Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
“I can help,” the young woman said. “I'll show you to Aisle Nine.”
“Is there a young man in Aisle Nine?” Mrs. Zender asked.
The woman looked at Mrs. Zender. Up, then down. Up and down, before answering, “No, I am a woman. I'll show you to Aisle Nine.”
“Shouldn't you be a man?”
“I don't think so,” the young woman replied.
Mrs. Zender muttered, “The world as it ought to be has indeed come to an end.”
“Come again?” the woman asked.
“Where? Come again where?”
“Please follow me.”
“If I must.”
Amedeo pretended that he heard nothing and followed the woman.
Mrs. Zender had to be reassured at least five times that having an answering machine would not be an invasion of privacy and demanded proof that the waves coming through a cordless phone would not give her a brain tumor. The salesperson had no proof, and Mrs. Zender lost patience before the saleswoman did. She turned to Amedeo and said, “Do you see that office chair over there?” Amedeo nodded. “I am going to sit in that chair and wait until you select a telephone for me.”
Amedeo started to object, but Mrs. Zender said, “Do it,” and she walked over to the chair and sat down. The saleswoman gave Amedeo a quizzical look that was an open invitation to comment on Mrs. Zenderâher manner and her dressâbut Amedeo pretended not to notice. People passed and stared, but Mrs. Zender sat with her elbows resting on the arms of the office chair and did not acknowledge their presence with even a glance, and Amedeo was pleased that she did not.
Amedeo tried out several samples and selected four. One for the living room with an answering machine; one for each of the bedrooms; and a cordless for the kitchen. He put them in the shopping cart, wheeled it over to Mrs. Zender, and instructed her to follow him to the checkout aisle.
“Four?” she asked. “Why did you get me four? I need
only twoâmy princess in the kitchen and an extension in my master bedroom. I don't need four telephones for the Waldorf.” Then, as the clerk was ringing up the purchase, Mrs. Zender saw that one of the phones was cordless and another had an answering machine. “Why did you buy those?” she asked.
Amedeo opened his mouth in astonishment but said nothing.
The clerk stopped scanning the boxes and asked, “Do you want them or not?”
“Of course I want them,” Mrs. Zender said. The clerk finished ringing them up, and Mrs. Zender presented her credit card. Amedeo was surprised she had one. She signed the sales slip with enough flourishes to make it suitable for framing.
Amedeo was neither pleased nor patient as he was made to wheel the cart toward the car. Mrs. Zender walked slowly behind. It was minutes before she caught up with him. He stood at the trunk of the pink Thunderbird and squinted, hoping his eyes were flashing thunderbolts in her direction. When she finally arrived, she reached into her purse for her keys and held them out to Amedeo. He knew he was supposed to take the keys from her and open the trunk, but he kept his hands wrapped
around the handle of the cart. Mrs. Zender jiggled the keys. Amedeo pretended he didn't notice. She raised her hand so that the keys were right in front of his eyes, and she jiggled them again. Amedeo reached up and took them, unlocked the trunk, stacked the boxes in the trunk, slammed it shut, and walked around to the passenger side of the car.
Once inside the carâsafety firstâhe fastened his seat belt. Then he crossed his arms across his chest and stared straight ahead, hoping the fire he was breathing would warp the windshield.
Mrs. Zender started the engine, and Amedeo shifted his gaze from the windshield to Mrs. Zender. She seemed totally unaware of his rage, so he erupted. Through clenched teeth, he said, “The point is you were right there in the store. You could have picked out what you wanted for yourself. You could have gotten off that chair and walked down aisle nine and seen for yourself what I had chosen. But no, you had to let me pick them out, and then you had to embarrass me in front of the girl at the checkout.”
“I never thought I was an embarrassment to you.”
“You weren't, but you made me feel like a dope in front of the cashier.”
“That tells me you embarrassed yourself.”
“You could have had the saleslady help you. You could have called your order in. Why did you bother to ask me in the first place? You didn't need me.”
“I do need you.” She glanced at Amedeo and then into the rearview mirror. “Let's not say anything more about telephones. They'll be fine, and so will you.” And she backed out of her parking space and onto the road with what seemed like a single turn of the wheel. She shifted gears, cleared the lot, and zoomed down the street before saying, “Let's stop at the Dairy Queen, and I'll pick something out for you.”
They were streets away from Dig-It-All before Amedeo had calmed down enough to say, “I have never been to the Dairy Queen. Must be Southern or sub-urban.”
Mrs. Zender raised her eyebrows and smiled knowingly. “It's a drive-thru experience.”
“Then it's definitely suburban.”
Mrs. Zender expertly pulled into the drive-thru and spoke into a speaker encased in a large billboard, which displayed photographs of everything on the menu. Everything looked slightly blue. Mrs. Zender told Amedeo to trust her; she would order for both of them. She ordered two Peanut Buster Parfaits and drove around the billboard
to a small window where a young woman handed her the order. Mrs. Zender paid, took the parfaits, and handed them over to Amedeo while she pulled the car around the corner of the building, parked, and turned off the engine. Amedeo studied his first Peanut Buster Parfait. It consisted of layers of frozen custard alternating with layers of peanuts embedded in hot fudge, topped with a mound of whipped cream and a cherry on top. Nothing was really blue: The chocolate was brown; the custard, cream-colored; and the cherry on top was red. The parfaits were presented in tall, domed, clear, cone-shaped plastic cups along with long red plastic spoons.
