Alkaline, Come Home

Ben Miller

When I was born the young doctor had to cry before I would.

Why isn't she breathing?

Why isn't she breathing?

Would somebody tell me why she isn't breathing?

When I was two I would not go into the living room unless I was following somebody.

By the time I was five the habit extended to all the rooms in the house, as well as the car. I would not be the first one to get in the Chevette.

The first instinct being to neutralize my personality.

To make no choices.

To fill the world with empty space.

Disturbed by these tendencies, mother took me back to the young doctor. Who quickly referred the case to a shrink who diagnosed Radical Conventionalism. Rare, but I was not the first. He had seen boys so conventional that they were indistinguishable from their dungarees. One had drowned after being thrown into the washing machine. The shrink cautioned my mother to go through the dirty clothes very carefully and to swing a pole over the driveway before backing out. For he also knew of three radically conventional children who had been run over because of their resemblence to the neighborhood they lived in. All that Daddy saw in the rearview mirror was a mailbox.

Treatment was a series of mental and physical exercises designed to "bloom the individual." Touch toes with elbows three times a day. Paint a black flower on the medicinal easel. Make a pair of butterfly wings out of stone and newspaper. The Don't Repeat After Me game.

Floor, said Mother.

Floor, I said.

Door, said Mother.

Door, I said.

Flea, said Mother.

Flea, I said.

Please, honey, try and say something different. Your father and I are very worried. It doesn't matter what it is. Just don't repeat after me.

Chair, said Mother.

Chair, I said.

Dog, said Mother.

Dog, I said.

My father, actually, was more than worried. He had stopped drinking beer and now rarely cleaned his plate at the dinner table. Ten, twenty, thirty pounds melted off that large frame. Chicory replaced coffee as the morning drink of choice. He subscribed to Confused -- the magazine for those who don't know what the hell is going on. The cover was white with no words. When I followed my mother into the room, he'd stop reading and call me Mirror.

Mirror, mirror, oh so small.

Why do you persist in torturing us all?

When I entered kindergarten in the shadow of a boy named George Stevenson, it was Copycat and Re-Re and Double Head and Monkey See.

My eyes were reflective tiles, my lips, caulking. I could resemble anyone else in the room and was often punched for it. All the teachers looked the other way except one. Her name was Mrs. Graap. She'd stare at me looking like her until she couldn't take it anymore and then she'd yell Freeze!! and leave the room.

When the assistant principal came in and yelled Unfreeze!! I'd pucker into a version of him and he'd laugh like something inside his Arrow shirt was tickling him.

My feet were always cool.

My grades were exactly that of my neighbor.

Those sitting around me felt exposed, vulnerable, out of place, like they were actually the full-fledged individuals their parents wanted them to be. Nobody went out for recess because I was sure to be there. Between classes the halls were full of stutterstepping kids looking right and left over their shoulder. Psoriasasis proliferated, heartburn, constipation, lip licking, finger smelling, special diets. The lunch room ladies quit serving hot food because nobody was eating it. They just sat in a corner and smoked the hours away as my classmates slurped mashed carrots out of pink Tupperware containers and sipped spoonfuls of non-acidic apple juice.

Just be your own person for one minute, begged my mother. Think for yourself for one second!! In the end that's who you're going to have to be!! So you better start getting ready now!! You can't go on like this forever!!

I knew better, however.

At the age of ten, I abandoned my bed in favor of the warm mahogany top of the television console.

The antenna, a pillow.

The commercials, lullabies.

Hush little darling, don't you cry,

there's nothing in the world that money can't buy...

Father took up calligraphy as a last resort.

Mother provided haiku from her hammock.

I had driven a wedge between them but the poetry on parchment gave them back their marriage, supplying troubling but invaluable specifics about the past. The cupboards were emptied and then restocked with generics. White box, white box, white box, white box. Much was ordered through the mail, even toilet paper. It came once a month from Maine. What could not be ordered through the mail they had delivered from a local store. The car was used only for park outings. Mother planted a massive vegetable garden. Father canceled his subscription to Confused and, by sitting in a lotus position, accepted the truth.

The truth being:

That I was a child of my mother and Northlawn Mall.

That she had gone there at the wrong time of the month and opened her legs a bit too wide.

That her egg had been fertilized by the wriggling dollar sign of capitalism.

That I was air conditioned.

Shrink wrapped.

Battery powered.

The boy across the street called me by his name.

The man across the street called me Halloween Part 15.

I called myself Alkaline because I liked the sound of it and because it was true -- I did turn people blue, starting with the doctor who delivered me.

Alkaline Northlawn.

A base, a neutralizer, detrimental to the growing of crops and quite capable of running a blow dryer.

Flesh and electricity.

My only friend, a large girl named Madge, understood.

She was transferred the day after she became my friend by passing me a note that read: Alkaline, I think you're right. I don't see the use in it either.

Her parents didn't think I was a good influence.

My parents didn't argue.

I cried that night for the first time in my life.

The tears were silver and tasted of metal.

Were the other kids so much better than me? Had definition brought them such great satisfaction? If so, why did they punch the face that was their own when they found it staring back at them? Cringe when they heard their own voice coming around the corner?

I climbed off the television and went outside and sat down on the front porch steps.

It was too late for cars. All the cars were parked in the driveways and all the houses were still and quiet. Garbage day was tomorrow and the cans were out. In a few weeks it would be Memorial Day and people would be laughing. I waited and watched. No house was taller than two stories. In the darkness they all looked like they were painted the same color. The trees justlike the houses except a different shape. The sky just like the earth except a different color, purple as jam...

When the noise came it was soft and steady, an insistent deep sea echo from the north end of the city. WOOOOOOOOOO-OOOOH. WOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOH. WOOOOOOO-OOOOOH. I walked to the edge of the yard and the volume increased as if in response to my movement. It grew louder still when I stepped onto the sidewalk. I wondered if I'd heard it before. I couldn't be sure either way. The concrete was the temperature of my feet. My heart whirred as I took one step and then another. For that's what it had to be and that's what it was -- the mall beckoning as any other parent would call out to a daughter who was not where she belonged.

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