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Authors: Cheryl Peck

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Mostly the light machine is a severe annoyance for Babycakes. Mommy won’t let him sleep on the clickboard. When he jumps up
to see her, Mommy mutters, “I can’t see the monitor” and puts him back down on the floor again. This could be a nice game
but then Mommy gets all mushy and tries to hold him and then he has to poke her again … Once he had to poke her and she put
him out of the room and shut the door!!!! Babycakes was so angry he had to cry. He had to lie on his side and fish his paw
under the door. He had to step back and YOWL about how angry he was, locked outside a room where he had every right to be
and where Mommy was that very moment … Gypsy came to the door to see why he was angry and immediately discovered she was on
the Wrong Side of The Door too, so she cried, and finally Mommy came and said, “stop this,” which is Mommy’s way of saying,
“I’m very sorry I upset you, little Babycakes, and I will never lock you out again.” Once he was safely back in the room again,
Babycakes was still so angry he had to sit with his back to Mommy and twitch his tail, just to punish her. It was a dark day,
indeed.

When he needs his rest, Babycakes likes to climb right up on top of the light box and sleep. It is very warm there and just
the right size for a fine young cat. If he’s in a particularly good mood, he can look down at his Mommy and give her a slow,
approving blink. This rarely happens, however, because Mommy is always messing with his tail. If Mommy wanted a tail to play
with, she should have grown one of her own. Babycakes can’t imagine life without a tail anyway. Sometimes he finds it hard
to respect Mommy. No tail. No coat. No tail … But there she is, murmuring, “I can’t see the monitor, Cakes,” and messing with
his. Often she irritates him so much he is forced to go sleep on the platform.

The platform is really the best place to sleep anyway. It is raised, so one eye can catch a clear view of the room. It is
away from the clickboard, where Mommy once yelled and called him a “cursed thief” or “cursor thief.” (Who knows what Mommy
says? She talks all of the time. She walks in from where the air changes and says, “I’m home, Babycakes” like she expects
him to say “Oh, goody-goody, Mom …” She doesn’t even have a tail to flick, to show how silly an idea that really is.) Sometimes
when she is staring at the light, Mommy does something to the platform— Babycakes knows she does—and completely without warning
it will jump to life, making all kinds of screeching noises which fray Babycakes’ nerves. It has never done this to him when
Mommy is away.

But he is not without revenge. When Mommy spends too much time staring at the light … when his box is bad, and his food is
old, and no one has stroked his fur or rolled a ball for him to play with—just in case he feels like playing—he knows exactly
what to do. He walks into the light room. He looks around. He flicks his tail. He opens his mouth, and he YOWLS. And he walks
out of the room.

Once when Babycakes was very young, he became sick. He spent hours in his litterbox trying to do what should have taken a
matter of minutes, and this frustrated him, so he went to Mommy and told her how unhappy he was. Mommy put him in a box and
took him to Mr. Needles. Mommy said, “I have no idea what’s wrong with him, but he won’t shut up.” Mr. Needles poked Baby-cakes
with a series of pins and charged Mommy many, many dollars (a deal Babycakes could see was rotten from the word “go,” but
… she has no tail.) That happened nearly all of his life ago (well, it happened three times nearly all of his life ago) and
now whenever Babycakes cries, Mommy stops whatever she is doing and comes to talk to him about his “feelings.” She rubs his
tummy. She asks him about his box. Mommy can get downright sappy, truth be told, but she stops staring at the light.

This, in catspeak, means “power.”

black holes

I
T IS ONLY RECENTLY
that I joined the ranks of the socially responsible. Before that I lived in an apartment, worshipped regularly at the Laundromat
of my choice, and my major appliance was an electric typewriter. It was during this time that I knew my friend with the black
hole in her basement.

My friend loved clothes and she loved to dress … distinctively. Her wardrobe was the talk of the office and even the clients
occasionally picked her out as “the one with …” (and we would finish “funny clothes?” We were sensitive). The thing that impressed
me most about her wardrobe was that nothing in it ever seemed to live more than three or four months. She bought six outfits
for every one that I bought, but she never had anything to wear. I would ask, “Whatever happened to that cute little … ?”
and she would answer, “I can’t find it.”

