Background: This is part of a chapter from my first book, a true tale of a crazed vacation in Paris. We are all sitting on the expansive back patio of our hotel, having a few drinks and reminiscing. For some reason that now escapes me, I gave all my family members and friends a French pseudonym in that book, so you might not recognize the characters. It’s really not imperative that you know who is who. It’s the story that is important. It’s always the story. Enjoy.
Now, as we all know, a little bit of alcohol doesn’t just loosen lips, it loosens memories. And Maman loves to have her memories loosened. I don’t mean to imply that she’s a big drinker, by any means. She rarely drinks. And when she does, she usually has one red beer, maybe two. But it’s just enough to get her launched on one of her favorite memory-loosened activities: telling stories about her children (me, Daisi, and Reina are the offspring currently present), children that she loves dearly despite the fact that we could be absolute heathens at times.
And when she starts into these stories, the three of us cringe. Who knows what embarrassing thing Maman is going to drag out now. (Okay, Reina doesn’t cringe as much anymore. I’m sure her attitude is “Look people, I’ve had a massive stroke. I have to be carried to the bathroom. Do you REALLY think that I’m going to be bothered by Maman telling you about the time I stole her company car and went joy-riding with my friends? No shame in my game. I’m good.”)
But Daisi and I still tremble, depending on the listening audience. If we’re surrounded by people who have heard these stories a hundred times (Maman’s “shuffle play” feature tends to keep repeating the same songs), we don’t care. But if there are newbies gathered around (like Tatum and Nynette, and to some extent Trace), the shame factor can definitely escalate. Because there’s no telling what will come out of Maman’s mouth.
So, she starts out with some fairly innocent stories, mostly of the “that is so cute!” variety, and, at first, it’s all well and good, with everybody chuckling here and there. Bit by bit, however, Maman starts edging into the danger zone with stories that are a little cringe-worthy. Still nothing lethal, but warning signs are going off in my head. And then she launches into one of the stories that makes me insane.
The One with the Cactus.
Some background: It was about 1972 or 1973, somewhere in there. Maman and Dad had just bought a new house, WAY on the outskirts of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. (We actually had a route and box number as an address, okay? This was seriously out in the country. Gravel roads and people with no teeth, that sort of thing.)
As would anyone who had just purchased a new home, Dad wanted to pretty the place up with some landscaping. And Dad decided to go the Southwestern route, with lots of cacti and yucca plants. Dad also believed that children qualified as unpaid workers who must toil at manual labor based on the whims of the parents who had brought them into this world.
Which meant Daisi and I had menial, mind-numbing, repetitive chores to complete out in the front yard, a patch of earth that was essentially a mini dustbowl (ergo, the need for landscaping). This went on for several weekends (an eternity when you’re a youngster) since it takes quite a bit of work to turn blowing dirt into a dewy garden of delight. On this point, everybody involved agrees with the initial setup of that fateful day: Daisi and I were in the yard, supposedly working. After that basic premise, the stories veer in two wildly different directions.
I’m out in the yard, not really happy about having to work when I could be playing with my G.I. Joe or taking apart my talking Bugs Bunny alarm clock to see how it worked, but still dutifully carrying out my assigned tasks. Daisi is out in the yard, not performing her duties at all. (Daisi got away with everything, put that in your notes. EVERYTHING.) Instead, Daisi was following me around while I did what I was supposed to do. I don’t know why she was following me around, as we were already well into the sibling rivalry thing where we usually couldn’t stand to be on the same continent as each other, let alone the same yard.
But there she is, tagging along as I do whatever I’m doing. She was probably just bored. She knew we couldn’t go back in the house until we were done with our chores, and there was nothing else to do outside since she hadn’t hooked up with any other hell-raising children in the neighborhood yet. (She would eventually find those little friends, though. Trust me.)
Anyway, I’m walking out of the garage and around to the front of the house. Daisi is tottering along behind me, whining about how hot it is and telling me to hurry up so we can go back inside. I’m focused on whatever my task was, and admittedly not looking at the ground. (And that’s the ONLY thing that I admit to as being possibly, maybe, my fault.)
Unbeknownst to me, there’s a shovel lying on the ground, face up. I have no idea who left the shovel there. It wasn’t me. I was not working with a shovel that day. Instinct tells me that DADDY probably threw it there, and he told Daisi to fetch it and take it into the garage where it belongs when it’s not in use. And Daisi ignored him, because since the age of two she has known that she had Daddy wrapped around her finger, and she used this to her advantage whenever possible.
I don’t have any documented proof of how that damn shovel got where it did, nothing that I can present in the court case that will inevitably have to happen before this bit of family lore can be put to rest. I’m just guessing at how the product placement took place, based on what I know of the family dynamics at that time: Daddy just threw stuff down when he was done with it and ordered his mini-servants to secure the item; Daisi promptly ignored any directives from on high and went about her business of being cute and getting things her way.
End result, this shovel was not where it should have been, the bastard.
And as fate would have it, my left foot stomps on the business end of the shovel. This causes the wooden non-business end of the shovel to come flying up. The handle whacks me directly in the forehead. (This was back in the day when wooden handles on shovels were the thickness of baseball bats. I’m surprised that I didn’t go flying across the sky while somebody rounded the bases and slid into home plate.) In my confusion and pain, I take a step backward.
