Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2005 David Sedaris
All right reserved.ISBN: 0316010790
Chapter One Us and Them
WHEN MY FAMILY FIRST MOVED to North Carolina, we lived in a rentedhouse three blocks from the school where I would begin the thirdgrade. My mother made friends with one of the neighbors, but oneseemed enough for her. Within a year we would move again and, as sheexplained, there wasn't much point in getting too close to people wewould have to say goodbye to. Our next house was less than a mileaway, and the short journey would hardly merit tears or evengood-byes, for that matter. It was more of a "see you later"situation, but still I adopted my mother's attitude, as it allowedme to pretend that not making friends was a conscious choice. Icould if I wanted to. It just wasn't the right time.
Back in New York State, we had lived in the country, with nosidewalks or streetlights; you could leave the house and still bealone. But here, when you looked out the window, you saw otherhouses, and people inside those houses. I hoped that in walkingaround after dark I might witness a murder, but for the most partour neighbors just sat in their living rooms, watching TV. The onlyplace that seemed truly different was owned by a man named Mr.Tomkey, who did not believe in television. This was told to us byour mother's friend, who dropped by one afternoon with a basketfulof okra. The woman did not editorialize-rather, she just presentedher information, leaving her listener to make of it what she might.Had my mother said, "That's the craziest thing I've ever heard in mylife," I assume that the friend would have agreed, and had she said,"Three cheers for Mr. Tomkey," the friend likely would have agreedas well. It was a kind of test, as was the okra.
To say that you did not believe in television was different fromsaying that you did not care for it. Belief implied that televisionhad a master plan and that you were against it. It also suggestedthat you thought too much. When my mother reported that Mr. Tomkeydid not believe in television, my father said, "Well, good for him.I don't know that I believe in it, either."
"That's exactly how I feel," my mother said, and then my parentswatched the news, and whatever came on after the news.
Word spread that Mr. Tomkey did not own a television, and you beganhearing that while this was all very well and good, it was unfair ofhim to inflict his beliefs upon others, specifically his innocentwife and children. It was speculated that just as the blind mandevelops a keener sense of hearing, the family must somehowcompensate for their loss. "Maybe they read," my mother's friendsaid. "Maybe they listen to the radio, but you can bet your bootsthey're doing something."
I wanted to know what this something was, and so I began peeringthrough the Tomkeys' windows. During the day I'd stand across thestreet from their house, acting as though I were waiting forsomeone, and at night, when the view was better and I had lesschance of being discovered, I would creep into their yard and hidein the bushes beside their fence.
Because they had no TV, the Tomkeys were forced to talk duringdinner. They had no idea how puny their lives were, and so they werenot ashamed that a camera would have found them uninteresting. Theydid not know what attractive was or what dinner was supposed to looklike or even what time people were supposed to eat. Sometimes theywouldn't sit down until eight o'clock, long after everyone else hadfinished doing the dishes. During the meal, Mr. Tomkey wouldoccasionally pound the table and point at his children with a fork,but the moment he finished, everyone would start laughing. I got theidea that he was imitating someone else, and wondered if he spied onus while we were eating.
When fall arrived and school began, I saw the Tomkey childrenmarching up the hill with paper sacks in their hands. The son wasone grade lower than me, and the daughter was one grade higher. Wenever spoke, but I'd pass them in the halls from time to time andattempt to view the world through their eyes. What must it be liketo be so ignorant and alone? Could a normal person even imagine it?Staring at an Elmer Fudd lunch box, I tried to divorce myself fromeverything I already knew: Elmer's inability to pronounce the letterr, his constant pursuit of an intelligent and considerably morefamous rabbit. I tried to think of him as just a drawing, but it wasimpossible to separate him from his celebrity.
