Even though I hate my husband almost as much as I hate myself, I
feel compelled to keep my body fuckably fit and freckle-free. Why
else would I deck myself capapie in a UV resistant white
nylon outfit, topped with a silvery 2-ply hat with mesh panels for
airflow and a UPF 45 rating? Not just to avoid skin cancer, but to
prevent premature aging too. This is my get-up as I loll by the
pool, watching my parents splash around in the pissy chlorine with
other leathery senior citizens, getting uglier and sicker in the
poison sun. As my tiny mom sports like a porpoise, my big dad mills
around, careful not to wet the sprayed wing of the comb-over he has
obsessively maintained since Iíve known him.
Momís girlish voice never ceases to narrate her thought processes
as she frolicsólook at the dog; look at the airplaneómy
father wading grimly around her, watchful, waiting for her to say
something. For instance, she has refined her ice-breaker for
addressing racist remarks to black children: come here my little
black brother, sheíll say, before lapsing into a reverie of the
childís inevitable stardom as a basketball player. God told me to
say that, she tells us when we scold her. And of course,
scolding her is pointless, for a loss of social inhibition and
appropriateness is symptomatic of Pickís disease, and so
criticizing it would be like criticizing a tumor. But still.
At least she hasnít demonstrated signs of inappropriate sexual
advances, a potential symptom so tragically comic that I havenít
allowed myself to imagine its possibilities. Giddiness, memory
loss, repetition, stubbornness. Constant talking or else,
long periods of silence. Pickís sufferers cling obsessively to
shards of the world as it collapses and shrinks and everything
outside their bubble becomes nonsensical. One case study told of a
woman who, in her last months could utter only the word
ambassador. Ambassador. Ambassador. Ambassador. Her last
link to the physical world.
Dad is on orange alert for Mom has accosted a lady whoís dipping
a violet toenail to test the water. The womanís tobacco-cured skin
clashes with her day-glo purple bikini, and festooning her burnt
flesh with gold jewelry does not seem like the best strategy for
downplaying the appearance of liver spots and potentially malignant
moles, but to each his own. Mom is standing in the shallow end, her
cropped gray hair sticking up in random punk-rock-style spikes.
"But youíre just so skinny, skinny, skinny," she cries.
"Well thank you," says the woman.
"I need a breast reduction," says Mom, grabbing her lycra-clad
breasts and holding them up for the lady to inspect.
The woman laughs and retreats to her chaise.
"Iíve had four children," screams Mom, clutching her belly and
ambling through the water after her, "and Iíve got a stomach,
Now the pool area is an amphitheater and Mom is delivering a
speech, my Dad tense in the shadows like a half-wit politicianís
"But my daughter is skinny, skinny, skinny" [pointing at me].
"There she is. Sheís the smartest person in the world. Sheís a
All eyes are upon me, so I indulge the crowd with a movie-star
wave, not bothering to explain that Iím just an adjunct prole
exploited by a corporate university and not a real professor, then I
turn back to my beachbookóNightmerica: How the American Dream
Went Badóthe perfect read for fun in the Florida sun.
At Cornucopia, the cavernous all-you-can-eat international
super-buffet where products of industrial agribusiness simmer in
giant troughs, Mom has foraged her meal and returns to the table,
her plate heaped with deep-fried tidbits: fried clams, fried shrimp,
fried lobster, fried crabs, fried fish, fried chicken, fried steak,
fried pork, fried potatoes, fried onions, fried batter.
"You need to eat some vegetables," says Dad, who has added a
blue-cheese-smothered salad of pesticide-saturated GM iceberg
lettuce to his pile of garbage.
"Thatís not good for you," he says.
"It is good!" screams Mom, jerking her plate away as though Dad
wants to snatch her food.
"Good for you, Betsy, not good."
"It is good," says Mom, her pouched brown eyes quivering behind
Do I detect a glint of slyness? I wonder, for during my childhood
my mother was in some ways the shadow-governor of our house, the
manipulator, the ever-scheming dumb-playing domestic Machiavelli,
and though her bubble of understanding has shrunk, her
control-impulse is stronger than everóher innate drive for power.
