Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump; or, Three
Variations on My Father as Seamster
My father asked me to sew a grape. I could sew
a grape. I had sewn many grapes and my father knew I could sew a
grape. My father wanted me to sew another grape, for practice. My
father believed in practice. I had no interest in sewing grapes. My
father handed me a pig's foot. My father wanted me to practice
sewing pigs' feet. I had no interest in pigs' feet. I knew what I
was interested in. I was interested in reconstructing period
costume. My father handed me a pig's foot but what I really wanted
was blue silk and ivory lace. Lavinia Warren had worn a blue silk
miniature corset. It was made from brilliant dark blue silk with
ivory lace along its upper edge. The corset was only ten inches
high. Lavinia Warren was 32 inches tall. Lavinia Warren was Tom
Thumb's wife. I wanted to reconstruct the blue silk corset that
Lavinia Warren had worn.
I was thinking about the blue silk corset in Toledo, Ohio, where I made
my first stop on my way back to Los Angeles
after driving my father to
New Jersey. My father had decided to
relocate to New Jersey
to prepare to teach his future grandchildren how to suture pig's
feet, chicken breasts and grapes.
How highly did my father esteem the hand that
could lacerate the skin of a grape and heal it with a horizontal
mattress stitch? I'll tell you. My father
bribed the surgeon who
ran the summer program. That is, he tried to bribe the surgeon. My
father wrote a check. The surgeon scoffed. The figure on the check
was moot. The surgeon could spot a talented set of fingers from a
mile away. My portfolio—my 10th grade portfolio—was laid out on the
table for his inspection. My father had the decency not to present
the surgeon with a pig's foot. My father, irony of ironies, was
obliged to substitute a sateen corset, or rather a fragment of a
sateen corset. The corset was a reconstruction and my handiwork. The
surgeon pushed the corset away and told my father gently that he
should not have bothered. I was in.
I worked around the outside of in. One group
left the hospital while everyone else was expected to enter. I
signed up for the group that left. I took a seat inside a van next
to a woman with a folk guitar. All morning we sang songs and played
games in an effort to undo the damage that been inflicted upon a
collection of stray children rounded up from the streets. We ate box
lunches and resumed our healing in the afternoon. At five the van
delivered us back to the doors of the hospital where those who had
been sewing pigs' feet were leaving. Pig's feet, chicken breasts,
and grapes. My father drove me home, glowering.
The next morning I discovered that my father
had pulled some strings; he was a man who had connections, yet was
not savvy enough to refrain from bribing when it was totally
unnecessary. I was out of the group that healed and assigned to an
osteopath who was experimenting with bringing back the dead. The
osteopath was testing an innovation that had come to him in a dream.
I was now a member of the D.O's team.
These were my duties: I was sent to the cages
that held healthy and undamaged family companions that had been
kidnapped from cars and back yards. Some had been brought back from
the dead, others had yet to die. I slipped a noose around the neck
of one that had yet to die and led the way to a room with a
stainless steel table. In the room I did my utmost not to watch.
When the soul of the one I had led departed the body, it was my task
to clean up the waste that departs the body at the same moment as
the soul. A window of opportunity then began and the others worked
rapidly and efficiently and with a sense of urgency. I stood off to
the side and focused on a calendar: July, the Acropolis. The soul
did not go far because on occasion it would be coerced into
returning to the body, though this did not happen as often as the
osteopath wished. Whether the soul returned or not there was sewing
to be done. I was offered the privilege of doing the sewing. It was
considered an honor, but I declined. I could not bring myself to
pierce flesh with a needle.
When there was death and resurrection, I
slipped the noose over the resurrected one and led the way back to
those who had returned from the dead or were yet to die. When, as
happened more often than the osteopath would have liked, there was
death and no resurrection, the lifeless body went where lifeless
bodies go: into a bag. The bag went into a room with other bags. The
noose was hung from a peg.
I was thinking about this in
because the strangest of things happened as I paid my toll leaving
the most mundane of roadways in
America, the Ohio Turnpike.
I pulled up to pay my toll and when I rolled
down the window I saw that there were two women in the booth. The
one not collecting my toll was writing on a notepad. The other
collected my toll and then she asked me whether I knew how to spell
the word "surgeon."
I said, you've asked the right person.
She said, Why do you say that?
I held out my hands and said, See these hands?
