Bringing up Elden (a new moon Sims-novella)
At Number 76, Sim Lane, funnily, not too far from the palatial mansion of the filthy rich Goths Senior, founders of the neighbourhood, lives a very "modest" family, to say the least.
"Modest" seems hardly the word. Semi-rural, semi-feral, semi-degenerate Hicks, straight from Red Neck County, Hicksville, if you must know. The Goths shun this part of the neighbourhood, uncomfortably in cheek-by-jowl proximity, even when they take their evening perambulations and constitutionals down by the picturesque Gothic quarter of the Old Town, otherwise celebrated for its cool haunts full of pool halls and New-Orleans-type jazz groups. The magnolia grows very lush indeed around this part of town, and the cemeteries only serve to give it local character, and an atmosphere or ambience all its own.
Picture, if you will, Mama Hick, in a faded print housecoat and down-at-heel slippers, her son Elden in greasy overalls, his greasy black hair tied back in a lank ponytail in an attempt to look "cool". Mama cannot but think of him as an unemployed layabout, and seeming ne'er-do-well wastrel, while she at least has her extremely low-paid job as dishwasher, so that at least she can call herself with some pride one of the working poor. Still, she feels proud of him, as her only son, and wonders when her seed will emerge in him, instead of his layabout "bad seed" father's, which has flourished throughout his youth.
Still, the feeling between her and Cornelia Goth Senior (pictured above), despite her efforts at neighbourly hospitality, seems totally mutual; she in her turn thinks of Cornelia as a snooty, stuck-up old bitch. The flies buzz around the screen door, temporarily disturbed from their torpor, as Cornelia slams her way out, pursing her prim lips to an even more severe and disapproving line.
Picture, if you will, the backyard of their cramped clapboard bungalow, littered with a rusting old stove Elden discarded as unworkable one day, overrun by three semi-feral dogs (Bobo, Duke and Leroy, what else? named after the local constabulary), and a couple of cheap, kitschy, fluorescent pink plaster flamingoes in a vain attempt to glam the place up. The dogs run gleeful riot, only getting wilder and wilder, and less domesticated by the day, turning the place into the sort of dump into which you would not invite Cornelia Goth, even if you wanted to. The paperboys and -girls on their routes run shrieking in fear even before they see them, as Duke at least, a German Shepherd puppy, and Leroy, the rottie cross, look a lot fiercer than they seem, when you get to know them; only the scruffy mongrel Bobo does not look at all intimidating.
Elden has become a pinball wizard, by the way, with nothing better to do in his infinity of spare moments, than clock up hi-scores; unbeknownst to many, even to Mama, he also harbours a fondness for classical music, and despises the hillbilly rock and bluegrass, which seem all the local radio stations want you to hear...
Then one day, Mama hears the words of Dr Phil, "This could be a changin' day in your life", ringing through her consciousness like a mantra, or clarion call.
She decides to look for, and get, another job, and goes out to bring in the paper the shrieking paperboy or -girl has left, when he or she ran off, shrieking in fear, from the dogs.
And miracles sometimes do happen!
She does get another job, as test-subject, i.e. human guinea-pig, in the local research foundation. Their pay at least beats washing dishes, and she has her foot at least on the bottom rung of the ladder of science.
She changes out of her faded old housecoat, into a bright, checked, western-style shirt knotted under her still shapely breasts, and hip-hugging jeans, applies some pink lippy and runs her fingers through her coarse, bottle-blonde hair. Not quite Cher, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer or Susan Sarandon, but there still linger some faded traces of the former beauty pageant queen...
She has the kitchen completely made over, re-installing the old but still usable cooker, gleaming, to its rightful place, buying another chair to make a cosy dining setting for two (where had that other matching chair disappeared to, exactly?), and ripping out the mismatched wallpaper and clapboard interior, and replacing it with neat cream brick veneer (surprisingly affordable, clean and smart!), which sets off the rather beautiful tiles running through the kitchen and hallway, now clean of dog litter. She feels like a little girl again, playing with her first dolls' house, and tea-set! She also hires a maid service, to take care of the place while she goes out to work: a rather simple, but pleasant-faced Irish girl named Brigit becomes their daily char, almost as much a fixture, as the furniture, in fact. She buys a dog-kennel (she can still only afford one), and a couple of sheepskin-lined pet beds, and replaces Elden's pinball machine, that monstrous waste of space, time and money, with a beautiful marble outdoor chess set, complete with timer, and two patio deck chairs, for which she scrimped and saved out of her pin-money.
