When I was around three, I had a fever that caused me to hallucinate. I saw snakes. I screamed, “Vívoras, vívoras,” and tried to push away the (invisible) snakes. (Spanish was the first language I learned, though I can barely speak it anymore.) I have the vaguest memory of this hallucination, though I think it’s a combination of vague memory plus imagination, since my mother often told me the story. In this vague memory, I see a huge, dark grey snake slithering over me, headed toward my face, its head significantly larger than my hand. Other snakes are crawling up the sides of my bed. Maybe it’s two, maybe three, that part isn’t as clear.
As a little kid, I often had a sore throat and fever, and I couldn’t talk because my tonsils would swell. When I was five, I had my tonsils taken out. In fact, I turned five the day of my surgery. All tonsillectomy patients got ice cream afterwards. I didn’t know it was standard procedure, so when they brought me a dish of vanilla ice cream, I thought it was in honor of my birthday. I felt so special, as I sat there in my hospital crib, merrily eating my ice cream, distracted for the moment from my fear and confusion.
After I finished my ice cream, a nurse came in and asked me, “Do you have to go potty?” I had no idea what she said. I didn’t understand much English. But I heard the word “potty”, and I thought she said “party”, because that’s pretty much how my mom pronounced “party”. My mom spoke to us kids in Spanish, but she threw in an English word here and there, which she pronounced with an accent. I had never heard the word “potty”, meaning “go to the bathroom”. My mom would ask, “Tienes que hacer?“. That translates into, “Do you have to go,” with the implication of “to the bathroom”. My mom sometimes asked us in English, but she translated in literal terms, so she would say, “Do you have to make?” When I heard the nurse say “potty”, I assumed she was talking about my birthday and was asking me if I was going to have a party. I nodded. When I nodded, what I really meant was, “Yes, there will be a party for my birthday. There will be cake and ice cream.” She brought me a bedpan. I thought it was a present. A kidney-shaped metal bowl? What was I supposed to do with this? I sat there and looked at it. She said, “Don’t you have to go potty?” I looked up at her, shook my head. “No, I don’t want a party, if this thing is my present. Just bring me ice cream, please.” These were more or less my thoughts, anyway. I was a timid child. I didn’t talk much, and if I did, it was barely above a whisper.
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher asked me a question. He was tall, a six footer, with a loud, deep voice. In retrospect, I realize he was really a nice guy; he wasn’t mean. But he didn’t take any crap or nonsense, and he’d let you know in his big, booming voice. I was afraid of him. One time he asked me a question (about whatever subject we were focused on at the moment). The answer was “yes,” so I nodded. He wanted to make me talk, so he asked me another question. The answer was “no,” so I shook my head. He sat there a minute, looking at me. I sat there, looking back at him, cringing, terrified. Then he goes, “What if you couldn’t do this (he shakes his head), or this (he nods his head)?” I shrugged my shoulders. He burst out laughing, in his giant, booming voice, a guffaw. The class laughed. I drew my body in tighter, tried to shrink myself invisible. But I liked the feeling, actually, of making people laugh.
I’m reading Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski. It’s the only novel of his I never got around to reading. (I heard that Pulp, his final novel, didn’t do well. I don’t why. I love it.) I find this novel a little uncomfortable. It still has Bukowski’s dark humor, and I get the feeling he’s being a bit “hammy”, so I like it all right. But his difficult childhood was no joke. I suppose that’s why he developed a dark sense of humor. I knew a woman once who told me, “I think all childhoods are a blast out of hell.” I laughed when she said this. Most people used to look at her like she was nuts. She was just honest and unsentimental, and she had dark sense of humor. I liked her. She cracked me up. She was a bit eccentric. I lost track of her when a job relocated me. Another of my jobs from hell. Most the jobs I ever had in my life were hell. Sometimes life is hell. But it can be fascinating too, and sometimes a nice surprise comes your way when you least expect it.
I’m going to a party tonight. I’m not much of a party person. But the guy who invited me is a poet I met recently. He and his roommate are having a poetry party. A poet’s party. A poetry party for poets. I think only a poet would find that interesting. Sure, let’s see what the night holds.