"Of course itís good, Betsy, fried meat is high in
saturated fat and cholesterol, but not good for you."
"It is good," screams Mom, smacking on a shrimp. "Look at the
flowers," she says, pointing at the vase of plastic hibiscus that
rests on a pearl-white baby-grand Iíve yet to see played. "Arenít
"Tell her Kate. Tell her what sheís eating isnít good for her."
Iím in a bind. Should I conduct a preemptive strike against my
father, barraging the old man with factoids from Fast Food Nation,
Deadly Harvest, and Double Helix Hubris, or should I
be realistic, mature, diplomatic, and lie?
"None of this junk is really good for you," I say, "but
some of it is worse than others, and I guess genetically modified,
chemically grown, frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables at
allóthe lesser of two evils, as fools said in our last presidential
"Are you saying Iím a fool?"
"No, I was talking about certain voters in the 2000 election."
"Well some people take things too far," says Dad, removing a
piece of grilled poultry from a shish kabob. "No reason to be a
fanatic. Food is food."
"Actually, so-called food is not always food and is becoming less
foody every day," I recite. "And every time you eat a meal like this
youíre supporting corporate agribusinessís food-supply take-over and
malnourishing your body with chemically-saturated, processed CRAP.
Look around you; everybody looks diseased. America is full of
starving gluttons. Most of these people are broken down by the SAD
and no telling what kinds of effects all these GM . . ."
"The sad what?" says Dad, forcing his grimace into a superior,
"S-A-D. Standard American Diet."
"Are you saying I look diseased?"
"I never said . . ."
"Kate, why donít you eat something," interrupts my mother.
"There are all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And itís all
natural, natural, natural."
Mom skips off into the labyrinth of troughs, wedges herself
between two obese cripples whoíve been wheeled up to feed, heaps her
plate with desserts, and returns to the table.
"Want some?" She asks.
I shake my head.
I imagine my husband weeding his vegetable garden, and while the
angry side of me wants to decapitate the self-righteous prick, and
my paranoid side wonders if such a passionless bastard would ever
think about cheating on me, the loving and sensitive soul deep
within me, gagged-and strait-jacketed by bitterness, misses him.
"Whew," says Mom, putting down a Pepto-Bismol pink spoonful of
M&M-studded pudding. "I ate too much" (she always says this). "I
to eat a bite of supper" (she always does).
She looks uncomfortable, hypertensive, depressed. In the
spasmodic light of the florescent chandeliers, her complexion is the
color of Spam.
Sunburned and sandblasted, we sprawl in the crypt-cool
efficiency, on furniture screaming with orange passionflowers. The
white carpet is dingy. The cheap bedspreads are made of a nylon
material that reminds me of a maxi-padís dry-weave. The balcony
overlooks a sizzling black parking lot dotted with dumpsters. The
whole vacation package had been slashed 60% due to the war, the
diseased economy and terror alerts, and who else but the suicidal or
moronic would find themselves in such a hysterically festive prison,
the sun swelling like a herniated organ in the ozone-starved sky?
My Father and I are lazily arguing, while my mother, as usual,
sits scrunched in a chair, biting her nails and looking at us,
waiting for her next cigarette craving to give her life shape.
"You have what I call a hyperbolic condition," says Dad.
"What I say seems like hyperbole to you because your views are
based on disinformation from the corporate media."
"The radio is conservative, but everybody knows television and
newspapers are liberal."
"Donít tell me youíre buying that liberal media propaganda?"
"Propaganda? Youíre paranoid."
"No reason to even argue with a fool who thinks the
corporate-owned media is liberal."
"How can I have a discussion with someone who attacks me on a
"Look whoís talking about ad hominem attacks."
"You called me a fool".
"You called me paranoid."
"Kate, says my mother, if you and Tim ever have a baby, itís
going to be the most beautiful baby in the world. And smart, smart,
smart. It will have a perfect nose. It will have a perfect mouth. It
will have a perfect . . ."
