A Hatchet-Faced Baby

In which Citizen Jim arrives with surprising news for Chicken Sheets. But she already knows that ViDalia doesn’t read her Citizen Jim Stories.

After writing a Citizen Jim story for my sister, ViDalia (at her request, keep in mind), I posted it on the web and sent her a link to it. She didn’t even respond until fifteen minutes later (rude!), and her answer to my text was only four words long: “Too much Citizen Jim”

Now. I’ve been accused by Citizen Jim himself of having too little Citizen Jim in a Citizen Jim story, but this was the first time a Citizen Jim story had been deemed too full of Citizen Jim.

ViDalia didn’t even bother to put a punctuation mark at the end of her statement, which confused me. Did she mean to say that Citizen Jim took up an inordinate amount of copy in the story, or was she asking me if I just thought he had?

It kept me awake half the night, and at several points I almost called ViDalia to ask her exactly what she meant by “Too much Citizen Jim” even though I knew she wouldn’t answer (she only takes calls from me once a week—Tuesdays, between 6:15 and 6:30 PM). I didn’t text her at the height of my annoyance because I thought she might somehow sow further confusion with additional nebulous responses.

Another thing that kept me awake was thinking about Citizen Jim’s reaction. (If he read the story; he rarely reads the Citizen Jim stories—not out of embarrassment or shyness, but because he thinks I’m a horrible writer, maybe the worst writer ever.) Though I felt like I’d featured ViDalia-themed exposition vs. Citizen Jim action as evenly as I could within the frame of a 2,200-word story, I never take for granted that Citizen Jim will cut me any slack, no matter how much I need it or for what reason.

I also wondered, as I lay awake throughout the night, what kind of life I’d found myself living when I felt caught between a rock and a hard rock, creatively speaking, unable to please my best friend and my favorite sister no matter how hard I worked at trying to keep both of them happy.

What made all of it even worse was the fact that I felt compelled to spend so much time thinking about a piddling story that’d been written quickly, with a light touch of humor and a heavy dollop of love. I had other things—things unrelated to my writing—I wanted to do, some of them new and exciting.

For example: I recently read a Guardian profile of English author Caitlin Moran in which she was asked what book she thought was underrated. Her answer was Moby-Dick:

I just find it really, enjoyably chatty and ‘extra’? The first three chapters are basically him having a massive crush on Queequeg, and then the rest of it – AKA Get the Whale – is an amazingly clever gay man, born in the wrong century, trying to download literally everything he can into a book, so that some part of him might still be alive in future centuries that might accept him. He just wangs everything in there, like the book is Google, or a suitcase, or the last thing he’ll ever say. I like how rammed it is.

This offered a heretofore unimaginable insight into Moby-Dick that made me want to actually read it. Since I read Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street at least once a year, I was both astonished and disappointed that I’d never given the book subtitled or The Whale a chance to entertain me. [1]

So I went directly to the Gutenberg site and found that I, too, was loving the chattiness of it. As soon as I came upon Ishmael’s describing Queequeg’s tomahawk, lying in the bed between them, as looking like “a hatchet-faced baby,” the deal was sealed: I would have to read Moby-Dick.

But never mind all that.

Instead of lying in bed reading Moby-Dick after discovering how very much I wanted to read it, I was tangled in a web—now taut, now saggy—of worry and disappointment regarding “A Trickster Tale.” (And not just because I wish I hadn’t decided to call it that. My working title for the story was “I’ll Meet You Halfway,” a song by the Partridge Family that ViDalia liked in the 70s. It also worked as a description of the balance between art and familial obligation I hoped the story might strike.)

After going outside to bury a bag of cat box treasures in the trash can, I looked up and saw Citizen Jim coming through my front gate. As soon as the lid fell on the can, we both froze, Citizen Jim in mid-step, and I in place. The intensity of his stare told me that if I didn’t look away, we might be stuck like this for an hour or more. I also knew that if I turned my back to him he would run at me and probably tackle me before I could open the front door and escape into the house.

“Ever since you wrote that story for your sister, she’s been blowing up my Facebook page with all kinds of weird threats,” he said, still not putting his left foot on the ground or blinking his eyes.

“What’s she threatening to do to you?” I asked.

“Not me—you!” he said, still not moving from his spot by the gate.

“But you’re the reason she didn’t like it,” I said. “She thought there was too much focus on you.”

“That’s not how she frames it,” he said. “In her mind, you put the spotlight too much on yourself.”

“Oh really!” I said.

“Yeah, really, and I really agreed with her,” he said.

“I’d like to say that surprises me, but what else should I expect?” I said.

“I mean, you might call them ‘Citizen Jim stories,’ but they’re not about me, that’s for sure,” Citizen Jim said. “I think your sister was a little shocked because she…”

He didn’t finish the sentence. In fact, he allowed his eyes to blink as he let the sentence trail off.

