The following is an excerpt from All About Lulu (Soft Skull Press, 2008) by Jonathan Evison.
The World Is Made of Meat
First, I’m going to give you all the Copperfield crap, and I’m not going to apologize for any of it, not one paragraph, so if you’re not interested in how I came to see the future, or how I came to understand that the biggest truth in my life was a lie, or, for that matter, how I parlayed my distaste for hot dogs into an ’84 RX-7 and a new self-concept, do us both a favor, and just stop now.
My name is William Miller Jr., and my father is Big Bill Miller, the bodybuilder. Suffi ce it to say, I was never called Little Bill or even Little Big Bill. I was always called William, or Will. I bear my old man no grudge for this. Sometimes the fruit does fall far from the tree, and sometimes it rolls down the hill and into the brook, and sometimes it’s washed downstream, or gets caught in an eddy.
My younger brothers, Doug and Ross, are identical twins. Moreover, they stuck close to the tree. They are the image of Big Bill: the aquiline nose, the blue eyes, the turgid smile. And, like their father, they are bodybuilders—tireless self-improvers striving for physical perfection. Not me. If I look like anybody, I look like my mother.
In spite of my status as a ninety-eight-pound weakling and my total lack of athleticism, I’m nothing short of an expert on the subject of bodybuilding. I grew up in gyms, primarily the original Gold’s Gym in Venice and World Gym in Santa Monica, just minutes from the Muscle Beach of my father’s youth. I know the muscle groups, the training regimens, the language, the poses. I can even tell you who won the 1979 Mr. Olympia or the 1983 Mr. Universe, because I was there. I know a great set of abs when I see them (Frank Zane), or calves (Chris Dickerson), or traps, or pecs, or deltoids. I know the acrid odor of sweat-soaked rubber mats, the iron clang of clashing weights, the tingle of sweaty back skin ripped from vinyl, the heaving and grunting and chest pounding. And none of it holds any romance for me.
My earliest memories are of meat. Enormous lamb shanks mired in beds of hardened grease. Giant carbuncled sausages, reconstituted from the vaguest of mammalian origins, glowing garish orange in the light of the refrigerator. My infant brothers were consuming meat before their teeth broke. It was not uncommon to see them padding about the house in disposable diapers, dirty-faced and slack-jawed, gnawing on drumsticks or cold hot dogs the way other kids gnawed on binkys.
I became a vegetarian in 1974, at the age of seven. My father was outraged.
“How can you not eat meat? The whole world is made of meat! Birds, cows, dogs, cats, they’re all made of meat! Even fish are made of meat!”
“Well, then,” my mother said. “You’ll have no objection to cat for dinner.”
My mother had a way with Big Bill. It’s not that she outsmarted him—I could’ve done that—it’s the way she outsmarted him, the way she did everything, like she was dancing with life and let life lead, doing everything life did, only backwards and in heels. Nothing seemed to disrupt her balance or upset her equilibrium. She absorbed whatever came at her.
For weeks after my avowed vegetarianism, Big Bill insisted on heaping meat on my plate.
“It’s not meat, it’s sausage.”
He’d plop it on my mashed potatoes, park it on top of my Jell-O, but I never touched it. If I’d inherited one trait from Big Bill, it was his willfulness. And so I grew up on a steady diet of powdered mashed potatoes. Once Big Bill forgave me this eccentricity, he began to chide me about it, taunting me with pork chops, bonking me on the head with bratwurst at the dinner table.
“You are what you eat.”
“I see, Bill,” my mother said, with a wink for me. “You’d rather your son be a bratwurst?”
My father wasn’t a bad guy, he just had a low threshold for weakness. Once, in the driveway in front of the Pico house, Big Bill and I watched a swallow with an injured wing mince and fl utter in semicircles, flapping its good wing to no effect.
“What’s the matter with it?”
“Hard to say. Something with the wing, I guess.”