She sits down to play, and sharpen her wits and logic skills, to enter the magic world of science from the ground up... and a new world opens before her. She never had got around to getting much schoolin', but if those fancy grad. psych. students want to study her as a human guinea-pig, she intends to make it worth their while, and maybe she can also pick up something along the way, by osmosis, you might say. Her old man had always said she had a pretty sharp brain; pity it had got buried under all those X-chromosomes. Oh, well, maybe the old brain hadn't quite rusted up, like Elden's battered old turquoise rustbucket of a Chevvy, yet.
She notices, out of the corner of her eye, Elden hurrying past her down the hallway to strip himself out of those greasy old overalls, and change into some duds more suited to a fledgling support technician: a freshly-pressed, short-sleeved, white shirt, a tie (even with a tiepin, which his old man must have left behind when he cleared out!) and some neat dark grey pants with a crease with which you could slice bread. Hmm, he has not wasted all those hours spent in evening classes after all, she muses. He scrubs up OK, she thinks.
Mama can hardly believe her new kitchen, with the shiny steel surface of its new trash compactor (no more unsightly and malodorous messes, attracting squadrons of flies!), just right for chopping up ingredients on her chopping board, by way of preparation for dinner.
She feels like a brand-new woman, let alone a brand-new mama.
The dogs still love her, unreservedly and unconditionally (they can still smell the old Mama under all the shiny newness), but Elden sometimes looks at her with a faraway look of suspicion in his eyes, not quite trusting who or what she has become.
The crickets squeak.
Gosh, suddenly it seems awfully lonely and quiet tonight, as she sits down to her own lovely home-cooking, without Elden now for the first time in lawks knows how many years, now that he works his butt off as a support techie, looking every inch the geek.
He has even started keeping pens in his breast pocket, though, luckily, none of them has leaked yet.
The little nest feels awfully empty, if clean and quiet at last.
Newly promoted to cleaning out rat cages as lab assistant, on graveyard shift, she herself has now changed to clinically white scrubs. The whiteness of sterility becomes her, with approaching menopause.
Still frowsy in pyjamas, and groggy from his graveyard shift, with daylight yawning blearily outside the windows, Elden feels understandably nervous about using what he had written off as a crappy old cooker, knowing it to represent a death-trap just waiting to happen to him personally, as he knows from previous unfortunate incendiary experiences.
It seems to have his name inscribed personally all over its malevolent hotplates.
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, the cooker finally erupts in flames.
"Oh, no, not again!" - the last lucid thought he can remember thinking, not unlike the mysterious bowl of petunias manifested by the Infinite Improbability Drive in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, before its own sudden demise.
Luckily, he had had the forethought to install a smoke alarm.
While extinguishing the flames, the fireman dryly remarks, "We strongly recommend you get a new cooker, mate." (Sub-text: "We have gotten bloody sick and tired of traipsing out here to the bloody boondocks all the time.")
Elden looks and feels a whole lot better, reeking of after shave, slipping out of the geeky white shirt now stained under the armpits, and into a short-sleeved safari jacket more suited to his next leg-up the corporate IT ladder, to "webmaster".
Funny, he still does not feel like Spiderman yet, and, besides, he lacks the silly spandex comicbook-superhero tights.
Competent at work, totally incompetent at home, Elden feels he now leads a double life.
Maybe because he had always felt the kitchen belonged properly to Mama, he always felt bumbling, incompetent and out of place there. Because, at least in that sphere, her effortless superiority constantly put him to shame.
When the fireman came to pay another, by now almost routine visit, he could only mutter, dazedly, confusedly, and mostly embarrassedly, "But I did get a new cooker, like you guys said!" And 'cooking with gas' did not present the easy, proverbial option...
Dawning flash of illumination on Mama's part, as she wisely leaves out a plate of home-made grits and chitlins for Elden, knowing that the "fire hazard" arises not so much from the succession of cookers, as Elden's own lack of culinary expertise.