She looked at my hands.
I said, The hands of a surgeon.
I spelled the word "surgeon" and drove into Toledo.
Gotthold, wife of a Fourth-Street tailor, who during the awful fire
was found wandering around and indiscriminately slapping people in
the face, was sent to an insane asylum to-day. The terrors of the
fire crazed her. Many ladies are reported dangerously ill from the
effects of the excitement.
We are driving home from Tia's funeral. Tia had
been my father's assistant for many years. My father is silent for a
long time as we sit in traffic. My father and Tia spoke to each
other in Spanish. My father rarely speaks to me in Spanish. My
father dabs at his brow with his handkerchief and then he says
"There's more than one way to skin a cat." This is my father's
favorite idiom in English. He turns the car sharply onto the
shoulder and drives along the shoulder to the next off-ramp, a
hundred feet from where we were stuck in traffic, thirty minutes
from where we were sitting in traffic.
My father's new assistant is no Tia. No one can
fill Tia's shoes. Grudgingly, my father delegates a portion of the
work to me.
My father's assistant designs the costumes of
the servant girls. The girls
themselves say the first they knew of the fire was when Linehan, the
engineer, ran up and yelled to them to wake up and run out and
follow him, and not wait to dress.
I have but one task: I am to reconstruct the
miniature corset worn by Lavinia Warren, the wife of Charles
Stratton. When I am done with the corset I bring it to my father and
my father sends me back to my workbench. When I am done with the
corset I bring it to my father and my father sends me back to my
workbench. When I am done with the corset I bring it to my father
and my father sends me back to my workbench. The problem is the
corset's back lacing. It must be true to the original but if it is
true to the original it will look bulky and out of proportion next
to the fine blue silk and ivory lace of the rest of the corset. In
the original the back lacing is as thick as an earthworm and ends at
the bottom in a huge knot. There is as much length of lacing in the
knot as in the crossed lacing down the back. The knot is nearly as
wide as the flared bottom of the corset. The lacing must be true to
the original but not so true that it offends my father's eye.
the strange freaks of the fire was revealed to-day by the recovery
of a basket of champagne, the bottle being intact, and the liquor to
all outward appearances uninjured, while the case itself was burned
to a crisp.
I help my father's assistant with the trapunto
needlework which forms curvilinear motifs along the princess seams
of the white cotton corsets worn by the servant girls. My father's
new assistant is only a year older than I and although she has
skilled fingers that my father recognized the instant that he saw
samples of her work, she lacks a certain breadth of experience. I
could do the trapunto myself in much less time than it takes me to
teach my father's assistant. I could teach my father's assistant in
less time than it takes me to teach her. I'm prolonging the
I'm prolonging the instruction because I like
to be near the assistant. I am fucking my father's new assistant.
When my father leaves late in the evening my father's new assistant
and I fuck on the couch where my father naps in the early afternoon.
It is not really a couch but three chairs set side by side and
draped over with an old blanket-sized sheet of plush Italian velvet.
Approximately $750 was realized from the two Tom Thumb performances
for the relief fund yesterday. The Minnie Palmer company will give
an entertainment at Detroit on Monday evening, the proceeds to be
given to the relief fund.
Two intertwined problems of fidelity occupy me
as I work. The lacing down the center back of Lavinia Warren's
corset must be true to the original, yet not true. This is the
problem whose attempted solutions I present again and again to my
father's eye. The lacerations across my back and shoulders are the
problem that I conceal from my father's eye. My father's assistant
is a shy girl who prior to me had just one sexual partner. How
authentic are the deep scratches that she leaves? What is their
provenance? She is so unsure of herself that it could be she read or
heard something that leads her to surmise that I won't believe her
lust is intense unless she leaves these marks. Or maybe they are
genuinely of the moment: I don't see any way to distinguish between
How easy it would be to let my father know that
I am fucking his assistant. We are working in the middle of summer
with the windows open and floor fans lined against the wall. All I
would have to do is take off my shirt.
While I fail and fail again at the tiny corset,
and tutor the assistant in trapunto for the corsets of the servant
girls, my father reconstructs a black lace corselette that will
appear earlier in the film, before the fire. The corselette is a
marvel of silk taffeta: bead trim at the center front, the upper hem
adorned with delicate black lace. The black lacing at the center
back is as fine and unobtrusive as the lacing of Lavinia Warren's
corset is thick and distracting.
policeman named O'Brien rescued Gen. and Mrs. Tom Thumb, dwarfs well
known to the theater audiences of the day; and a salesman named Van
Loon, said to have been the inventor of several fire escape devices,
jumped to his death from a flaming window.