One day in class a boy named William began to write the wrong answeron the blackboard, and our teacher flailed her arms, saying,"Warning, Will. Danger, danger." Her voice was synthetic and void ofemotion, and we laughed, knowing that she was imitating the robot ina weekly show about a family who lived in outer space. The Tomkeys,though, would have thought she was having a heart attack. Itoccurred to me that they needed a guide, someone who could accompanythem through the course of an average day and point out all thethings they were unable to understand. I could have done it onweekends, but friendship would have taken away their mystery andinterfered with the good feeling I got from pitying them. So I keptmy distance.
In early October the Tomkeys bought a boat, and everyone seemedgreatly relieved, especially my mother's friend, who noted that themotor was definitely secondhand. It was reported that Mr. Tomkey'sfather-in-law owned a house on the lake and had invited the familyto use it whenever they liked. This explained why they were gone allweekend, but it did not make their absences any easier to bear. Ifelt as if my favorite show had been canceled.
Halloween fell on a Saturday that year, and by the time my mothertook us to the store, all the good costumes were gone. My sistersdressed as witches and I went as a hobo. I'd looked forward to goingin disguise to the Tomkeys' door, but they were off at the lake, andtheir house was dark. Before leaving, they had left a coffee canfull of gumdrops on the front porch, alongside a sign reading DON'TBE GREEDY. In terms of Halloween candy, individual gumdrops werejust about as low as you could get. This was evidenced by the largenumber of them floating in an adjacent dog bowl. It was disgustingto think that this was what a gumdrop might look like in yourstomach, and it was insulting to be told not to take too much ofsomething you didn't really want in the first place. "Who do theseTomkeys think they are?" my sister Lisa said.
The night after Halloween, we were sitting around watching TV whenthe doorbell rang. Visitors were infrequent at our house, so whilemy father stayed behind, my mother, sisters, and I ran downstairs ina group, opening the door to discover the entire Tomkey family onour front stoop. The parents looked as they always had, but the sonand daughter were dressed in costumes-she as a ballerina and he assome kind of a rodent with terry-cloth ears and a tail made fromwhat looked to be an extension cord. It seemed they had spent theprevious evening isolated at the lake and had missed the opportunityto observe Halloween. "So, well, I guess we're trick-or-treatingnow, if that's okay," Mr. Tomkey said.
I attributed their behavior to the fact that they didn't have a TV,but television didn't teach you everything. Asking for candy onHalloween was called trick-or-treating, but asking for candy onNovember first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable.This was one of the things you were supposed to learn simply bybeing alive, and it angered me that the Tomkeys did not understandit.
"Why of course it's not too late," my mother said. "Kids, why don'tyou ... run and get ... the candy."
"But the candy is gone," my sister Gretchen said. "You gave it awaylast night."
"Not that candy," my mother said. "The other candy. Why don't yourun and go get it?"
"You mean our candy?" Lisa said. "The candy that we earned?"
This was exactly what our mother was talking about, but she didn'twant to say this in front of the Tomkeys. In order to spare theirfeelings, she wanted them to believe that we always kept a bucket ofcandy lying around the house, just waiting for someone to knock onthe door and ask for it. "Go on, now," she said. "Hurry up."
My room was situated right off the foyer, and if the Tomkeys hadlooked in that direction, they could have seen my bed and the brownpaper bag marked MY CANDY. KEEP OUT. I didn't want them to know howmuch I had, and so I went into my room and shut the door behind me.Then I closed the curtains and emptied my bag onto the bed,searching for whatever was the crummiest. All my life chocolate hasmade me ill. I don't know if I'm allergic or what, but even thesmallest amount leaves me with a blinding headache. Eventually, Ilearned to stay away from it, but as a child I refused to be leftout. The brownies were eaten, and when the pounding began I wouldblame the grape juice or my mother's cigarette smoke or thetightness of my glasses-anything but the chocolate. My candy barswere poison but they were brand-name, and so I put them in pile no.1, which definitely would not go to the Tomkeys.
Out in the hallway I could hear my mother straining for something totalk about. "A boat!" she said. "That sounds marvelous. Can you justdrive it right into the water?"
"Actually, we have a trailer," Mr. Tomkey said. "So what we do isback it into the lake."