Dawning flash of illumination on Elden's part, as he scarfs down Mama's home-made treat, not unlike the dogs wolfing down their chow, since he now knows that somehow, as part of his on-the-job life-training, you might call it, he must learn to cook... some time!
Only, when can he possibly find the time, when he hardly has time to take a quick slash?
Still unwilling to trust himself to the still malevolently lurking cooker, Elden thinks he has solved the hunger problem on a short-term basis by dialling out for pizza. At 40 Simolions a pop, it seems cheap at the price!
He sits down patiently with a good book to await the arrival of the pizza dude.
o O, maybe the pizza dude got lost.
Maybe the pizza dude could not find his way out here to the boondocks.
In any case, no tip for the pizza dude. The pizza would have become well and truly stone-cold by now, and it looks like the hunger problem still comes down to Mama, anyway.
The crickets squeak, as Elden waits with patient resignation, and growing, gnawing impatience, for Mama to come feed him.
After a good feed, Elden finally sits down to bone up on some much-needed cooking skills, and, feeling like a master chef short only of the tall, funny-looking, white hat, he eyes the cooker for the first time with something like confidence, delicacy, gentleness and respect.
Elden thinks, "Mama forgot my birthday, or maybe we just couldn't afford one before, what with all the home improvements, but dammit all! I think I will belatedly surprise myself with a party now, hehe!"
The yuppie Tiffany Burb approaches, bearing a floral arrangement Elden doesn't quite know what to do with, and the usual "rent-a-crowd" of familiar and unfamiliar faces starts filing in, including that dreadful Marcel-Marceau lookalike who has to crash every party, under the delusion of providing people with entertainment!
Horror of horrors, everyone at the big boy's birthday party gets a piece of the cake, and some even a piece of the action, but Elden himself, still battling his way through the wall-to-wall "rent-a-crowd" lining the hallway, and clogging the kitchen; maybe Mama actually cut the cake, having got there before him, and she just home from work, in her white labcoat, wearing a silly party hat like everyone else, but him... It could almost pass for a bizarre fancy-dress costume of the nutty professor, or mad scientist archetype, or stereotype!
Stuff it all, Elden, in his party gear, but minus silly party hat, stumps off to bed, abandoning his own party, feeling much like the tragic Eeyore on his birthday, in the saddest, boggiest slough of despond in the Hundred-Acre Wood...
Anyone would think it Mama's birthday, not Elden's, the way she carries on!
Elden leaves the still-continuing party in the early hours of the morning to go to work as competent "webmaster" as usual, thinking, "This must amount to about the suckiest birthday ever, and I don't even have a hangover to show for it!"
In the pitch darkness, Elden returns home, thinking, "Let the good times roll... and I will probably miss them, as usual... That's what comes of postponing a Sagittarian birthday to a dour Capricorn new moon?" Talk about anti-climactic!
Surveying the litter of debris from burst party balloons and crumpled silly hats, not to mention a flood of water from the leaking new dishwasher, Elden would still like to test his fledgling cooking skills on at least some sort of normal, home-cooked breakfast, wondering, "Are we having fun yet?"
Mama still has no faith in Elden's new skills, and cooks up her own batch of chitlins and grits,
making Elden feel subtly undermined by her superior, silent efficiency. Suicidal ideation steals up on him like great red bars of internalised anger streaking his inner eye... Now, if his old man had just left his old shotgun lying around, I might just pull the trigger, one bullet for Mama, and one for myself, he muses. And if only those damned dogs would stop getting underfoot whenever I want in and out of the bathrooms, which barely have room for one human, let alone assorted dependent livestock; maybe a bullet through each of their brains would constitute an acceptably humane form of euthanasia?
"Hey, I did it!" Elden congratulates himself, leaving the heavy, steaming pot off the cooker. "Pity Mama isn't here to see it! I know she thinks me a useless bumbling bum, still..."
There still remains the problem of the undisposed-of, and non-bio-degradable, litter of party balloons, however. (Leave that to Brigit, and the omniscient narrator!)
Elden privately congratulates himself on successfully navigating the pitfalls of dinner as well: another culinary milestone passed!