Watching the little thing labor stupidly with no possibility of success moved me for the fi rst time to a desperation separate and distinct from my own. Couldn’t it see it was condemned to futility? Couldn’t it resolve itself to the cold, hard fact that it had no future, that it was doomed, grounded, fi nished? The answer was apparently yes. Eventually, the bird gave up, spent and bewildered. Its little eyes went black as obsidians, as though the light no longer penetrated them.
“Cutting her losses, I guess. She’s beat.”
“How do you know it’s a she?”
She hardly moved at all after that. She just stood there dazed minute after minute like she was asleep standing, or she’d made up her mind never to move again. But I knew there was life beneath those shiny black eyes, because I could feel her little pulse beating inside me as if it were my own, and I could see her tiny breast beneath her keel feathers puff out convulsively now and again like she wanted to throw up. I’m telling you, I knew that bird’s helplessness.
“What can we do?”
Big Bill gave the bird a little nudge with the toe of his sneaker. It didn’t budge. “Not a whole lot.”
The last thing that bird saw, or maybe she didn’t see it coming at all, was the business end of Big Bill’s shovel. There wasn’t much blood. There wasn’t much of anything. She was just flatter, and kind of twisted, and there was definitely no life left behind those black eyes. Big Bill scraped up the remains and tossed them to the curb. Life seemed at once fragile and inconsequential when you pulverized it with a shovel.
But cancer doesn’t hit like a shovel. And while Big Bill continued to build his carcass up to world-class proportions, cancer began carving up my mother. It arrived in a terrible flash one rainy afternoon. She came home from the doctor’s office and stood by the window deep into the night. Big Bill burnt frozen fried chicken for dinner.
In the night I padded down the stairs to the living room, where she was still at her post by the window. Tentatively, I approached her in the terrible silence, and she pulled me fast against her. I clutched her about the waist, and she ran her fingers through my hair as she gazed through the window into the night.
A month later she took to wearing a blue knit stocking cap.
For almost two years she fought without ever remitting. Cancer wasn’t content to take her all at once; it wanted her in pieces. It took her left breast, then her right. It turned her skin to parchment. She grew so frail and reedy that I was afraid to squeeze her. And yet, if it were possible to die gracefully of cancer, my mother achieved that. It could cut her to ribbons and take her hair, but it couldn’t make her ugly.
Her final months were an exercise in endurance. She spent untold hours in the fog with Barney Miller and Fred Sanford. The sandman was never more than a slow drip away. But I remember her voice in those lucid moments when the fog burned off, and how it didn’t seem to come out of her body, but out of the past. And I remember a certain pride in being spoken to like an adult.
“Do you remember when you were just a baby, William?”
She smiled. “I suppose not. But somehow I thought you might, somehow you were different. Like you already knew something, William, like you brought something into this world with you. Do you ever feel that?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know what it means.”
“You never acted much like a baby. Not like Ross and Doug.”
In my seven-and-three-quarter-year-old mind, there was something inherently ignoble about the condition of infancy, thus I took my mother’s observation as high praise. I see it differently, now.
“You were a very serious baby. You hardly fussed. Sometimes I’d wake in the middle of the night to check on you, and I’d find you lying awake in your crib, quite content, staring up at the colored fish.”
How well I remember the colored fi sh, and the promise of a material world moving slowly counterclockwise with no surprises.
“You were not a needy baby, William. Although I’m afraid I was a needy mother. Because I couldn’t let you lie there on your back being content, I just couldn’t. I had to pick you up and hold you, every time. You were so holdable, William. And you never fussed, bless you.”
My jaw aches when I think what that must have felt like, to be coddled like something precious, to be absorbed fi nally and completely by another’s affection. But for whatever reason, that feeling is not built to travel.
“Why do we forget?” I asked her.
“I don’t think we ever forget, darling. I think we just have a hard time remembering.”
Not me. I remember it all. Every detail has been preserved with cruel fidelity. So if there’s anything I like less than gyms, anything I find more abhorrent than paining and gaining, it’s hospitals, and those big colored Legos in the waiting room, and the pop-up books, and the fish tanks, and the cafeteria food, and the clipboards and the smocks and the chemical smell that hangs in the dead air. These things I carry with me always.
From All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison. Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan Evison. Published by Soft Skull Press.