My father's father gives my father and my
father's brother 15 minutes to gather their belongings and stow them
in the back of the jeep. But my father and his brother dawdle and my
father's father flies into a rage. He drives the jeep at breakneck
speed up the road whose hairpin turns have claimed lives. Normally
he slows almost to a stop before easing over each of the many speed
bumps. These are speed bumps to be taken seriously. The year before
was the first that my father's brother was old enough to drive the
jeep. It was a formidable challenge for him to learn to work the
clutch so that the jeep didn't stall as he eased it over a bump.
Often the jeep would stall and my father would laugh and my father's
brother would threaten to throw my father to the lions. My father's
father is so full of anger that he takes the bumps at full speed. My
father's father and my father and his brother bounce off their seats
and their gear rattles and clangs in the rear compartment.
The jeep is pink, its canopy cut from canvas
printed with wide pink and white stripes.
When my father awakens the next morning his
stomach aches and he has no appetite for the breakfast of fruit left
at his door. My father's father and my father's brother say that
they'll take a break from the heat and stay with my father, but he
tells them he'll be okay alone. They load their gear into the jeep
and drive off. When they return in the middle of the day to check on
my father the pain has grown worse. My father's father places a call
to arrange for a doctor. The doctor does not arrive. My father's
father makes another call. Finally the doctor shows up late in the
evening, driven in a jeep by another man who waits for him. The
doctor takes my father's temperature and palpates his abdomen and
consults with my father's father outside in the humid dusk. My
father's father tells my father that the doctor believes he is
suffering from an "intestinal impediment." My father's brother
laughs and says that all his whining is about is a bad case of
needing to take a dump. My father's father tells my father that he
has nothing to worry about and that he'll be better in a day or two.
During the night the pain is so bad that my
father can't sleep. He lies awake listening to the lions roar less
than a hundred yards from where he's curling and uncurling so as to
find a position that relieves the pain a little. The pain is so bad
that a film of warm sweat coats his entire body. He hears the lions
roar and is confused because after the sun goes down the lions don't
roar. They roar only in the early morning and evening when they
expect a meal. My father realizes that he has dozed off and it is
morning. My father's father is on the phone speaking forcefully
about finding another doctor. He's making threats in a raised voice
about the wrath that will come down upon the person at the other end
of the line unless another doctor, a real doctor, not a joker, can
be found. The pain in my father's abdomen is the worst pain he has
ever known. When he tells me about the pain he says it was like
fireworks exploding inside him.
Another doctor arrives within a few hours. This
doctor is an American. He too takes my father's temperature and
palpates his abdomen and whispers outside with my father's father.
My father's father comes back inside and explains that the first
doctor was wrong and that the second doctor is certain that my
father's appendix must be removed and believes that the appendix may
have already ruptured. My father's father will have to find a flight
out within the next few hours or my father will have to be cut open
and his appendix removed there, where doctors mistake a ruptured
appendix for an intestinal impediment. My father's father promises
my father that he will move heaven and earth to find him a flight
out. My father's father drives off in the jeep. My father knows that
his father is of the opinion that heaven and earth can be moved more
effectively in his presence than when he is merely threatening over
The fireworks subside into a vicious dull ache
that comes and goes. My father drifts off and dreams that he has
been sewn shut. In this dream all of the orifices of his body have
been sewn shut with a fine stitch. His nostrils have been sewn shut
and his eyes and his lips and his ear canals and his anus and
urethra. The stitching is so close that it makes an impermeable
barrier at each orifice. Nothing can enter or ooze out. A needle has
been inserted into his arm and tubing leads upward from the needle
to a steel cistern mounted on a wood stand. A clear fluid flows
through the tubing. The dull ache my father feels is the fluid
filling his body cavities and pressing for an exit but being blocked
by the closely-stitched orifices. He swells as the fluid accumulates
inside of him, ever so slowly, the fluid fed into him drop by drop.
He can see the rivets along the vertical seam of the cistern. The
cistern has a spigot and a handle like that of a garden faucet.