Mama returns home to see a relatively clean and unscathed kitchen, and thinks, "About bloody time my bloody son does make it bloody good, even for a bloody HACKER!!!"
But still, Elden feels gnawed and tormented by inner anxiety. Can't you just see the stubble growing back on his chin with worry, even on his day off, and despite the smart new green velvet suit, with open-necked yellow shirt, he now affects, as a hacker? In fact, you can already smell the sweat staining the armpits of said green velvet suit, although Claire Charming, the paramedic who lives just down the road with her cute, if boisterous, cocker spaniel pup Luna, once mistook that sweaty armpit smell for manly pheromones, when she had a passing crush on him... He wonders if he will ever score a chick, other than Mama, of course.
Elden remembers his long-buried fondness classical music, and invests in a groovy-looking, retro-jukebox to play all his vintage vinyl records again. How did he manage to survive at all, without Mozart filling the air-waves?
Mama challenges him to a quiet game of chess, confident of her own logic skills as a graduate field researcher, and also the charismatic presentation skills she has picked up from endless hours practising in front of the gleaming retro-mirror she has hung on the clean, brick-veneered kitchen wall.
"Sit down, Sonny Jim, and take some lessons from your old maw!"
Elden feels the sweat and adrenalin begin to prickle through his green velvet suit, despite her quietly confident, and not at all arrogant, demeanour.
Mind you, the cool Aquarian graduate scientist and fledgling Sagittarian IT hacker seem to grow in mutual respect, during the course of this crucial, if primitive, war-strategy game, as they pit their wits against each other, so I can't find it all bad, can you?
Against the odds, or maybe with the Infinite Improbability Drive working for him for once, Elden checkmates Mama, although her ego does not seem sufficiently insecure to crumble, having built up a secure armoury of self-love ("the greatest love of all", to coin a cliche?) in front of that magic, gleaming mirror of self-love, perhaps the most magical of all her kitchen appliances, which may one day take her out of field research, and into the classroom, or lecture theatre...
As it says in the Zen scriptures, "The mind is clear and calm like a mirror"... or something like that.
Elden, on the other hand, feels all excited, and disproportionately elated, by this temporary victory, or maybe the classical music really has fired up his neurons?
Somehow, I, as omniscient narrator, and godlike puppeteer pulling the strings, now expanding, now contracting time, with more or less godlike efficiency, and Mama, as she sinks into her new reproduction-antique single bed (to replace the space-wasting old double bed), and the boundaries dissolve between omniscient narrator, Mama and Elden in this intervening hypnagogic moment of Zen satori and transcendental calm, feel sorry for Elden, because he can never quite achieve the level Mama does, with ease and gracefulness... and god/dess, or the Bose-Einstein condensate, only knows, he does try, rushing at everything like a mad bull at a gate; he just tries too hard! Has he in fact inherited some "bad seed" from Papa, counteracting Mama's good genes? In any case, I, as omniscient narrator, vow to learn from Mama's example, as role model, Zen guru and spirit guide, unlikely as that might have seemed at the outset of this journey, and, funnily enough, so does Elden, in his incoherent, inchoate, bumbling way!
Even in her temporary setback of checkmate, Mama feels strangely victorious and undefeated.
The "inner smile" blooms spontaneously on both our faces...
Picture 37 (below):
We can all learn a lot from Mama's almost dreamily "nonchalant", yet focussed, Zen-like grace, and Aquarian "sang froid" (both French words undoubtedly picked up in the French-Creole-speaking old Gothic quarter of our deep southern Old Town!).
Both French words just mean "cool", in English, really.
Elden begins to practise in this "school of cool", challenging as that might seem for a hot-blooded, sweaty, impetuous Sagittarian, even performing such mundane tasks as scolding the dogs for piddling on the tiled floor, thereby improving their house-breaking skills, with no malice or anger at all, and even some of the aplomb, "sang froid" Mama shares with this Saturnian Capricorn new moon, straddling the tensions and dynamics between Sagittarius and Aquarius, to build something new?
"Awareness is a mirror,
reflecting the four elements;
beauty is a heart that generates love,
and a mind that is open."
(Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk.)
Mama's house now looks clean enough for health, and just dirty enough for happiness!