Dear readers, not all of my childhood was Slurpees and stripteases, I can assure you. Yes, my previous true tales from my childhood have been uplifting tales of my triumphs as a young man - my first time, the time I was victorious over my bedwetting problem,
and when I met the girl with the hat.
But my childhood has a dark side, and a part of it must be told, in response to the several thousand e-mails I received about my childhood. A sample one comes from Donald T. of New York and Atlantic City, who writes:
"O future dictator, your childhood recollections make my own rise to the top of the business and entertainment world seem easy by comparison. However, I was wondering how you, your father, and your Uncle Mac ended up on a molybdenum plantation on the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy. This story needs to be told to inspire the thousands of young capitalists who doubtlessly read your blog!"
Well, Donald T. of New York and Atlantic City, your request has found me in a reminiscing mood, so I will tell the sordid tale and my unfortunate key role in it. Please, gentle readers, try not to judge me too harshly.
It was a glorious time to be an American, I can tell you. It was a cruel winter, true, but we had a new president in the White House, one who had practiced well for the harsh reality of politics by starring in movies with chimpanzees. If you want to say he is the greatest American ever, my father and Uncle Mac would not have disagreed with you. I remember the winter so well. Admiral Nelson and the Trafalgars topped the charts with their groovy single, "I'll Never Surrender (Especially Not To Spaniards)," I won the International Nose-Picking Title, Youth Division (for best form), and I spotted my first brassiere. Now, it's true that it was worn by my Theosophy teacher, Mr. Ohlmeier, but we all have to crawl before we can walk, and I counted that as a big deal. My father and mother were still together, but unbeknownst to me, she had already started her torrid affair with the seven-fingered clown Giuseppe, a man so devoted to her that he would follow her halfway around the world and eventually steal her away from my father. I thought all was perfect in my life. Little did I know. Little did I know, gentle readers.
Uncle Mac lived across town from us, alone in his attic apartment after his mail-order Gambian wife left him to become a transsexual member of Malta's Parliament. My father was worried about him, because Uncle Mac would simply sit up in the attic, scraping off his fingernails with a file, solving impossible mathematical theorems, and dyeing his pubic hair orange. My father would smuggle puppy jerky past the overbearing landlord, Mr. Jarndyce, because Uncle Mac refused to go out for simple sustenance. On those frequent days when Mr. Jarndyce got drunk on turtle beer while watching tractor pulls on WSHT, the favorite UHF station in our area, I would sneak in to visit Uncle Mac. This was more at the insistence of my father than through any of my own desire - Uncle Mac had by now started calling me "Miranda" because he had learned of my bedwetting problem, and I still hadn't gotten used to the phenomenon of my testicles retreating into my body whenever he did - but I dutifully went, because I knew if anything happened to Uncle Mac, my father would hold me responsible and force me to sing the entire score of "Showboat" at the most popular intersection in town.
One morning, when the cruel north wind was angrily screaming through town looking for toupees to snatch away and skin to flay from bone, I gazed through Mr. Jarndyce's window and watched as he cried himself into a drunken stupor while a reel-to-reel played "Won't You Come Back To New Jersey, Sweet Ursula" by the Minstrels of the Lost Trail. Then I cautiously opened the front door and tip-toed up the stairs to the attic. My father told me I must always knock before disturbing Uncle Mac, but the haunting lyric "I gave up my seat on the bus of your heart" distracted me momentarily and I unthinkingly pushed the door open. Oh, how I wish that mynah bird had gouged my eyes out when I was three instead of simply pecking me in the ear!
There was Uncle Mac, sitting with his back to me in the center of a circle. The circle was made up of small figures. In the light of the flickering candles I couldn't make out what they were. I dropped the bag of Funions I was carrying and turned to go. My uncle heard me, though.
"That you, Miranda?"
I stammered an affirmative, and he told me to come in. I was stuck, so I had to obey. I slowly walked into the middle of the room. The candlelight was stronger there, and I saw what the figures were.
Each figure was a plastic doll. Most of them were dressed like Wonder Woman. Each doll looked like Lynda Carter. The ones that were not dressed were - how shall I put it? - anatomically very correct. The craftmanship was exquisite. I felt my testicles retreat further, which meant they were now somewhere deep in my colon.
I asked Uncle Mac what he was doing. He grinned that maniacal grin he had and whispered, "You go to church, right, Miranda?"
He knew I did. We all attended the First Church of Saint Cosominus, who had been martyred in 1979 when he refused to "Do the Hustle" at a wedding. When I said of course, he responded, "Well, this is my true church, boy. The Most Excellent Dynamic Church of the Prime Lady of Paradise Island. The Temple of the Woman of Wonder. My Sanctuary."
I looked around. Painted on the walls of his apartment were frightening sigils and disturbingly realistic depictions of various stages of a bacchanalia. My young eyes could not comprehend much of what I saw. I looked at my uncle and saw he was wearing vestments and holding open a dog-eared comic book, circa
1942. His eyes were glazed in the candlelight. They may have also been glazed from the large pile of what he would later jokingly refer to as "the brown acid" lying next to him. I asked him what kind of religion it was.
"Religion is an ecstatic experience, Miranda," he murmured. "It can also be an economic one, and quite a lucrative one. That is the kind of religion I want to found. I want to spread my devotion to the Wondrous One to all. Religions, like sharks, must swim or die. Do you understand?"
