Read Loud in the House of Myself Online

Authors: Stacy Pershall

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Psychology, #Personality

Loud in the House of Myself (2 page)

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
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Throughout my life I’ve felt the constant pull between a powerful force that wants to make art and save the world and one that wants to destroy me and everyone in my path. I have been driven by a frantic need for overachievement, which becomes even more frantic when I’m hypomanic. My mood goes up, I commit myself to grandiose plans, I feel certain I can take on the universe. In my case, for every seventy-two hours of unadulterated manic bliss, there are weeks of unremitting depression and obsessive rumination. These are the psychiatric cards I was dealt. I have lost years to depression so crippling I lay in bed for days at a time, my head sunken into my pillow because I couldn’t bear its weight.

But this body in which I am trapped is made, now, of color and life. My skin is made of lightning bolts, robots, rockets, cats, the Bride of Frankenstein, Laurie Anderson quotes. My tattoos remind me who I am and what I’m made of, and the unfilled lines of a work in progress remind me where I want to go. Learning who I am and creating a skin in which I can bear to live has taken this long and required this much effort.

Let’s go back to Prairie Grove, 1978, the beginning, and you’ll see why.

1

THE FIRST TATTOO
I ever saw was on my uncle’s middle finger. It was the number
13,
because he’d done it himself on his
thirteenth
birthday.

“It doesn’t really look like a
13,”
I said. “It kind of looks like a lowercase
b.”

“Yeah, the top half of the
3
wore off.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“Why?”

“Because I was thirteen. I was young and stupid.”

I was seven. Thirteen seemed very old to me. “I would think a thirteen-year-old would have better penmanship,” I said.

 

In first grade, I won a dead frozen rabbit at school for making up the best poem for my teacher’s husband’s frozen foods packing company, Pel-Freez, up on Zero Mountain, where everybody says the Satan worshipers are supposed to be. My dad says there are no Satan worshipers, there’s just a cold-storage facility built into the side of the Ozark Mountains. Trucks can drive into the side of this mountain, he says, and he would know, because he drives a semi for the Willis Shaw Trucking Company and has to pick up freight there sometimes. When I think of my father’s boss, I have an image of a man who looks like a combination of
Diff’rent Strokes’
Willis and Snow Miser from the Rankin-Bass
The Year Without a Santa Claus
. He’s there on Zero Mountain telling the trucks where to take the rabbits.

I won the contest like I win all the others: I can draw. The day Mrs. Clark asked us to come up with a slogan, I took a big piece of manila paper and wrote
Get into the Rabbit Habit
across the top. Then I drew a picture of a blue rabbit’s foot, like the one my dad bought me at a truck stop, on a plate with a fork beside it. Mrs. Clark’s husband liked that I knew how to rhyme and I knew what “habit” meant. And so on this fateful night after the contest, as my mother peeled small pink strips of rabbit out of a blue plastic wrapper and arranged them carefully in a frying pan, I sat smug, proud to have provided for my family.

We had moved into our new house on Linda Street only a few weeks before. Prior to that we lived in a drafty rental house with hardwood floors that froze your feet in the morning, and pink and black tiles on the bathroom wall my mom said disdainfully were left over from the 1950s, but now we had our own place with brand-new rust-colored carpet and slick wood paneling on the walls. After we ate the rabbit, I snuggled against my mother’s pregnant belly on our new brown-and-orange plaid couch, listening to my brother beneath her skin, smelling the plastic-scented velour and the chemical loveliness of the new carpet, until the pool salesman came.

In Arkansas in the 1970s, people came to your house to try to sell you stuff and you actually let them in. You offered them a cup of coffee, listened to their speech, and then, if they were lucky, purchased from them a piece of the American Dream. I found the pool salesman more captivating than the man who sold us encyclopedias the week before. The pool man had his own little TV, a beige box on which he played movies of different pools he could construct in our backyard. They were made of seafoam-green aluminum, with plastic liners in the same shade of blue as the Howard Johnson’s logo or the word “mart” in Kmart, that turquoise that went so well with orange. I was fascinated by a close-up of the pool’s built-in skimmer, a little box that sucked the dead bugs out of the water. I gnawed at a snack-size Baby Ruth, my seventh, and nobody noticed; my parents too were transfixed by the clacking skimmer disposing of shiny black beetles and dragonflies with disintegrating wings. I shoved the Baby Ruth wrappers back into the bag after I ate each one so that, if my mom happened to look my way, it would appear I was still on my first. My stomach began to churn a bit, the candy bars mixing with the rabbit in an unpleasant manner, but I kept eating because I could.