My fully understandable reaction means I slam into Daisi, who was illegally tailgating me and did not have enough time to adjust her speed. And since she was barreling along with all that pre-adolescent energy that none of us have any more, she bounces off of me and ricochets through the air.
And she lands right on a cactus in a freshly-designed section of rock garden right behind her.
Horrific screaming ensues. Parents rush out of the house, harsh words are expressed, and suddenly I am the spawn of Satan. It goes downhill from there.
Maman and Daisi’s Lie-Filled Version:
As mentioned, the first part of the tale is the same. The slave labor was out in the yard, doing what they were supposed to be doing. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and you could still get a gallon of gas for 40 cents. Maman and Dad had lovingly cleared the area of all satanic lawn implements that could possibly cause harm, checked to make sure that our inoculations were up to date, and then retired into the air-conditioned comfort of the family dwelling for a “bit of rest”. (I was still too young to understand that “bit of rest” meant “grab a quick round of hurried nookie before the damn urchins start banging on the door of the master bedroom”.)
At this point, our narratives begin to differ greatly.
According to Daisi, that radiant celestial being who fell from the heavens into my parents arms as far as they were concerned, she had been the perfect example of a dedicated Peace Corps worker, tirelessly doing everything she could to transform our mini-dustbowl, third-world bit of property into something very akin to Eden. She had labored for hours to keep the dream alive.
And she was heartbroken to learn that her questionable brother had shamed the family by doing absolutely nothing to help us win “Lawn of the Month” from the Neighborhood Association. The bitterness of my worthlessness was hard to swallow, but she turned the other cheek and began following me around in an effort to assist me with the chores I had been given, minor little tasks that paled in comparison to the greatness of her own efforts which had brought joy to the entire world in their beauty and completeness.
So, she’s trotting along behind me as I leave the garage, with bluebirds fluttering around her, chirping a song of praise and weaving flowers in her hair. She has no memory of seeing a shovel, anywhere. At the very least, if the shovel had actually existed, the bluebirds would have pointed it out, stopped her in her dainty tracks, and then whisked the Satan Spade to a land far away, like New Jersey.
All the sudden (according to them), I turned into a Demon of Madness, snatched up my little budding saint of a sister, and threw her into the cactus with all my might. Then I supposedly stood over her helpless body, repeatedly mashing her further into the cactus to ensure that hundreds of little barbs would pierce her delicate, angelic skin. It was only when her cries of unendurable pain echoed throughout the neighborhood that our parents were alerted to my monstrous actions, and they raced out to pull my wretched body away from the glowing aura that was Daisi.
End of lie.
Seriously, that’s how my life was at the time. I couldn’t do a damn thing right. Daisi could toot thunderously in church and everyone would heartily applaud the most adorable example of atmospheric disturbance they had ever seen. In that same church, I could very quietly, barely whispering, ask if I could use the facilities and suddenly find myself banished to the parking lot, sitting in the family car and instructed to think about the many ways in which I had just offended God.
Side note: A few days after this incident, when our parents were once again not in the vicinity so they couldn’t be called upon to testify in a trial about their offspring’s actions, Daisi took a steak knife out of the cutlery drawer, marched into the front yard, and hacked the landing-pad cactus into bits. Daisi don’t play.
Flash forward to the present, sitting on the patio at the Paris hotel. Everybody’s reacting to Maman’s version of The Cactus Story, with knee-slapping and hearty guffawing and the general belief that I would actually hurl my sister into the evil sharpness of a succulent.
Fine. Believe what you want. But you still have to depend on my apparently homicidal ass to ensure that you remain alive in this foreign country where you don’t know what you’re doing. I have the trump card. Even if that card smells like cactus.
I clear my throat. “Okay, then. Why don’t we head out and find a place to eat?” Translation: Maman, don’t tell another story like that right now or I will bring out stories of my own, little ditties wherein I fully describe the contents of that special drawer in your nightstand. You know, the drawer with the paraphernalia that totally widens the eyes of a 9-year-old just looking for a pencil? Yeah, THAT one.
Originally published in “Screaming in Paris” and subsequently shared in a redesigned format a few years ago here on Bonnywood. Modified a wee bit for this latest re-post. And in case you’re wondering, yes, you CAN buy this book, although only in digital format on the Kindle. (Details and links are in the right sidebar of this blog. It’s always been there, but don’t worry if you never noticed, as most people don’t.)
Having said that, I realize that some of you have read the book and submitted delightful reviews to Amazon, so please don’t be offended by the possibility that I don’t appreciate you. Every single book sale warms my cactus heart, truly.
Continuing our moment of honest bonding, I should also say that almost all of the reviews of said book fall along the lines of “really funny, but DAMN this book is long”. I certainly need to edit it down some day. That day just doesn’t happen to be today. Still, give the link a click, if you feel inspired. I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but a sudden spike in book sales would certainly give me some degree of validation that MY version of The Cactus Story is the true and faithful one…
Story behind the photo: A snap of the daily goat run in Cómpeta, Spain. It’s an accurate depiction of how I felt herding the family through Paris in that book you should buy if you really love me.
No pressure, of course. 😉
Categories: My Life