I didn't but I had learned not to say "no" to Uncle Mac ever since he asked me if I wanted to purchase his Starland Vocal Band album for a huge mark-up so he could use the money to get his mail-order Gambian wife. So I said yes and asked him to explain more.
"You see, young lady, people will pay. Yes, they will. They will buy my icons and worship them as I do. I will be the high priest of this new religion, the Prophet, the Caliph, the Pope, and my rule will be absolute. Absolute, do you hear me, girl? And these icons - priced to move - will be the wave on which I will surf to financial and spiritual glory! Are you with me, Miranda?"
I still didn't understand, but I nodded meekly. I then asked what my role in his plan was. I was strangely intrigued. I had met prophets at the elementary school I attended (Melvin Becket predicted the fall of the Shah, after all), but I had never been around for the founding of a religion. It seemed a good way to pass the time.
Uncle Mac bared his teeth, and for a moment I thought he was going to go for my throat. "Listen well, girlie. You are going to be my Apostle Paul. You are going to be my Khadijah, who was the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. You will spread my faith to the masses."
I wondered aloud why he couldn't do it. He snarled, "You fool, Miranda! Don't you remember? Don't you remember that they
are after me?"
I had forgotten that after Uncle Mac helped fix the 1964 pennant race, he had to go underground because so many members of the Swiss banking houses had lost their fortunes and had arranged with certain intelligence agencies to destroy him. I wouldn't have believed it, but there was that mysterious trench-coated man with the buzzard on his shoulder who used to lurk in the alley behind our apartment ...
He said, "This is what you have to do, Miranda ..." He then outlined a plan so audacious, so bold, so astonishingly brilliant that it would have made us all billionaires and, quite possibly, secured our ascension as Religious Superstars. I gathered up all the icons and stuffed them in the knapsack that Uncle Mac had gotten for me. I slipped out before Mr. Jarndyce woke up and made it home before dark, fighting against the banshee wind all the time. The next day I put the plan into action. As I suspected, it was brilliant. The icons sold like hotcakes, and suddenly we were flush with cash. My parents never knew, although I think my father caught one of my customers leaving the house one day and demanded to know what was going on. The customer almost cracked, but got lucky when a 1948 Packard came tearing around the corner driven by a statuesque red-haired Hispanic woman. My father has always had a weakness for Packards and statuesque red-haired Hispanic women, and his momentary distraction allowed the customer to escape. All was well.
Then it all came crashing down. Somehow our reach extended too far, and the wrong people heard about our fledgling religion before it was strong enough to influence the correct people and secure tax-free status. One day a shrunken toad of a man, wearing a sombrero and a catcher's mask, knocked on the door of my room. I admitted him, thinking he was another customer. Instead he flashed a badge of a certain government agency which made my bladder weaken (and with my problem, that was not a good thing). I knew, somehow, that the jig was up.
"Young man, you are causing the wrong people some consternation." He reached in his pocket and extracted a photograph. "This person, specifically." I looked at the photo, agog. I knew the person pictured on it, but, even after all these years, still fear to name him. Let's just call him Mr. X.
"Young man," the agent continued, "I don't think I have to tell you the power this individual wields. Ms. Carter is a personal friend of his, and he will not suffer this affront to her reputation. His power is idle at this moment, but if you continue with this mockery, he will bend that power exclusively to destroy you and your family. Do you understand?"
For once, and at the wrong moment, I found courage. I laughed. I was a child, and although I had learned not to sass my father, my mother, or my uncle, I had yet to learn that lesson with regard to government officials. I laughed and told the man that I didn't believe Mr. X had anywhere near the power he ascribed to him. Through the catcher's mask, I could see the agent's eyes grow thin and his lips tremble. He could not believe the attitude he was getting from this impudent youngster. I doubted if he knew exactly what to say.
Finally, he recovered his composure. "Fine. There will be consequences. I hope you are prepared."
And that is how we came to flee the country. The next day our bank accounts were frozen. My father lost his job at the carnival because certain pictures (doctored, I'm sure) of him in a compromising position with the dog-faced boy were delivered to the owner. Mr. Jarndyce sobered up long enough to evict Uncle Mac. My mother was driven out of the sewing circle when it was revealed that she had actually used a machine to get her hems straight. I think it was this shame that eventually made her leave our family completely. I was told that my spelling tests at school were unacceptable and that I was only suited for a career in (the horror!) broadcast journalism. In less than a week, we were destitute. Uncle Mac did the only thing he could - called his old friend Flightless Gus (an old joke, he said, from their days in the RAF) and asked if he had any career opportunities for two bankrupt but stout fellows. Flightless Gus knew about the molybdenum plantation, which needed an overseer, and we were off, hours ahead of the group of government agents carrying knitting needles of death and wearing Lynda Carter masks in some bizarre homage to their insulted queen who broke into our house and mistakenly slaughtered the family of Quakers who had decamped there on their way to Tipperary. Oh, we were quite lucky!
I felt enough guilt about the whole episode to confess all to my father and Uncle Mac a few months later. They simply laughed and sipped their flaming drinks out of their boot-shaped glasses and ordered more poi. Uncle Mac put it succinctly: "Miranda, you did us a favor. Where else on this planet can you hear the wails of the two-headed cats as the burly tribesmen whip them? It's the loveliest sound on earth." My father smiled and nodded. For one brief instant, all was right in the world. And home no longer felt so far away.