The salesman did his job; my parents bought a pool that night. They were determined to provide me and my forthcoming brother, Cameron, with all the trappings of a standard suburban childhood—
World Book
encyclopedias, aboveground pools, new bikes from Sears, Swanson chicken dinners with stray corn kernels baked into the brownies served on avocado-green-and-gold TV trays, and individually wrapped Halloween candy bars any time of the year. With our new one-story yellow house came a yard with a chain-link fence, a real driveway instead of gravel, and a garage instead of a carport. When the concrete driveway was poured, my dad wrote “Butch, Karen, Stacy, 1977” in it with a stick. When the pool man got up to leave, I opened my mouth to ask him if he wanted to see it, but I threw up instead.

My mother said, “Oh no!” and she picked me up in both arms and dashed into the bathroom, where we didn’t even make it to our new toilet with the Eljer sticker still on the side before I threw up again. She lay me on the counter in my wet pajamas and held my pigtails back while I retched into the sink. A decade later I would puke into the toilet every day, picking at the faded Eljer sticker with my fingernails, and pray my mother wouldn’t find me. Every time I’d remember the night we ate the rabbit and bought the pool, in which I would do hours of water aerobics, and I’d still want my mother to hold me. I would remember how she rested one hand between my shoulders and with her other hand held my golden hair. All the force of my small body heaving couldn’t shake her loose.

 

MY MOTHER WASN’T
a debutante, and she wasn’t a sorority girl. She was like most other girls from the Prairie Grove High School Class of ’68: she married at eighteen and gave birth to me at twenty, and until she was twenty-six I was her life. We weren’t poor, but we certainly weren’t rich; we lived on a truck driver’s salary. In Prairie Grove driving trucks is a good job, and it is an especially good job if you’re doing it for Wal-Mart. But in the seventies, if you couldn’t drive for Wal-Mart, it was a decent gig to drive for Willis Shaw, so we always had food on the table. Even before we moved into the yellow house, I had plastic toys and homemade sandboxes and plastic kiddie pools that faded and cracked and lasted only a season. I had tuna fish sandwiches on toast and Nacho Cheese Doritos and red Kool-Aid, which I consumed while watching Fat Albert on Saturdays at noon. I had fake babies with too many accessories, fake bottles with fake orange juice that disappeared when you upended the hard plastic nipple between the doll’s immobile lips. I had these things to teach me what to be, and still I didn’t get it right. I was never very good at being girly.

My mother claims she didn’t know how strange I was until she had Cameron, someone to whom she could compare me. Before he was born, she thought it was normal, in fact delightful, when I asked her to light a candle to set atop my toy piano and refused to speak to her unless she addressed me as Schroeder. “Say cheese, Schroeder,” she’d laugh, and snap a square picture of me with her little black camera. When I cut a hole in the bottom of a plastic Halloween pumpkin and set it over my head, she simply said, “Come to dinner, Headless Horseman.” She read my shorthand, spoke my language. That is, of course, until she didn’t.

My daddy was my hero, a spinner of yarns, a bringer-home of the world. I close my eyes now and conjure my earliest memories of him: he reenters our lives a few times a month, a gust of cold behind him, that icicled Arkansas winter that somehow still smells like cut grass, and he’s wearing a green corduroy coat with a big brown furry collar, and he picks me up and hugs me. He smells like Mennen Skin Bracer aftershave and diesel fuel, and his big sideburns scratch my face. He has one silver tooth and three other fake ones he can take out, and sometimes he even lets me hold them. He calls it a “bridge,” and it hooks onto his real teeth with pointy silver tendrils. He always has a present for me when he comes in off the road. The piñata was a big one, but even the smaller ones are mesmerizing: Icee Critters, the little plastic animals they hang on your cup at Sonic, or a monkey with cymbals who screeches when you smack him on the head, or a run of blow-up animals. He tells me these things came from truck stops, and I imagine that truck stops must be the most magical places on earth. I save the Icee Critters in a Folger’s coffee can, which I bury just outside the back door and dig up frequently to reacquaint myself with my treasure. I use the monkey with cymbals as a metronome while I practice at our avocado-green piano. And in the background, in the doorway to the kitchen, my mother stands and watches, knowing that I will eventually leave her too, and that she will need another baby to take my place.

My father was the fifth of eight children, the first by minutes of twins. His mother, my grandmother, Katie Lee Pershall, had already decided on Cheryl as a girl’s name, so my father became Jeryl, for obvious reasons. He had brothers named Royce and Weldon and sisters named Joy Nell and Eva Gay, so it could be argued that he made out better than he could have. But Weldon proclaimed that he would call no brother of his such a sissy name as Jeryl, and from that point on my dad was known as Butch.