"Yes, I know," I say, for weíve heard this rhapsody at least a
hundred times, but how can we complain when Mom sits for hours,
biting her nails and listening to conversation as impenetrable as
When I first became aware of the extent of Momís mental
deterioration, my husband and I were living on the dark side of a
mountain in North Carolina, renting a moldy cabin from a couple of
rich hobbyist goat farmers, our isolation growing as absurd and
tedious as a Beckett play. The place reminded us of Austria, that
hauntingly beautiful void with the highest suicide rate in the
worldóthe mountains make you too cerebral, we tried to
explain; after a certain altitude, itís hard to get drunk, we
complained. My parents had come for their annual summer visit, and
we were sitting on the back porch, enjoying jug wine and the
breathtaking view that had become as cramped and monotonous
I was reminiscing about my first boyfriend, a weird hysterical
guy with a huge butt, and Mom couldnít remember him. I went through
the roster of my childhood friends and my mother, previously an
archivist of gossip with an eye for bodily oddities, remembered not
a one. How about Richard Simmons, whoís that? I asked her,
and she couldnít remember. George W. Bush? I asked. George
Bush, she said, that rings a bell. Tom, who is George Bush?
Raiding the junk-rooms of my brain, I called out names: Osama
Bin Laden, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson. She didnít know who
they were. Whatís a shovel? I cried. Scooper, she
said. What are these? I asked, pointing at my nostrils.
"How about a tampon?"
"I donít know."
"Whatís a dragon?"
"A long short crawler," she said.
When I took my usual evening hike with my husband and wept the
whole way up the mountain, he said, donít exaggerate. I
glared at him for a seething minute and then darted down a trail
alone. After I got back, I got drunk, ignored my husband, and spent
the rest of the night subjecting my mother to demented quizzes:
Why do people eat? Whatís electricity? Cancer, pedophilia,
pesticides, SlimJims. Humidifier, bunions, pampers, NAFTA. Tadpoles,
Telletubbies, Rasputin, Atari. Apocalypse. Tupperware.
Daddy-long-legs. Byzantium, Los Angeles, Hell. What is love? Where
do Babies come from?
"If you get pregnant in, letís see, August, September, October,
or November," Mom says now, "you can plan your baby for the summer."
"Easier said than done," I mumble, not explaining that weíve
already been trying, that Iíve actually been pregnant, that, in
fact, I have a "baby" (a clot of swamp-scented blood) frozen in a
Brown Cow Organic Yogurt tub.
"You know what I gotta do soon," says Mom, clutching her pack of
Doral Menthols, always thinking about the next thing. Halfway
through any event she rushes to get it over with in anticipation of
the next event, which gives her life shape. And if she doesnít have
something on her agenda, sheíll quiz you about yours, try to take
control of your schedule, until you lose your shit and scream at
Mom scurries to the balcony to smoke. Dad fixes himself a ham
sandwich in the kitchenette. I retreat to my cubicle and shut the
door. I lie on a garish bedspread made from petroleum, from the rot
of ages condensed in a subterranean lode and pumped out of the
earth, refined, spun into textiles and dyed a hot toxic pink. I am
ovulating. I wonder how many women in this complex, this hive, are
ovulating, ripe for fertilization, their bodies still hoping.
Morning, and I am jolted awake, jerked back to the past by that
pimp of memoryósmellóa huge waft of frying bacon and aerosol
hairspray, blending together in a chemically volatile way. But
something is missing. Cigarette smoke. The morning fug of my
childhood consisted of cheap fried meat, Dadís hair spray, and
cigarette smoke (both of my parents smoked all my life, but only Dad
was able to quit). I remember a time when I didnít question this
poison, didnít criticize it, didnít rebel against it. It simply was,
and my parents and I were intermeshed in the deep bonds of
necessity, of habits and stinks, loves and poisons shared. My mother
had spent her life frying meat for us, addicting us to fat, sugar,
and caffeine, initiating us into the toxic world, weaving our very
physicality, running our lives. She wanted to do everything for us;
she hadóhasóa vicarious personality.
Mom scurries into my room without knocking.
"Are you awake?" She asks. "Weíre going to Universal Studios
today, remember? I canít wait."
"Me either," I say, my sarcasm undetected.