I had exactly enough clothes to survive fourteen days, and I went to the Laundromat every two weeks. I hauled every piece
of clothing that I owned into the Laundromat, washed them, and then hauled them back home again, and in twelve years of Laun-dromatting
I never lost a sock. My friend lost entire OUTFITS and she did all her own laundry in her own washer and dryer in her own
basement. “Where,” I would question patiently, “could it go?” and she would answer, “You just don’t understand—you don’t have
any kids.” I believed her. For years I believed her.

One evening I went to her house and accidentally stumbled into her basement. In her basement was a pile of clothes—not three
towels, a sock and a pair of jeans—a pile of clothes roughly six feet high and eight feet wide, a virtual monument of clothes,
a Symbol of Something as esoteric and as hard to overlook as the humming monolith in
Space Odyssey 2001:
and when I asked her what it was, she said, “Oh—that’s just stuff.” I just gaped in awe. A sneaking suspicion tormented me,
but I managed to refrain from drawing any reckless conclusions about the black hole that regularly swallowed her wardrobe.

Time passed.

I bought a house. With the house came a basement. I stood in my new basement, gazing around at all the empty space, and I
said to myself, “I’ll never be able to fill up this basement.”

Because I had a basement I bought a washer and a dryer.

This evening I went to my closet and discovered that an entire set of flannel sheets had escaped. They were MIA. I don’t take
my sheets to work. I don’t take my sheets to the Y. I haven’t been to a toga party in years—I don’t even leave the house to
do the laundry anymore. I stood there in my bedroom, muttering, “Where … ?” They were hiding in the basement, in the dryer.
Even more interesting, they were not alone.

I don’t have a giant pile of missing clothes in the middle of my basement. But I now own nine unwed socks. The people in my
gene pool are more apt to guard against running out of glass jars, lawn tools, bug killer, clay pots … (One of my foremothers
guarded against running out of Cool Whip containers [sixty-seven], but I was young and sarcastic and didn’t own a basement
as I stood in hers and counted.) Not too long ago a friend followed me down into my basement, gazed around and then eventually—very
politely—she said, “Do you realize that you have six rakes?”

I think it has something to do with the effect of static electricity on the earth’s electromagnetic field. Every basement
is a black hole for a specific item and dryers are the conduits to a parallel universe, and somewhere in a parallel basement
are the six rakes that my friend imagines she saw in mine. These rakes, I suspect, belong to parallel people who are very
well-dressed and who store their odd socks in Cool Whip containers.

There is no other explanation.

whitebread

I
WAS STILL QUITE YOUNG
when I was abducted by Christians—Methodists, by denomination—and forced against my will to go to Sunday school.

Neither of my parents attended church. My father has guided his life for seventy years with a sort of Zen acceptance tinged
with a you-can’t-do-anything-about-it-anyway fatalism. And, although I’m sure I asked my mother if she believed in God, I
don’t remember her answer. She did propose the theory that while she might not know what I was up to all of the time, heaven
was full of tattletale angels who kept extensive diaries of not only my behavior, but of my thoughts as well. Being her child,
I knew exactly whom they reported to. The most religious thing I ever saw my mother DO, however, was write “Protestant” as
my religious preference on my school forms. How she arrived at this conclusion is not clear to me, although, after a moment
of thought, it is probably as true as the Catholicism or Judaism of some of my adult friends. It is, after all, a cultural
value system.

My mother’s mother, a proud and devout Protestant, avoided church like the plague, but was driven to tend her religious flame
with her passionate disdain for a large, extended family in town she called “the Dagos.” I thought it was the family name.
The Dagos, she told me, encouraged their children to grow up to be nuns and priests, and the instant this was accomplished,
the church changed their children’s names and forbade them to ever talk to their parents again. She told me that when she
lived in the town where she grew up she lived just down the street from a convent and someone she knew had become a nun, and
while she was a novice, this woman was taken for walks by the older nuns and forbidden to even acknowledge her own people
who were sitting on the porch watching her walk by. The Catholic Church, in my grandmother’s eyes, was anti-family.

