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arnie maddox: who am i?
august 17, 2002
This is the fourth in a series of six "guest columns" by Arnie Maddox, while I tend to other business. In this episode, Cindy gives a speech on 'Who Am I?', and Arnie gets a gift from his next door neighbor, Helen.
For information on Arnie, please see the notes at the end of this column.
I'll be back with the regular Lately entries September 7.
Who Am I?
Metal Climax Solutions, where I work, is a pretty large place, so you almost always see people in the halls when you're returning from lunch, or going to a meeting. I've noticed that if I'm walking down a hallway and it's obvious I'm headed towards a door at the end of the hallway, and someone else already going through that door sees me approaching, but also realizes I'm too far away for it to make sense for them to wait there holding the door open for me, they'll pass through and let the door start closing, but as they let go of the door, their hand will slide across the surface, delaying its close an additional moment, as if to say, I'm aware you'll be going through here, but I hope you realize you're still too far away.
I've always thought of it as a nice gesture.
I was telling this to Cindy the other day, as another example of how people are basically good, and want to help each other.
She'd been moping around the house a lot lately. When I got back from a conference in Maryland this past Friday and picked her up at her friend Margaret's, where she stayed while I was out of town, her mouth had that little down-turned sickle look to it that means something's wrong. I suspected whatever the problem was had to do with the new school year starting, since she's still having problems with some of the kids teasing her about her weight, and apparently they also think she should do more with her hair.
I asked her how school was going. She shrugged in her seatbelt.
"Are you unhappy about something?"
Sometimes her no has a lot of discouragement voiced in it, to where I know she wants me to pursue it, but this was kind of a "drop it" no.
Even though she insisted she wasn't unhappy, I knew something had to be up. The next morning at breakfast, after I poured some milk into her bowl, I stood at the table holding the carton and cleared my throat. "I was in your room this morning, and I happened to look out the window, and I happened to see that squirrel out there, and he was crying again." (There's a squirrel outside Cindy's bedroom window she insists cries whenever she's unhappy, which is absurd, and I've told her so, but I was alarmed to see it was weeping).
She talked into her bowl, watching her spoon slowly row around the cereal. "I have to give a speech."
"Oh!" I sat down, pulled the plate of eggs closer to my dish to transfer some. "Are you- do you feel nervous about getting up in front of everyone?"
Cindy looked up, a big tear rolling down her cheek. "It's called, Who Am I?". She held my eyes with her teary ones, pleading for help, then her face crumpled and she was crying into her cereal.
I jerked my chair back, got up, leaned over her, holding her shaking shoulders. "It's okay. It's okay, sweetheart. Well, a speech on who you are. What's so bad about that? You're-".
Her mouth pulled back, teeth covered with sob spit. "I'm nothing! I don't have anything to talk about! I'm a nonentity."
You know, it's funny being a parent. I was frightened she was so upset, but at the same time it impressed me that at fourteen she already knew a big word like "nonentity".
I got down on my haunches by her chair, handing back up to her the paper towel that had floated to the floor with her outburst.
"Cindy, you're not a nonentity. You're a really interesting person. Look how much Margaret enjoys your company, and me, and Aunt Karen when she visits, and everybody."
She gave a defeated snort. "Yeah. 'Everybody'. Big deal."
"What's Margaret giving her speech on?"
"She's talking about when her father took her to France and she ate in all these French restaurants, and got to practice the French she learned on all the French people there."
"You could talk about when we went up to Oklahoma and you almost caught that fish."
She started crying again.
I brought the situation up with Helen, our neighbor, who had invited me over to her house for dinner that evening.
Helen lives next door to us with her two twins, Meg and Peg. She's divorced. I don't know her ex-husband's name-- whenever she refers to him, which is actually quite often, she uses an unflattering anatomical term it wouldn't be appropriate to repeat here. She's an attractive, highlighted-haired woman somewhere in her thirties, who exercises a lot.
She reached across the dining table and patted the top of my hand, which surprised me, after I told her about Cindy thinking she's no one. "Arnie, at that age…." She bit her lip. Looked directly at me, like taking a measure of me, then wiggled her fingers in the air. "May I speak frankly? We're adults."
"Sure, of course." She had served me a delicious dish she called Moroccan hazelnut chicken, which was a big breast of chicken with seasoned hamburger meat stuffed inside it. The hamburger tasted like it had some cheese mixed in, too. Not American cheese, but maybe a cheddar, or one of those cheeses they use in restaurants.
"I remember when I was a fourteen year old girl." She raised her eyes to heaven, fanning a hand across the front of her blouse. "I was one of those girls who 'matured early'? I almost gave my dad a heart attack, a couple of times."
I chewed and swallowed the food in my mouth. "Well, I don't know if that's the problem here though, Helen, because--"
"Now, in Cindy's case, she's at that really, really awkward stage, where she's noticed boys, but…. Arnie, I think she needs to pay more attention to how she looks, and how she dresses, and the way she walks and everything. Do you understand? You have to 'dress up the package' a little if you want someone to open it. When I was her age, you wouldn't catch me outside my house-- wouldn't catch me-- without these short-shorts on, up to here?" She pulled away from the table to show me on her dress where the short-shorts would end. "And maybe a cute little bare-midriff thing? Hmm?"
