Today, I take a turn from the sacred and beautiful (kd lang, Leonard Cohen, Maya Lin, Pablo Neruda) to the profane and silly. It is time for a summer change of mood.
I have always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In my younger years, I identified with the child who cried out, when no one else would, that the Emperor was “wearing nothing at all.” Now that I am older, I sometimes still identify with the child who finds the b.s. absurd and sometimes with the naked Emperor—if only the world could see my finery even though it exists mostly in my mind, if only I didn’t wish to believe in a more wonderful version of things than what is true.
As a writer, I am always fascinated by the vagaries of human behavior, and the way that expectations interact with interpretations often rises to the top of the list. Saturday, when Bruce and I drove around Orlando doing errands, we stumbled into a set of humorously-themed reminiscences about this very thing and had a good laugh.
* * *
When I was growing up, we fortunately had lots of books around the house, and one story from one of these books came back to me when I was broken-hearted by a hapless fellow during grad school. I recalled the story from one of Willie Morris’s memoirs about growing up in Yazoo, Mississippi—probably his first, North Toward Home. Morris would later become well-known for his book and the subsequent movie My Dog, Skip, but even earlier he was fond of tales of rambunctious shenanigans from an earlier era. He particularly loved dog stories.
The vignette involved a schoolteacher or some other figure of authority who had punished Morris as a boy. He struck upon a perfect revenge, and wrapped up a beautiful package that he sent as a gift through the mail: he filled the pretty little box with dog shit from his faithful companion pet. Appropriate hilarity ensued.
I never acted on my own desire for revenge—such pranks are no longer considered harmless—but I spent a good bit of time fantasizing about taking cat turds out of the litter box with toothpicks, slicing them up, and dipping them in melted chocolate so they would look like fine homemade candies. I just knew that if I left a pretty box of these bon-bons on my ex-boyfriend’s front porch, he and his housemates would dig right in. This household of men-boys had several female “friends” who would leave homemade goodies and farm produce for them in a hippie-cool people-alternative culture version of the age-old adage that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
Over and over, I imagined the horrified surprise on the faces of those guys—the way they would smugly accept the anonymous gift, thinking it their fine lot in life to have such offerings at their doorstep, how whoever found it would show it to the others and they would gather around for the greedy unwrapping, how they would ooh and ahh, and then one would reach out with his long fingers and pop a candy in his mouth. I even thought that perhaps I could make the turd bits small enough that it would take a few bites for reality to dawn.
Sometimes, even I, all Miss Genuine though I generally am, see the advantages in creating mistaken perceptions. This little idea made me laugh enough to get me through a tough time.
* * *
My step-granny’s face expressed genuine horror one morning when she returned from a short walk before breakfast. One summer week in the sleepy year before I finished high school and went off to college, Billie and my granddad were visiting from Middle Tennessee. She stood in the kitchen with her mouth open in disbelief.
“What’s wrong?” my father asked her.
It was as if she had lost the ability to speak. She started and stopped a few times. Finally, she shook her head, and said, “Well, I don’t know how to say this. But apparently someone—some person—has taken a crap right out in the middle of the street in front of the mailbox. It’s too big to be a dog’s. Who would do such a thing?”
“What on earth?” My father frowned and looked at my brother and me, as though we would know. Shocked horror went around the table. My brother and I were “good kids,” and we’d grown up in suburbia, not a Willie Morris small town.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Granny Billie said, her pretty mouth pursed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She shook her head. Since Billie was a nurse, we knew she had seen her fair share of human excrement and should be a good judge.
After breakfast, my father went out with a spade and bag to clean it up. He eventually returned to the house as stunned as Billie. “It looked as though someone just dropped it right there,” he told my mother in hushed tones.
The incident haunted us all for several days—a tiny bit like having a cross burned in your yard, I thought at the time. Who could hate us so much? Since we didn’t have any real candidates on a list of enemies that bitter, we speculated that someone else had been out walking and just had an overwhelming urge, barely getting their trousers down in time. But we couldn’t imagine that they’d leave it there or not at least dash behind some shrubbery. Billie quit taking morning walks, and we all stayed just a little closer to home, the mystery hanging in the air as thickly as any smell.
A few days later, however, we learned the truth—our neighbors the Griegers had just gotten a new German Shepherd after the death a few weeks earlier of old Blitz. The dog evidently was adjusting to a new diet with prolific poops and was still oriented toward using a paved kennel-floor for his business rather than woods and leafy ground.
The question remained, of course, why the Griegers, perfectly respectable folks who we knew quite well, had left it there. I have to say that we always wondered. I still do.
* * *
One semester when Bruce was living in New York city on a sabbatical from Augustana College where he taught, his friend Keith visited him from Alberta. They embarked on a tour of numerous art galleries, painting being Keith’s profession, and gallery walks being one of their favorite city activities.
At one point, they stepped into a vast, echoing gallery space and began walking around. No one seemed to be there—not a gallery clerk in sight—but a large pile of what was apparently dog poop sat neatly in the middle of the floor, still seemingly steaming.
Bruce looked at Keith, and Keith looked at Bruce, and they both looked at the pile. There were several sculptures scattered about the room, and they looked to see if any of the others had kinetic properties such as steam or smell. They leaned over the pile to see if it might be made of anything but the real stuff.
Was it dog poop or was it art? They didn’t feel quite sure and laughed over the conundrum.
Soon enough, the gallery host returned to the room and came toward them with the usual slightly officious style. As he crossed the expanse of floor toward Bruce and Keith, his eyes encountered the pile, and he jumped back with a gasp.
“Oh, my,” he said, “how awful.” He ran to the back for a roll of paper towels and a mop.
* * *
Sometimes, I try to remember that even mis-apprehension can be productive, as long as it makes us wonder about the world around us. This week, I’m going to remember these stories and try to take a closer look around. Even though I am a devotee of something called “the genuine,” it is good to remember that it’s a wonderful and often hilarious part of life that things are not always what they seem to be.