In college my sister, Roni, got a whispered call from a sweet friend. “Can I shower at your house? My roommate is taking a naked nap.” Apparently, the basic mandatoriness of clothes which had seemed so obvious to her had been interpreted rather differently by the young woman who had come to share the privacy of her bedroom by virtue of signing up in the housing office. She was happy to meet the public bits of her roommate, but found herself rather nonplussed at greeting the whole enchilada.
She was also Roni’s running buddy, who pointed out that their best route was to circumcise the campus, which, if you ask me, would have been an odd way to exercise, and not much of a timesaver. When she couldn’t run with Roni, she ran with her grandmother’s beloved dog, until the day the dog got loose and took off, nowhere to be found. Finally, she trudged to her grandmother’s home, sadly lumping down at the kitchen table, looking for words to break the news, and feeling soft fur at her feet. Just as she opened her mouth to confess, a tragic truth became apparent, tangling unfiltered into the whole fiasco.
“Grandma, I lost your dog . . . oh, and your cat’s dead.”
In retrospect she thought she could have handled that rather better, but once the words are out there’s nothing you can do but start there. Life truly is an ointment dotted with flies, and once you see the fly, it’s shockingly hard to see the salve it’s sitting in.
Years ago, I was in a peaceful laundromat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when a tidal wave of boy scouts returned from their mountain adventures and flooded through the establishment, immediately stripping to their skivvies, and throwing every possible article of clothing into any available washing machine. But one young boy was clearly thrown for a loop by a white t-shirt with a yellow duck in the middle, and kept moving frantically from group to group, begging for advice.
“How do I wash this?”
“With the whites.”
“With the whites.”
“With the whites.”
With each answer he grew increasingly anxious.
“But what about this duck!?”
He had a whole white shirt that would have been ruined by a pair of dark jeans, but no matter how many times he was told, the duck kept knocking him off-kilter. It turns out ducks are everywhere, though some of them look like naked roommates, circumcised campuses, or dead cats.
When my dad’s cousin was a teenager, she and her family lived in a house without the benefit of indoor plumbing, on a steep mountainside in Tennessee where the end of the front porch hung out high over the approaching road. It was on that road, in the shade of the porch, where she and her boyfriend sat, canoodling in an open convertible, when her brother sauntered out onto the porch without looking and proceeded to rain his bladder directly on their heads. To her credit, she didn’t speak a hard word, and when she walked in the house, she nearly fell over laughing, tears streaming down her cheeks.
I wouldn’t have fared so well; I know that because a few decades later, at about the same age as dad’s cousin, I had a brain freeze which caused me to enter my high school’s Junior Miss Pageant, where I learned a number of unexpected lessons. It also cost plenty of money and time, and in the end I didn’t win or place, though I suspected it was not going to permanently wreck my life. Consequently, the next morning I went down to breakfast somewhat disappointed, but neither miserable nor hollow-eyed.
At this point it’s important to remember that my dad came from the family with the story of the pee, which explains why, in discussing a pageant that took place in front of the whole school plus parents, it never occurred to him to hold back. “The funniest part was when you came out with your underwear hanging out of your leotard.” I did cry then, probably harder than my dad’s cousin, but for entirely different reasons. To this day I try not to think about that pageant, but when it does accidentally creep into my consciousness, the unfortunate girl in the leotard is the first character on the scene. It also left me with the firm belief that the bizarre nightmare where you’re naked at school is not actually as farfetched as it seems.
I think the pageant debacle happened the same year I was attending an excellent series of theater workshops at the local college, when, during a break, I was so busy laughing at my poor friend who had just tripped, that I walked straight into the men’s room. As I recall, “Don’t you feel dumb?” were my last immortal words before numerous bystanders witnessed me getting an eyeful of the urinals. That’s just karma right there, and I totally had it coming.
These stories are all about the ducks, and the trouble with ducks is that they are so bright and vibrant we might miss the supporting truths stacked around the edges. For instance, Roni’s friend had a roommate who was naked, but not mean. She also had a healthy body that allowed her to indulge her love of running, and enjoyed the kind of relationship with her grandmother that led her to visit and take the dog out. The pee story doesn’t mention that my dad’s cousin probably had a comfortable, easygoing personality that would have made her a good companion with no shortage of friends. Oh, and she married that boy, so he must have been a keeper too.
Even my time in the pageant gave me a glimpse into a world and a mindset which is not for me, yet taught me a great deal about human interaction and interpersonal relationships that I still draw upon. I also had parents who supported me in my pageant moment, even though they thought it was silly, and continued to stand by me in every other endeavor I tried, successful or unsuccessful. I can’t say I remember much about the specific theater workshops I attended that year, and I never became an actress, but my high school theater training taught me volumes about presentation and public speaking, skills I have needed in spades.
And what about that scout in the laundromat? Ten bucks says the duck is what attracted him to that shirt, probably not realizing that one day he would have to come to grips with churning the pristine white knit and the vibrant yellow duck in the same messy water. Not that I blame him, it’s a hard lesson to learn.
Growing up in South Carolina, my dad does not look back fondly on his school days. “I wish someone had taken me in hand,” he says. To be fair his parents worked nights in the cotton mills, and he was raised on comic books. He did the tenth grade twice, and was known as the class clown. As soon as he hit the classroom, the teacher often fired him off to the office where the principal always said the same thing, “Five licks or five days?” My dad always chose the five licks, because his parents would certainly have noticed a five-day suspension. He even sewed a washcloth into the seat of his pants to mitigate the effect of the wooden paddle. The thing is, my dad wasn’t stupid. He could easily pass any written test, and once wrote an essay so good the teacher flunked him because she said he must have copied it. You might say he had a lot of ducks on his shirt.
My dad felt he had a duty to God to serve two years as a missionary, which is where he learned to study. That studying opened worlds he’d never known existed, revealing his brilliant analytical mind, and setting him on the road to becoming a college professor and a writer . . . a writer with a pirate’s trove of experience to draw from.
If my dad had met the young scout in the laundromat, he probably would not have given him any washing instructions, because he doesn’t know himself. But if the boy had been willing to listen, dad would have smiled and said, “Don’t worry, the duck makes the shirt much more interesting.”