"Well, I mean, everyone's different, of course. I agree she could dress a little more 'with it' or whatever, but, to be honest, I don't know if I'd want her to--"
Helen flapped her hand at me. "Dads."
After dinner, we watched a video Helen had rented, The Color of the Night I think it was called, with Bruce Willis, who she insists I look like, although I don't see the resemblance, that much. He plays a psychologist who's afraid of the color red for a reason I didn't hear because I was bending over to pick up popcorn from the carpet at that point. He meets this girl who bangs into the back of his car. "Do I look like her?" Helen asked me. "People always tell me I look like her." I could see a certain resemblance. The movie was pretty good, although I was a little surprised at how explicit the romantic scenes were.
When I got back to my own house, Cindy was in the kitchen, and in a much better mood.
"I decided what I'm going to give my speech on," she announced.
I pulled my head out of the fridge.
Standing by the sink with her arms folded, she slid her eyes to the left, chewing her lip, then looked right at me. "The hobo we picked up over Summer vacation, who was hitchhiking, who pulled a knife on you while you were driving, and I was in the back seat with him, and I pretended to yawn and leaned over to his door and pulled up the lock on it, and then opened the door and pushed him out, and he rolled across the highway and got hit by a car going in the opposite direction."
I put down the Blue Bonnet ice cream container.
"That's what I'm going to give my speech on. I think it'll be very exciting."
"Cindy, come on, we never picked up any hobo on the--"
She flapped her arms. "I have a boring life! I'm going to get up on that stage and I'm going to say, 'Oh, here's the fascinating things I did! I sat in my room all Summer and listened to the radio, and I tried a new Hamburger Helper in July, and I went to the mall a couple of times, and I started menstruating--"
"Cindy, come on. Listen. You don't have to justify who you are to anyone. You are your own person." I pulled out a kitchen chair, sat down. She reluctantly sat on the edge of the other chair, but watched the ceiling. "Listen. Look at me, please. Listen. All your life, you're going to run into people who want you to be what they want you to be, instead of whoever it is you actually are."
"What I 'actually are' is a very boring person."
"You know what I see? I see a very smart, humorous, pretty girl who's going through a rough time right now. And I realize it probably does seem like a solution to you to just pretend to be someone you're not, in order to be popular. But if you do that, then it's still not you who's popular, it's the false persona you've created who's popular. The real you, the Cindy I love, is still just as unhappy inside."
"You know what I think your mom would have done?"
"She would have actually met a hobo, and kicked him out of her car at high speed!"
I laughed. "Well, maybe. But I think she would have gone up on that stage, and she would have said, 'Here's who I am. I spent most of my Summer listening to music, and thinking about where I fit into life. And I still don't know where I do fit in, but I'm going to keep trying.' The thing is, most people give boring speeches, and the reason why they're boring is because there's little or no truth in them. It's just words trying to fill up the space where truth is supposed to go. If you get up on that stage and you tell the truth, the rest of the kids at school are going to realize it's the truth, and they're going to listen. Does that mean you're going to immediately be Miss Popular? Of course not. But you're being true to yourself, and even if some of the kids make fun of you for that, some other kids who never noticed you are going to want you as a friend or as a special person, because you are truthful. The truth is always scary until you actually say it. Once you say it, it's strength. A friend isn't someone who just says "hi" to you, or tells you your hair looks nice, or eats with you. A friend is someone who's honest with you, and they're hard to find, Cindy. They're real hard to find."
She tested my words in her mind. Watching her think, I thought she probably could do something with her hair. Maybe I'd ask Helen.
"The truth is powerful, huh?"
"Cindy, you get up on that stage and tell the truth, instead of taking the easy way out, and I guarantee it'll change your life."
I thought I should pay Helen back for all the meals she's cooked for me, so the day of the Who Am I? speeches, which were scheduled to be held that afternoon at one of the Richardson school auditoriums, I invited her to lunch. She seemed genuinely pleased.
I walked across my front yard to her front door, since we both have wooden privacy fences in back, like most homes here in the Dallas area. Crooking a finger at me, she said, "I've got a little surprise for you, Mister." I followed her into her kitchen, where she looped a hand through the wide white handles of a shiny bag on the kitchen table, and swung it out to me in offering.
"Helen, really…". I was pleased but embarrassed I hadn't gotten any gift for her. She shushed me. "You're paying for lunch."
Inside the bag was a sleeveless purple undershirt, with Boss BumbleBee written in what looked like yellow bee wings across the front.
"What do you think?" She grabbed it out of my hands, slapping it up against my chest. "I got the only one in the store."
I rolled my head down, chin touching my chest, so I could look at it upside down.
"Try it on."
"Yes! Try it on, try it on. You can wear it to the restaurant."
"But I already have a shirt on."
She slapped my right bicep. "C'mon, let's get loose."