When he was seventeen, my father spent months planning to move to Los Angeles with six friends to seek his fortune. But when moving day came and my dad rolled up in his packed ’57 Chevy, ready to go, his friends laughed at him and said they were just joking around. My father, righteous with the anger that drives Pershalls to destruction, drove to California alone, just to prove a point. He got himself a room and a job as a forklift driver at a door factory. After a year, homesickness drove him back to the Ozarks. Home again, he joined the National Guard, got his GED, and started driving for Willis Shaw. My dad’s best friend, my soon-to-be-uncle, John “Junior” Kelley—he of the
13
on his finger—was at that time dating my mom’s older sister Linda. It wasn’t long before my parents got fixed up on their first double date. They went fishing on a July afternoon at Bud Kidd Lake with Junior and Linda, and two Julys later, in 1968, they married. My mother wore a white mini-dress and a bouffant June Carter hairdo; my dad, porkchop sideburns, a flattop, and a black suit with a skinny tie. It is after he lost his teeth but before he got the bridge, so there is a hole in his excited, terrified smile. In their wedding photos, they look painfully young and blissfully unaware, stunned by the flash cubes on several Instamatic cameras at once. They do not yet know about things like crazy daughters who make themselves throw up.

Shortly after they married, my parents settled in Prairie Grove in the rental house, owned by a couple named George and Ethel, who lived next door in a massive, funky Victorian that was always one paint job away from beautiful. My mother, armed with her new high school diploma, got a job at the Baldwin Piano factory. She worked there for two years, making piano keys, until she found out she was pregnant with me. It was an uneventful pregnancy. But I was born yellow, jaundiced, and they had to put me in an incubator with patches over my eyes. My mother cried the day she left me at the hospital while the other mothers took their babies home. Twice a day for a week she made the half-hour drive to the hospital to feed me, until finally they pronounced me pink enough to leave, and my father drove us both home in the massive white Buick, a car too big to be contained by a garage.

 

ONE EVENING DURING
my sixth summer, when the dogwoods were abloom with white petals, my mother and I walked home from Ethel’s house carrying a jar of homemade plum jam and a bag of freshly cut spearmint.

“Mommy,” I said, “is Ethel your friend?”

“I guess so,” she said.

“Have you ever gone to the movies with her?” For some reason I thought this was what adults did with their friends—they went to the movies.

She laughed. “No, I’ve never gone to the movies with her.”

“Who’s your best friend?”

“Linda, I guess,” she said,

“But she’s your sister.” I didn’t think sisters or aunts or cousins counted.

“Well then,” she said, “I guess Grandma.”

The fact that my mother had no friends became a matter of increasing concern to me. I didn’t like that she didn’t go to the movies. I felt sorry for her and didn’t want to leave her side. When she was with me, I did whatever I could to make sure she was having fun, and I took this upon myself with a resolute determination. I could not bear to see my mother sad.

I hid my dolls from her. Not because they were girly and I preferred Hot Wheels cars (which I did) or because they were creepy (which they were), but because I could picture my mother holding one of them and sobbing if I was dead. If I died, she would have no one. She would have to play with a doll and pretend it was a baby, like the old lady we saw at the nursing home when my Brownie troop went there to sing Christmas carols.

I lay awake at night imagining my own death, and what came afterward. In Sunday school they told us Christians lived forever in heaven, but this offered me no comfort. I never worried about what I would do if my mother died, only what she would do if I died. She would be sad, and the last thing I would see before I went to heaven would be her sad face. She might be crying. She might already be holding the doll.

When she told me she was going to have another baby, I felt a profound sense of relief. There would be someone else to split the job of entertaining her. Before her pregnancy, when my dad was on the truck, which was most of the time, I was all she had. I played the piano for her a lot, but sometimes I got tired. I made up plays and dances and songs for her. I wrote her books, stories written and illustrated in blue ballpoint pen on pink stenographer’s paper, bound with my Snoopy stapler. I made her sno-cones with my Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, and when I took ceramics classes at Ethel’s craft shop, everything I made was for her. Our cabinets were packed with my meticulously painted plaster witches and Santas and Easter bunnies; I thoroughly equipped her for all seasonal contingencies. In her room were ceramic jewelry boxes, in the kitchen a ceramic cowbell shaped like an actual cow. I never made anything for myself, but for my mother I made elaborate plastic jewelry and latch-hook rugs and loop ’n’ loom potholders. I saved my allowance to buy her things from the Avon catalog; her bathroom counter was littered with glass owls filled with solid perfume.

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
13.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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