Amedeo watched Mrs. Zender plunge her spoon deep into the cup and bring up a geological layer of peanuts, fudge, custard, and whipped cream. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and licked her spoon. “Ahh!” she said. “Queen for a day.” Opening her eyes to the sky, she added, “My mother is frowning down upon me right now.”
“Your mother did not approve of Dairy Queen?”
“She did not.” Mrs. Zender studied her parfait, scooped out another spoonful, licked her spoon clean, and swung it in the air like a conductor's baton. “Neither did Mr. Zender.” She studied her parfait for the longest time. She fiddled with the spoon, mooshing the fudge sauce into
the custard. “Mother thought that if I were thin, I would be a better match for Mr. Zender. Mr. Zender was a thin man.” She dipped the spoon back into the parfait. She polished off the rest of her custard, expertly scraping the plastic spoon along the inside of the container. She waited for Amedeo to finish before crushing her napkin and spoon into the now empty container. She handed them to Amedeo. He inserted one cup into the other and opened the car door, ready to throw them into the trash. Mrs. Zender said, “I want to tell you something.” Amedeo pulled the car door shut. “After,” she said. “After you throw that stuff away.”
He hurried back to the car. Mrs. Zender said, “Fasten your seat belt.”
“Is what you're going to tell me that shocking?”
She laughed. “Yes,” she said. She checked the rearview mirror, looked around, and backed out of the parking space in one grand swoop, put the car into drive and swung onto the main road before she spoke again. “I was thin once,” she said. “Does that shock you?”
“Good,” she said, looking straight ahead. “But this is what I want to tell you. Ninety percent of who you are is invisible. If you weigh two hundred and fifty pounds instead of a hundred and fifty pounds, people are seeing
twenty-five pounds instead of fifteen. They may think they are seeing more, but it is still only ten percent.” She checked herself in the rearview mirror. “If I've done the math right.”
“Did you ever weigh a hundred and fifty pounds?”
“I think I did once. What is that in stone?”
“How many pounds to a stone?” he asked.
“I think they do it in kilograms.”
“It must be very complicated.”
“Yes, it is,” she said.
“And so is the ten percent that I see.”
“Thank you,” she replied.
OR LONG HOURS
sat at his office desk writing copy for the catalog of the exhibit that would be coming to Sheboygan. He wanted the catalog to be informative and entertaining. He also wanted it to be a souvenir, a monograph, a historic treasure of a historic show that he, Peter (thank you, Peter), had brought to Sheboygan. But it must also provide guidelines (hands up, if you have a question) for the docents who would lead student tours through the exhibit.
He loved doing research. His kind of research was scholarly, sedentary, bookish. It gave him a chance to look up things that he had learned in school and meant never to forgetâbut hadâand to look up other things that he knew would not be on the final exam but that he had always meant to look up when he had the time. The time (Applause! Applause!) had come.
For his introduction to the catalog, Peter wrote a brief history of the sad fate of the arts in Nazi Germany.
Organized hatred of Modern art did not start in Germany until Hitler came to power. It started because Adolf Hitler had always wanted to be an artist, had not once but twice been denied admission to the Vienna Art Academy. The committee considered his sample drawings so boring that they did not even extend him an invitation to take the formal exam. Simply put, Hitler's art was not original, so when he came into political power, his resentment of the innovative, the creative, the unconventional grew and grew until he was determined to wipe Modern art off the cultural map of Germany. His war against Modern art started with words.
He declared all Modern art to be
The Nazis plucked the word
from a cauldron of myth and fear and loathing and distilled it into a politically correct reason for destroying Modern art. They used it over and over again like a battering ram.
itself was essentially a medical term to describe the condition of people who were not “normal” because of a nervous disorder. They defined
as something so far removed from normalâso
decadentâthat it could no longer be recognized as belonging to the same species. The Nazis took pleasure in listing degenerates: Cripples, the mentally ill, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Bolsheviks were all by nature degenerates. All of them carried within themselves the seeds of a heritage, which was inferior to the natural superiority of the true German. Any work done by these degenerates was ipso facto degenerate: Any music they wrote or played, any building they designed or built, any painting, poetry, literature that came from their diseased hands or minds was diseased, degenerate, and as such was an insultâeven a threatâto fine German feeling and intelligence.
According to Nazi theory, it followed that if the government allowed all of these inferior peopleâthese mentally ill, these Jews and homosexuals, these Gypsies and Bolsheviks to liveâthey would procreate and produce a species that no longer belonged to Homo sapiens but to some lower, subhuman order, and eventually all German culture would degenerate. If these Modern artists were allowed to continue to produce their decadent, degenerate, insane art, they would be a grave threat to the natural superiority of German culture. To protect the art and refinement of the Aryan race all degenerates and degenerate work must be eliminated.
Just as the state had a responsibility to remove criminals from its borders, it must remove Modern artists, for Modern artists were criminals. They were criminals because their work was destroying German culture. Modern artists must no longer be permitted to work. They must not be permitted to paint, draw, or sculpt, and they must no longer be allowed to buy any of the materials with which they committed their crimes. Gestapo agents were given permission to visit the studios of those artists listed as degenerate, and if they smelled turpentine or found wet brushes, they had the right to arrest the artists on the spot.