"Oh, a trailer. What kind is it?"
"Well, it's a boat trailer," Mr. Tomkey said.
"Right, but is it wooden or, you know ... I guess what I'm askingis what style trailer do you have?"
Behind my mother's words were two messages. The first and mostobvious was "Yes, I am talking about boat trailers, but also I amdying." The second, meant only for my sisters and me, was "If you donot immediately step forward with that candy, you will never againexperience freedom, happiness, or the possibility of my warmembrace."
I knew that it was just a matter of time before she came into myroom and started collecting the candy herself, grabbingindiscriminately, with no regard to my rating system. Had I beenthinking straight, I would have hidden the most valuable items in mydresser drawer, but instead, panicked by the thought of her hand onmy doorknob, I tore off the wrappers and began cramming the candybars into my mouth, desperately, like someone in a contest. Mostwere miniature, which made them easier to accommodate, but stillthere was only so much room, and it was hard to chew and fit more inat the same time. The headache began immediately, and I chalked itup to tension.
My mother told the Tomkeys she needed to check on something, andthen she opened the door and stuck her head inside my room. "Whatthe hell are you doing?" she whispered, but my mouth was too full toanswer. "I'll just be a moment," she called, and as she closed thedoor behind her and moved toward my bed, I began breaking the waxlips and candy necklaces pulled from pile no. 2. These were thesecond-best things I had received, and while it hurt to destroythem, it would have hurt even more to give them away. I had juststarted to mutilate a miniature box of Red Hots when my mother priedthem from my hands, accidentally finishing the job for me. BB-sizepellets clattered onto the floor, and as I followed them with myeyes, she snatched up a roll of Necco wafers.
"Not those," I pleaded, but rather than words, my mouth expelledchocolate, chewed chocolate, which fell onto the sleeve of hersweater. "Not those. Not those."
She shook her arm, and the mound of chocolate dropped like ahorrible turd upon my bedspread. "You should look at yourself," shesaid. "I mean, really look at yourself."
Along with the Necco wafers she took several Tootsie Pops and half adozen caramels wrapped in cellophane. I heard her apologize to theTomkeys for her absence, and then I heard my candy hitting thebottom of their bags.
"What do you say?" Mrs. Tomkey asked.
And the children answered, "Thank you."
While I was in trouble for not bringing my candy sooner, my sisterswere in more trouble for not bringing theirs at all. We spent theearly part of the evening in our rooms, then one by one we eased ourway back upstairs, and joined our parents in front of the TV. I wasthe last to arrive, and took a seat on the floor beside the sofa.The show was a Western, and even if my head had not been throbbing,I doubt I would have had the wherewithal to follow it. A posse ofoutlaws crested a rocky hilltop, squinting at a flurry of dustadvancing from the horizon, and I thought again of the Tomkeys andof how alone and out of place they had looked in their dopeycostumes. "What was up with that kid's tail?" I asked.
"Shhhh," my family said.
For months I had protected and watched over these people, but now,with one stupid act, they had turned my pity into something hard andugly. The shift wasn't gradual, but immediate, and it provoked anuncomfortable feeling of loss. We hadn't been friends, the Tomkeysand I, but still I had given them the gift of my curiosity.Wondering about the Tomkey family had made me feel generous, but nowI would have to shift gears and find pleasure in hating them. Theonly alternative was to do as my mother had instructed and take agood look at myself. This was an old trick, designed to turn one'shatred inward, and while I was determined not to fall for it, it washard to shake the mental picture snapped by her suggestion: here isa boy sitting on a bed, his mouth smeared with chocolate. He's ahuman being, but also he's a pig, surrounded by trash and gorginghimself so that others may be denied. Were this the only image inthe world, you'd be forced to give it your full attention, butfortunately there were others. This stagecoach, for instance, cominground the bend with a cargo of gold. This shiny new Mustangconvertible. This teenage girl, her hair a beautiful mane, sippingPepsi through a straw, one picture after another, on and on untilthe news, and whatever came on after the news.