“Because she what?”

“No, never mind. I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” he said.

This made me laugh. “Since when do you care about my feelings?” I asked him.

He unfroze and walked toward me. “Oh, Stimpy, don’t take it to heart, but I don’t think ViDalia ever read any of these stories before that one you wrote for her,” he said.

If I was merely laughing before, this threw me into a fit of hysterical laughing.

Citizen Jim stopped and backed up. “Jesus eating hot dogs at a ballpark, woman, what’s the matter with you?”

I let my knees go weak and fell into a still-laughing heap beside my garbage can, hugging my knees and resting my forehead against my arms.

The crunch of gravel under Citizen Jim’s shoes was halting as he kept advancing, stopping, and backing up in a seemingly endless loop. I flopped over on my side, still laughing, while Citizen Jim sat down a few yards away from me and let me ride out my wave of mirth.

He asked, somewhat quietly but also somewhat angrily, “Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

“You need to take yourself to the hospital,” I said, “because you’re suffering delusions.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You honestly thought I didn’t know ViDalia has never read any other Citizen Jim story?” I asked.

“I was just throwing ideas out there,” he said. “She really, really hated that story you wrote, even more than I did.”

“Why did you hate it?” I asked, standing up and leaning against the lid of my trash can.

“For the same reason I hate all the Citizen Jim stories,” he said. “Too much Chicken Sheets. Way, waaaaay too much Chicken Sheets.”

“Chicken Sheets will keep that in mind the next time she writes a Citizen Jim story,” I said. “But don’t be surprised, since she’ll be writing the story, if there isn’t any Citizen Jim in it.”

Citizen Jim threw up his hands, pushing at the air beside his head. “This is nuts! Look at us! Bickering! Tearing each other apart like those Doublemint Twins who used to come through your checkout line at the grocery store,” he said.

It’d been years since I thought about the two sisters who shopped at Delchamps and whose alleged claim to fame was being the original Doublemint Twins in Wrigley chewing gum ads. They hated each other so passionately that sometimes one would leave the other behind and an assistant manager would have to drive the abandoned Doublemint Twin 10 or so miles to a home they shared in their retirement. [2]

“You’re right. We can’t let outside forces destroy our dynamic,” I said.

“We need to make a pact, then,” he said. “Right this very minute!”

I raised my left hand and placed my right hand over my heart. “I do hereby solemnly swear that I shall never ponder the validity of any idea solicited by a person who only wants to get in on our fun without truly comprehending or appreciating the artistic import of these stories.”

Citizen Jim leaped toward me and grabbed my raised hand, twirling me away from him and twisting my arm behind my back. “And I do hereby solemnly swear to enforce your promise on this day by any psychological, mental, verbal, physical and/or legal means necessary, so help me Jesus and his sweet, weepy mother. May God strike me dead if I fail.”

With this, he released my arm and spun me back around by my shoulders to face him.

“Okay,” I said, exhaling a deep breath I’d been holding in.

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” Citizen Jim said.

“I think I have,” I said. “Could you do me a favor, though?”

“I think I’ve done you more than enough favors already today,” he said.

“You’re right, Precious Lamb,” I said. “I also vow to be more considerate of you.”

“You need to be more considerate of me and my mother—I’m late going to get Mama from under her hair dryer so I can comb out and spray her curls before the big dance over at Homestead Ranch.”

“I guess I’ve gone all-in on pretending this COVID-19 thing isn’t happening, haven’t I?” I asked.

He shrugged. “By the time some bored, nosy child finds these stories lining the bottom of a locked trunk in the attic of some country house in Sussex fifty years from now, nobody’s going to remember or care about this pandemic. It won’t matter a bit,” he said and walked down the sidewalk toward the street.

[1]

Listen. If you’ve ever thought about reading Moby-Dick but couldn’t decide if it might be worth your time, don’t base your decision on “Jack Pendarvis’s Moby-Dick,” a mass of transcribed musings on the entire novel serialized on the Popula website. (And this from someone who’s read nearly every word Jack Pendarvis has ever published, a person who has definitely read every post on his blog, a reader who loves all the rest of Pendarvis’s oeuvre.) Because I struggled to read his take on Moby-Dick in such a weird format, I thought I was the most disloyal fan ever. I eventually reached a point at which I said, maybe out loud (since I live alone), “Not even I can stand this a moment longer.”

I still feel awful about it. But. Come on! Every “um,” “er,” and “ah,” as well as things like “wheezy laughter,” “throat clearing,” and “coffee gulping,” are included in the transcriptions. I don’t think I’m in the wrong here.

[2]

Doublemint Twins factoids: they weren’t actually twins, and they aren’t universally considered the “original Doublemint Twins” since they never appeared in television ads. But they did seem to hate one another with egg-frying heat, and argued constantly while shopping.