Now I had normal-kid interests like astronomy, insects, and dinosaurs. Then there was that summer I wanted to prevent forest fires, and be a park ranger—or more preferably—I wanted to be Smokey the Bear himself. Oh, I loved that dapper hat he wore. I coveted one for myself.
Sure, I had more than a brief—what you might call a “thing”—for the cinnamon crisps at Taco Bell. Lightly crunchy, and yet strangely moist at the same time. Then there were my obsessions. The family video camera was one of them, calling to me like a siren, begging me to press the alluring zoom buttons, and to record things such as the time my sister ate a pickle floating in the toilet for real.
I considered myself an artist—an artiste in italics, pronounced the fancy way while wearing a funny French hat. Actually, I was just a weird kid. I wore unflattering, baggy t-shirts, always in awkward colors like yellow and green. For some inexplicable reason, I loved black jeans. I didn’t care how many times they had been through the washer, and were now gray. Back then, my hair was cut in an odd geometric shape like a wedge, or perhaps a triangle. Weird kids suffer for their art.
The video camera was the honking, over-the-shoulder-type piece of equipment, which was state-of-the-art in 1990. I was ten years old. My father bought the video camera perhaps to capture our fleeting childhoods or perhaps something worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
We all had our different things we liked to do in front of the lens. My father liked to give the finger. My mother liked to say “get that thing off me.” My sister Melissa liked to do dance moves. And I liked to jump. I begged and whined to be recorded, and then I would jump, which in my mind would look like an incredible athletic feat—a super Ninja-style high-jump. In reality, I’d just be hopping incessantly until my father disinterestedly and shakily panned over to something like the shutters of the house or the dog sniffing crap in the backyard.
Soon I wanted to get my paws on the camera. I decided I should be a filmmaker. My muses were puke and dying. I began sneaking the camera out of the closet and making movies on Saturday mornings with my sister. My father slept on Saturday afternoons after working a nightshift, and my mother was at work. This left slabs of unsupervised time in which I was in charge over Melissa, whom I was two years older than. I must have fooled my parents into thinking I was a level-headed child—it must have been a glint in my eye or something.
Every writer has their roots, an origin story, and I believe those Saturday-morning hours of freedom cultivated my creative energy, allowing me to film stuff like the time Melissa drank a cup of vegetable oil for real.
My first Saturday morning films were of us eating candy bars. We ate candy all the time. No one had ever heard of childhood obesity or juvenile diabetes back then. My grandmother was our supplier. She didn’t just buy us candy bars as special treats—she bought them in bulk to give to us. In front of the camera, I directed which candy bars we should eat, and in what order.
“First, we’ll have the Snickers. Then the Reeses. After that, the Rolos. We can have four each, and save the rest for later,” I said, planning out our menu. It was nine AM.
Then we sat blankly in front of the camera and ate. Later, I showed my parents proof that I could work the camera and be gentle with it. I showed them my pièce de résistance, The Candy Buffett. My mother reacted as though she were watching a horror film. It’s rumored that there exists unreleased footage of my sugared-out sister doing a crabwalk up the wall.
Every director has their star actors, and I had mine—my sister, Melissa, the great actress, age eight, and the dog. Most people didn’t recognize this, but Spritzy was actually very expressive, those brown eyes on that furry white face. We also had a cat, but Spritzy won the lead roles because Cuddles, despite her name, was mean. She did not cuddle. She drew blood. “Bloodles” just didn’t have that endearing ring to it.
We had pet mice, too, but they were terrible actors. They never did anything except eat pellets and drink water and dart to the other side of the cage whenever one of our monstrous hands dipped in to try and grab them.
Well, they did do something, once, if I may veer off-track for a moment. It’s an important piece in my development as a storyteller, I think.
The mouse saga. The mouse saga began one morning after I’d gotten hopped up watching Disney videos, and begged my parents for a pet mouse like Mickey. Melissa chimed in for a pet Minnie. WE NEEDED PET MICE. PLEASE. PLEASE. THE DOG WAS SO BORING AND THE CAT WAS SO DUMB. PLEASE. Eventually, my parents relented, and soon we had two mice, a glass tank, cedar chips, and twenty-five toilet paper tubes that we talked my grandmother into saving for us from her bulk purchases of toilet paper.
The lie. The lie was that my parents purchased one Mickey and one Minnie. In reality, both mice were male so that they wouldn’t breed generations of pets for us until I turned fifty. My parents let me in on The Lie, and told me not to tell Melissa the truth about Minnie; it would just break her heart to know she was a he.
I felt bad for Minnie, who had to pretend to be a girl. Meanwhile, Mickey was all-boy. I loved to cup him in my hands, let him crawl up my shoulder, and shove him in the toilet paper tubes. I showed him to the dog, who sniffed at him, but never to the cat, who watched us always in the corner, swaying her tail.
The miracle. Over time, I began to notice my boy mouse Mickey had ballooned up like a round little butter bean.
“Why’s he so fat?” I asked my mother.
My mother stared into the cage uncomfortably.
“That damn pet store.”
“What did they do?” I asked.
“I think Mickey is pregnant.”
Nature found a way.
Now I had to grapple with the fact that my superhero boy mouse was a stupid girl mouse. A mom mouse. And Melissa learned the truth about Minnie. Our sadness was not for long however. YES WE HAD PET BABIES. We promptly began a list of mouse-names for each one. Chip! Oreo! Mickey Two! Steve!