I held the shirt out in front of me. "But what does it mean?"
"It means I gave you a gift, Arnie. You're supposed to wear gifts people give you. Look at me." Her t-shirt said, Have You Seen My Kitten? She didn't say who gave it to her, or the circumstances. She stood next to me, nervously jiggling a leg. "We're not that old, Arnie."
I guess I saw it more as a shirt for someone younger to wear, although honestly, I don't know if I would have even worn it then. I held it in my hands, ducked my head, then looked at her. It's little moments like this, when we share honesty, that help shape a relationship. "Helen," I started, "I want to be honest with you. I think honesty is very important in any friendship." I took a deep breath. "In any potential relationship."
The restaurant I took her to was Chock Full O' Chefs, a new chain restaurant in the Collins Creek mall. They had been advertising on WRR a lot, the classical radio station I listen to on my way to and from work, eight or so chefs all with different accents arguing about whose national dishes taste best. To settle the argument, they decide to open Chock Full O' Chefs, where you can order from a menu that combines eight different cuisines. I was curious to see what the cuisines were, because I didn't recognize some of the accents.
We got a young kid for our waiter. He signed his name with a green magic marker on our butcher paper tablecovering before handing us our menus.
Helen ordered the blackened shrimp in marinara sauce, served on shredded blue corn tortillas. I had the Bavarian meatloaf and Greek mashed potatoes, with a side order of crazy corn.
After lunch we raced to get to the auditorium before Cindy's speech. There was construction on the Renner Road ramp, which I didn't realize until it was too late. By the time we got to the auditorium it was packed with parents with camcorders. We stood at the dark rear, me craning over the hairdos and bald spots to see where Cindy was.
Up on the bright stage, in one of the nine chairs, hands pulling at each other in her lap.
She was obviously distressed about having to speak soon, and it showed all over her poor little face. She dared to look up at one point, scanning, and I lifted up on tiptoe, broadly waving. Her face lit up, then across all the heads in the audience she raised her eyebrows to me in that frightened little face, and I felt a tear roll down my cheek. I stepped to one side to wipe it away with a pinky.
Another girl, taller and willowy, was cracking up the audience with her tale of how she convinced a waiter in Mexico City not to cook a lobster she had given a cute name to while waiting in line.
She got a lot of applause.
"And now, we're going to hear from our final speaker, Cindy Maddox."
As she started walking stiffly to the podium, someone, somewhere, for some reason, out of a meanness they should have mastered long ago, oinked.
From the back of the hall, I saw her shoulders, the ones I had my arm around the other day in the kitchen, telling her the importance of being honest, sag.
But she was brave, and she walked those last few miles to the microphone with her head up.
Once she was behind it, she looked at me again across that distance, and I could see how terrified her eyes were, then out over the crowd.
My little girl cleared her throat, lifted her head. Her voice came out clear and strong.
"When we first picked him up, he looked like an ordinary hobo."
That was fine with me. We try to be honest, we attempt to be who we really are, but so often fear keeps us from that simplest of all solutions.
Jake Ostrum, a fellow parent, and kind of a wise guy, looked down at my chest, then poked his elbow against my ribs.
"The buzz is this is a real honey of a speech. She must have been busy as a bee writing it. Let's hope she doesn't bumble it."
Effective July 27, I'm taking six weeks off from writing Lately, to work on other projects.
While I'm gone, there'll be a guest columnist here, Arnie Maddox.
Some of you may remember I used to maintain a second website in addition to SENTENCE, called Jump Down the Hole. The site was dedicated to writing fiction in forms specific to the Web. For example, I had an informational site there on Antarctica, but an Antarctica re-imagined as a nation that has existed for forty thousand years (which I'm currently revising for SENTENCE), and an e-serial novel (which later evolved into my fourth novel, As Dead As Me).
Another feature on the site was The Maddox Family Home Page, in which I told the story of a fictional family through the conventions of a typical "We're the Smiths!" homepage, complete with family news, recipes, a guestbook (which I loaded with fictional entries), poetic efforts by the father, etc. The site linked to other family sites on the Internet, some of them real sites, some of them fake sites created by me, to further blur the distinction between reality and fiction.
The feature was popular. In fact, I'd get e-mails from people who'd write to Arnie thinking he was a real person, instead of me in stomach padding with a digitally receded hairline.
I dropped Jump Down the Hole in 2000 simply because it was too much work to maintain both sites. However, I still sometimes receive requests from people who want to know where they can read the Musings columns Arnie would write on his day-to-day life. Each Musing was meant to be a self-contained story which also advanced the larger story of Arnie and his fourteen year old daughter, Cindy. I structured each entry along the lines of a TV sitcom episode, a problem introduced at the beginning, which is sometimes mirrored by a subordinate story, then resolved at the end.
Think of the six entries reprinted here, one a week, as an e-serial.
I myself will be back with a new Lately column September 7.
Of all the characters I've created over the years, Arnie is probably the most decent, albeit sometimes a bit slow on the uptake. I hope you enjoy his adventures.