My grandmother was not fond of Baptists, either. They were “Holy Rollers,” too “full of themselves,” and they played with
snakes. I understood, even as a child, that Baptists offended my grandmother’s sense of decorum—she disapproved of emotional
outbursts on principle—but there was probably an ethnic bent to her disapproval that eluded me. I couldn’t even tell a Catholic
when I saw one, and in the community where I grew up, they were the most obvious minority.

Still, my mother felt some connection to organized religion. When the elderly couple who baby-sat for us offered to take us
each week to Sunday school and church, she had us up, dressed appropriately and our stray hairs spit-stuck in place the very
next Sunday morning.

We were taken to the Free Methodist Church. I’m not altogether sure what the Free Methodists are “free” of—certainly not rules,
regulations or thou-shalt-nots. Dancing, they informed me, was evil. My mother was a square-dance caller. Swearing was evil.
Both of my parents, I learned my first day of church, were going to go directly to Hell. I had mixed feelings about this.

I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but it probably wasn’t old enough to go anywhere—much less for eternity—without my
mom and dad.

For a particular treat, the Free Methodists held a special Sunday night meeting so we could all welcome a returned African
missionary. The missionary showed us ninety minutes of slides about disease, pestilence, starvation, unsanitary living conditions
and hordes of open, gaping wounds. It was like watching Sally Struthers pitching kids by proxy for $19.95 a month without
the humor.

In Sunday school—which we attended faithfully every Sunday before church—we were given lovely religious comic books and the
scripture-of-the-week. The comic books had something to do with stories from the Bible, but what I remember most was some
ill-tempered pagan goddess named “Kali” who had a penchant for incinerating her followers—or, perhaps that was Pele … Kali
had four or eight arms and snakes for hair and frequently battled Hercules. I don’t remember how all of that related to Bible
school. I’m fairly sure the Free Methodists did not intend to intrigue me with tales of pagan goddesses, but I was an odd
child even then and you never knew what would stick in my mind.

We held Sunday school under a big picture of a blue-eyed blond man with long hair, wearing a dress and sandals and surrounded
by multicolored children. I had never seen multicolored children before. We had to drive all the way to Battle Creek just
to see black people. I never questioned that Jesus was a blue-eyed blond. I was a little confused about where all of those
Jews came from and why they killed him, thus damning themselves to Hell with my dancing, swearing parents, but my first true,
heartfelt quarrel with the Free Methodists had to do with innocence.

The world was full of heathens. I knew this, because the Free Methodists were always raising money to send out missionaries
to save the heathens. Heathens were heathens because they worshipped craven gods, or graven images or particularly fat calves.
One could be born a heathen, grow up a heathen, be abducted and sent to heathen Sunday school by next-door-neighbor, well-meaning
heathens, and eventually die a heathen without ever knowing or ever hearing of the One True God … and when you died and met
St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he would send you directly to Hell. Even if you were a good heathen. Even if you brushed your
teeth: if you did not know Jesus Christ, if you did not accept Jesus Christ as your savior—even if no one ever introduced
you—if you were not SAVED by the Lord … do not pass “go,” do not collect $200, go directly to Hell. I could accept that people—
even my parents—might be told about being saved by Jesus and just stubbornly decide not to anyway, and they might actually
… sort of, maybe … deserve to boil for a while—but I could not see the justice in damning all of those children who were already
starving for my vegetables and plagued by pestilence and disease. It seemed to me that a child who actually WANTED to eat
canned asparagus deserved a better afterlife.

I hated getting up on Sunday mornings.

I unjoined the Free Methodist Church.

It is the peculiar nature of the way I think that while I, personally, do not believe much of anything I was taught in the
Free Methodist Church, I am uncomfortable in most formal religious settings, and “Our Father, who art in heaven. …” makes
me nervous. I have a distinct and irrational panic reaction to conversations that begin, “I am a Christian and I have been
saved …” It seems not to ever occur to me that for every Bible-thumping fundamentalist, there may be ten laid-back New Testament
Christians who believe Christ was about love and forgiveness and listening to your own inner voice above the noise in the
street. I have made my own peace with God, as I perceive God to be. I have accepted Christ—if nothing else—as a far better
person than I will ever be.

BOOK: Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs
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