Steve? Is that a mouse name?
YES PET BABIES. YES. STEVE.
The traumatic experience. The mice were born, a litter of ten pink little bulbs I counted that night. I even couldn’t sleep that night, just anticipating the morning to play with all of my new pet babies. At the crack of dawn, I was already somersaulting down the hallway.
“Why don’t we eat breakfast before looking at the mice?” my mother said in a different tone than usual.
But it was too late; I was already hovering over the cage. I wanted to pet Oreo and Chip and Steve. But they were not there. They were gone, all of the babies missing.
“Where are the babies?” I asked my mother.
She came over to stand next to the cage with me. She gave me a hug. I knew something was very wrong.
“Are they hiding?” I tried again.
I dug my hands under the cedar chips to see if the babies were buried, and I peeked into the toilet paper tubes to see if they were snuggling. I look at my mother. I remember her vaguely nauseated expression. I looked at Mickey, who lay in the corner of the tank, looking engorged and strangely content.
Mickey rejected the babies, and ate every last one the night before. Some days, I think this has informed every story I have ever written.
I began writing scripts for my films. I wrote a serial, Spritzy and Me. It involved Melissa sitting on the floor, and having a complete conversation with the dog.
“How is your day, my dearest Spritzy?” she croaked in an affected accent.
The dog panted.
The stories were meant to reveal the dog’s secret past. The dog had affairs—not that I knew exactly what an affair was—but I loved the sound of the word, serious and important. Character development for the dog was shown primarily through hats by propping them on her head. I added tension through the zoom buttons, and perfected the close-up shot of the eyeball.
“What affairs have you gotten into today, Spritzy?” Melissa asked.
The dog’s straw hat fell off. Melissa looked at the camera awkwardly. She adjusted the hat. The dog panted.
I needed action. The next movie would be a slasher flick. Melissa was the victim. Setting: the backyard. The dog couldn’t play the serial killer so we recruited a neighborhood boy, gay Andrew, to star in a movie as a villain. He was a fey nine-year-old, fair and blonde; he wasn’t allowed to be in the sun much. He rode a turquoise bicycle. It was his idea to be Judy Garland. Though we hardly knew who she was, somehow he seemed like the name, Judy Garland, beautiful and strange at the same time, like a gazelle, prancing around the backyard.
In the script, Judy Garland went psycho, chasing Melissa with a rake. The tool shed always had the best props inside, rivaled only by the refrigerator.
The refrigerator was a constant source of inspiration. Ketchup was a classic for blood, and Coca-Cola could be a realistic liquid for puke. And I was intrigued by a jar of pickles that sat in the corner of the shelf. The jar had been there for years, it seemed. Five uneaten pickles suspended in a juice that appeared to be partially gelled. That’s when I had a great idea, and Melissa ate the pickle in the toilet for real.
The film was Lisa Marie as a Child—yes, named after Elvis Presley’s only daughter. We didn’t know who she was, either. We just loved a good name. The plot of the film was falling and blood.
My sister threw herself down the stairs. Her knees landed on one of the steps, cracking the floorboard beneath. She tumbled toward the foyer, smacking the hard floor below. She lay motionless.
Melissa looked convincingly dead, like Oscar-worthy dead, lying on the checkered foyer in her pink Barbie sweater and jeans. Now it was time for make-up, the ketchup bottle. I grabbed it from the refrigerator and tossed it down to her. She applied squirts to her forehead, letting it slide down her cheeks. Then she got back into death position. She twisted her neck, and stuck out her tongue. Her arms splayed flat beside her.
And we were rolling again.
I waved my hand, the signal of a film director, I imagined. I had the shot I wanted. Melissa jumped up and we prepared for our next scene. She wiped the ketchup off her face with a towel. The next scene was my grand vision, set in the bathroom. I scouted for the best shot of the toilet, where a pickle waited in the bowl.
Lisa Marie was thirsty from her fall. Disoriented, she stumbled to the refrigerator to survey its contents—nothing in there except that jar of pickles. Thinking it a bright glass of green water, Lisa Marie chugged it.
Next Lisa Marie ran to the toilet to puke. She spit the pickle juice into the toilet, fake coughing dramatically. I zoomed in, sure to capture the “puke” floating in the bowl. And there, in the floating concoction, was also a single pickle—of course, when you puke pickle juice, you also puke pickles. But the stakes had to be raised one last time.
Chekhov’s rule states that if there’s a pickle left in the toilet in the first act, then the pickle must be eaten in the third. She reached into the toilet bowl, pulled out the pickle, and took a bite.
“Why did you make your sister do that?” my mother asked. My mother had loved the previous movies with the dog. My mother thought the dog was so darn cute no matter what. Apparently, she did not feel the same way about my sister.
Despite my mother’s objections, we recorded a sequel, Lisa Marie as a Child 2, and of course, the essential Christmas special, in which we nearly took down the Christmas tree while filming.
At some point, my film career began to fade. We began to grow up, and soon Melissa became more interested in boys than puking and dying. As for the rest of my troupe, Spritzy died of old age, and she’s a star somewhere in heaven for sure. Gay Andrew is somewhere in New York City, where I hope he is still prancing, in and out of the subway trains, up and down flights of stairs. Maybe he has a turquoise umbrella.
And as for me, though my hair is no longer in the shape of a triangle, I am still weird, and feel inspired by old jars in the refrigerator. And I still wouldn’t mind having a little hat like Smokey the Bear.