Before the cistern is empty he will be so full of fluid that either
the stitches will fail at one of the orifices and the fluid will
escape through that opening, or his flesh will burst. But he knows
that his flesh cannot compete against the stitching. The orifices
are closed securely with a thread that is far stronger than his
flesh. His flesh will burst and then the remaining fluid in the
cistern will empty itself into him in a steady flow that will stream
out through the opening where his flesh has broken apart.
My father drifts in and out of awareness,
hearing the lions roar or imagining that he hears them roar. He
won't remember the events of the next several days. They'll be
recounted to him by his brother, sitting at my father's bedside.
My father's father when he departed in the jeep
had the good fortune to encounter one of the men who had walked on
the moon. It was not uncommon to see one of the men who had walked
on the moon hauling their gear out of a jeep or watching the lions
feed. Several of the men who walked on the moon sought out this same
destination for a respite from their busy schedules just as my
father's father did for a period of six or seven consecutive years
during my father's childhood. My father's father approached the man
who had walked on the moon and explained his urgent need to find a
flight out. My father's father was a man who had great faith in the
power to move heaven and earth through knowing the right
connections, but he tended to be somewhat unrealistic in his
appraisal of the power of his connections to move heaven and earth.
My father's father believed that the man who walked on the moon
would have the power to summon a private aircraft at a moment's
notice. Either the private aircraft would be the personal aircraft
of the man who walked on the moon and who flew his personal aircraft
to and from an airstrip nearby, or it would be a military aircraft
that the man who walked on the moon could requisition simply by
making a phone call. My father's father was not entirely a stranger
to the man who walked on the moon. Motivated by his belief in the
power of connections my father had conversed over gin and tonics
with several of the men who walked on the moon. The man who walked
on the moon, so my father's brother recounted to my father, told my
father's father that he did not have a private aircraft at his
command, neither his own nor one that he could requisition from a
branch of the armed forces. However he did have a very good friend
who was a highly placed executive in the flight operations division
of a major commercial airline. His very good friend arranged for a
seat for my father and my father's father on the next flight out.
The friend also arranged for a physician employed by the commercial
airline to accompany my father and my father's father on the flight.
As a token of encouragement and friendship, and
best wishes for his recuperation, the man who walked on the moon
arranged to have sent to my father's hospital room a small
collection of authentic NASA patches, as were worn on earth by men
who had walked on the moon or orbited the earth. My father kept this
collection in a shoebox that I discovered when my father abandoned
his second wife and decamped to
to take up residence with a woman twenty years his junior.
Shortly after my father decamped, I applied for
an apprenticeship with a distinguished expert in the reconstruction
of period costume. There were never many applicants for the
apprenticeship and the expert accepted only a small fraction of the
few who applied. I worked for months on the centerpiece of my
application portfolio. The centerpiece was a diorama that depicted
the reception following the wedding of Charles Stratton and Lavinia
Warren at Grace Church in
on February 10, 1863. I reconstructed with exacting fidelity to the
original the white glacé silk petticoat that Lavinia Warren wore
under her reception gown, knowing that the expert would examine the
petticoat. But in reconstructing the gown itself, I took certain
liberties, hoping to show the expert that my abilities went beyond
rote reconstruction. The skirt of the original gown, made of
taffeta, Marabout feathers, and lace, had been ornamented with
designs that represented emblems of different nations, one emblem on
each breadth of the skirt. The United
States was represented by a design of growing
corn; England by a rose;
by a laurel; Ireland
by a shamrock; Scotland
by a thistle;
by a cluster of grapes. For my version of the skirt I reconstructed
the designs of the original using material from the collection of my
father's patches. The designs were precise reproductions of the
originals and the technique by which I reproduced the designs was
identical to the original technique. I first selected patches that
showed the planet earth, usually in the distance as seen from the
moon. From these small earths I cut extremely narrow bias strips
from each of the countries represented in the designs. I formed the
designs by sewing the appropriate bias strips—strips from
to form a rose, from
to form a laurel—onto the taffeta with thread that I'd unraveled
from the moon portion of the patches. The earths on the patches were
very small, but they yielded sufficient material for the
reconstructed dress because the diorama was small and so was Lavinia
was born in 1990 and lives in Los Angeles. His work has
appeared or is forthcoming in Nerve, McSweeney's,
Frigg, Sleepingfish and other online journals.