She leans over the bed and I smell fecal coffee breath, a
halitosis unique to smokers who drink sugared coffee, familiar and
memory-stirring, but worse than it used to be.
"Do you have your clothes ready?"
Sheís looking through my duffel bag.
"Can I iron something for you? Do you want some coffee? Did you
bring toothpaste? Do you need to take a shower?"
"Iím getting up."
"This is darling," she says, holding up a linen sundress. "Let me
iron it for you." And she is out the door before I can protest.
As Mom irons my dress in their bedroom, Dad and I eat toast in
the kitchenette. He clears his throat.
"I need to discuss something with you," he rasps, almost
"Your mother and I have written our will," he says. "Everythingís
in order, insurance policies, CDsóitís all in a safety deposit box.
But I need to talk your mother into putting everything in my name."
"We have to think realisticallyóabout the future. Look it
straight in the face, no matter how ugly that face is. In case she
ends up in long-term care. Weíve got to sign everything over at
least four years before. Otherwise they can take everything we own."
"Who are they?" I ask, but before he can answer Mom runs
in with my dress, which is covered in strange creases, haphazardly
starched. Gripping the limp dress in her fist, she glances from my
face to Dadís, wondering who we really are and weíre plotting.
"When are we getting on the boat?" asks Mom for the tenth time,
her voice a brass trumpet. Her roasted legs remind me of Chinese
chickenwings, skinny, sticking out of lime green shorts.
"Soon," says Dad. "Be patient. Itís a popular ride."
The last thing I ever thought Iíd find myself doing is standing
in line at an amusement park beneath a merciless afternoon sun, but
a wrecked life will take you on strange adventures. The heat, the
asphalt stench, the fair-food aromas entice dormant addictions from
my cells. I long for a corn dog. I feel hungry, excited, sick. The
ugliness of the pot-bellied couple in front of me glistens in rococo
detail. They are gloriously grotesque, with gleaming ham-heads,
while their tiny blond daughter is beautiful, brown, smooth as an
egg, fine-boned and covered in ethereal down, as though her health
and beauty feeds off theirs. The angel child glows in the sun, a
miracle beside such hideousness. She he flexes her shoulder blades,
eyes my strange hat, whispers something to her dad. The parents
slump and fawn.
"I can tell youíre smart just by looking at you," says Mom,
leaning over the girl, who hugs her motherís curdy thigh and
"Thanks," says the girlís Father.
"My daughter is the smartest person in the world," Mom declares.
"Let me tell you something," she says to the girl, "if you study and
go to college, then you can be . . ."
There is nothing my Father and I can do but ride it out, as
though my mother is having a seizure. If she says something
inappropriate (like I love you, an increasingly popular
declaration, reserved, so far, for people she already knows), I can
always make the lunatic hand-signal, twirling my fingers around my
ears. But then again, the longer sheís preoccupied with the family
in front of us, the less likely she is to insult the black kids
"Here comes the boat! Here comes the boat!" screams Mom, and the
little girl looks at her and wrinkles her nose, not sure if Mom is
doing this for her benefit.
"I canít wait to get on the boat!" Mom cries, pressing forward.
"I canít wait!"
A teen captain eases a glittery fuchsia boat into the channel and
coasts up to dock. Tourists file out.
"Oh, what a big boat. When can we get on?" asks Mom, craning to
see over the heads in front of us.
"Just a minute Betsy, be patient," says Dad. "The other
passengers have to get off first."
The captain, watching us through orange sunglasses, chews gum,
lolls in the fighterís chair. Itís finally our turn. Mom pushes
forward and sits beside the couple with the daughter. Thereís one
seat left in the row, and Dad takes it. Then Mom says she wants to
sit by the water and they switch. I sit behind them with the
teenagers, who are trying to scare each other. "Shark!" they keep
The girls sport small platinum beehives and silver eye make-up,
the boys afros and iridescent high-tops. I suspect they are making
fun of my UV outfit, which looks like a distant cousin of the
chemical suit, and I realize that I have reached that crucial age
when hipster weirdo devolves into dowdy eccentric, uncool loon.
