so that her breasts knocked up against each other in the halter. I considered sticking my leg out to trip her when she walked by. He changed his order to a Cutty Sark on the rocks, and I had a virgin strawberry daiquiri that arrived with a tiny blue paper umbrella.

"You're beautiful," he said.

"So are you." I wasn't embarrassed at all. He was wearing a sport shirt, slacks, and Hush Puppies. Anybody looking at him would think he was just another businessman, somebody with a wife and kids who rode a lawn mower every Saturday. Nobody would guess that he was Dr. Foxx. I felt my face stretching into a grin and didn't even try to cover my braces.

"What?" "I was thinking that if you took our brains out they'd look alike," I said. "They'd be the same shape or something."

"Or two shapes that connected." He took a long drink and whispered, "Do you think people are staring at us?" His eyes were light and silvery behind his glasses, like blind eyes.

The other people in the lounge seemed like fish moving in an aquarium, watching us through the glass. When I looked back at him my vision blurred, and I saw the people moving inside of his glasses, the businessmen in their sport shirts, the waitresses with their faces painted into single expressions, waving into each other. "I wonder if we look like a couple," he said. "If they think that."

"We're exactly alike."

"We have the same blood, you know. The problem I foresee . . ." he paused, because this was a joke between us, and I laughed, waiting for him to continue, "the problem is the off spring." In the joke we got married and had a monster baby, an insane little creature, with two fingers on each hand and a long tail. "We have to name the beast," he said in his Foxx voice. We finally named him Cutty Sark Seconal.

"Adele wouldn't approve," I said.

Leaning forward across the table he picked up his hand like it was a telephone. "Adele? This is Carl. Fine, just fine. How are you?" I've got some news, actually. Your daughter and I have decided to get married." He covered his phone hand with the other hand to whisper, "She's not pleased," and then raised the phone hand back to his mouth. "Yes ma'am, that's what I said. We'd like to have the recepttion at the club and all."

I put my hand to my cheek and spoke into my palm like a telephone. "Hello," I said, "This is Rickie."

"Excuse me, Adela; I've got someone on the line." He turned his shoulder away from me and spoke into his hand. "Foxx here, the little man inside your telephone."

"Do you know me?" Across the room the waitress and the bartender whispered to each other and watched us. I looked down at the blue umbrella in my empty glass. "This is Rickie. Is this Uncle Carl?"

"Foxx here," he said, into his hand. I put my hands flat on the table and stared at the side of his face. "It's me," I said. "It's just me. Stop it." In the morning after he left I broke Rule Number One and cried.

-End-