We float in a fake channel connected to a fake bay fed by the
blinding blue ocean. I smell marsh and tar and gasoline. The sky is
a blue bubble of gaseous flame. I hold my hat as we lurch off into
"Here we go!" Mom screams, and she is like a monkey in her seat.
My Father smiles a martyrís sad smile. They never really connected
with each other. He has always wanted to write a novel, has written
chapters over the decades but had to put it off and put it off,
until he finally stuffed it into the silvery twilight of his
retirement where all of his other dreams have been crammed.
The boat churns sluggishly, then stops. The primordial vision of
a fin appears, knifing through blue wateróthe theatrics laughable
but faintly, viscerally, horrifying.
"Shark!" cries one of the boys behind us.
"Where? Where?" says my mother. "What is it, Jim; what is that?"
"A shark, Betsy."
"Whatís a shark?"
"A huge killer fish with sharp teeth, but itís not a real shark.
"From the movie."
"Here it comes," says the blond girl. "Here comes the shark."
"Here comes the shark," my mother repeats, grinning and leaning
over the side of the boat, stretching her arm out as though she
wants to feed the shark. As the fin weaves toward us, and the huge
back of the beast darkens the clear water, a boy behind us lets out
a fake scream.
"Here comes Jaws," says the blond girl.
"Here comes Jaws, Jaws, Jaws," says Mom.
"OH MY GOD A SHARK. WATCH OUT!" booms the captainís voice over a
loud speaker, mock dramatic, as though heís reading a childrenís
book. And up pops Jawsí mammoth head at the familiar angle, all
gulping mouth and gleaming teeth. Tongue slick and writhing. The
archetype of engulfment. A little rubbery and mechanical, but pretty
impressive. And huge.
Mom sits stunned, staring right into the abysmal mouth, then
yelps and jumps into Dadís arms. Their physical contact makes me
uncomfortable; I look at the water. Jaws sinks back into obscurity,
swims under the boat.
"Itís not real, Betsy. Itís a robot," says Dad.
"Whatís a robot?" Mom asks, shivering and biting her nails. The
kids behind me are snickering. The blond girl is staring hard.
"A machine, Betsy."
"Is it trying to kill us?" she asks.
"Of course not," says Dad.
"THERE IT IS AGAIN; ITíS TRYING TO KILL US!" declares the
captain, the words booming from the sky as though narrated by God.
Jaws has popped up on the other side of the boat and my mother is
crying, her face ripped open at the mouth, loose around the eyes,
ravaged by decades of cheap food, polluted air, carcinogenic sun,
disappointment, and my Fatherís well-composed face is devastated by
a twitching grin.
The captain lazily grabs a harpoon gun and shoots the shark in
the back. A geyser of steam bursts from the wound; magenta blood
"Kill it, kill it!" shrieks my mother.
But Jaws, hard to kill, sinks out of sight, lurks around in the
"Is Jaws dead?" Mom asks.
"I donít know," says Dad. "But itís a robot, Betsy."
"Is Jaws dead?" Mom screams at the captain. Everyone is looking.
I feel a mutated version of adolescent shame, deeply self-centered.
Then I feel detached, relieved that Iím sitting one row back, that I
donít live with them any more, that I have my own lifeómaybe I
havenít wrecked it for good.
Jawsí next appearance, unannounced by the captain, takes everyone
by surprise, and the entire boat lets out a primal wail, quickly
followed by chuckles that subside as the prehistoric monster gnaws
at the cable with its razor teeth, jerking the boat from left to
right. My mother, screaming like a terrified lab monkey, attempts to
crawl up my Fatherís leg. She wonít stop screaming, ruthless and
ear-splitting, and people are struggling with the shapes of their
mouths as they take in the spectacle.
I try to stand up to help my parents, but they are locked in an
embrace, exclusive and distant, and my body is caught in an alien,
gut-shaking convulsion that slams me back down in my seat. I shudder
with horrible laugher as tears stream down my cheeks.
Julia Elliott teaches English at the University of South
Carolina. Her fiction has appeared in Fence, Third Bed,
Black Warrior Review, and on Webconjunctions. She
has a story forthcoming in the winter issue of Puerto del Sol.