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|On a Book Entitled Lo's Diary||vii|
A man in Kansas City is afraid that since the earth is hollow, the Bikini atomic bomb will make a hole in it, the ocean will get sucked in, and the world will stop turning and get lost in space. Another man says it will use up our oxygen supply and we'll have to breathe carbon dioxide. Mary Jo's father thinks that with the atomic bomb the next war will last only a couple of hours, and there won't be any more of those disastrous slaughters they get into in Europe. But it would be better to wait until next year because, according to a spiritualist hairdresser in San Francisco, if they explode the bomb now the Pacific will turn yellow, thousands and thousands of dead fish will float to the top, and it will stink to high heaven. Next year they can go ahead without worrying, nothing bad will happen. I've never seen the Pacific, and I wouldn't like it to turn the color of pee. Pee is pee, might as well stay here in Goatscreek looking down the toilet.
Just as I thought: Mom keeps rummaging through my drawers. Today she told me I worry too much about the bomb's effect on fish. What bomb? I ask. She looks at me like she's going to hit me, then acts like it's nothing.
"I told you to read that article about the experiments in the Marshalls."
"You know, you really ought to read the newspaper. All you read are those dumb comic books. You're not a child anymore."
"But it's vacation."
"The world goes forward even when you're on vacation." Said in the icy voice she uses when she doesn't want me to know she's angry. But she is angry, and how. She doesn't like it when I lie, but she likes it even less when I catch her lying. If she bugs me for lying, I can accuse her of sticking her nose in my diary, and then who'll look worse, her or me.
An example of what an idiot my mother is. Last year, when my dad died, she told me not to be upset: I can write to him anyway, and he'll read my letters and answer them. Then she gave me a black notebook for this correspondence. Revolting, I thought. Other girls have a live dad, but I'm supposed to be happy with eighty sheets of purple-edged paper. A paper dad. They have a dad-dad and a diary-diary, while I have to settle for a notebook that's neither, a single thing to serve as both, like a camping knife with a can opener and a corkscrew.
Anyway, I wrote something more or less like this: Dear Daddy, today I was at the cemetery and I read on your tombstone: Gerald E. Maze, Goatscreek, 6/24/1893-Whiskey, 6/24/1945. It was like a stranger's grave. So you must be Mr. Gerald E. Maze. I hadn't ever thought about it. But they shouldn't forget that you're also my dad. Mom says you moved to heaven. I asked her if we could visit you. She told me that heaven is too far, and scientists are still working out a system for how to get there. I suppose that if they don't hurry up I'll join you by the old system. The conventional one. But there's one thing I don't understand: if heaven is so far away, how come you can see my letters? I'm asking because it doesn't make sense for me to keep writing if you don't read them. Try to answer me on this same page.
The next night I found this stuff here, in a bad imitation of my dad's handwriting: "Dear Dolly, of course I can read you. The eyes of the spirit know no bounds. From where I am, and where one day we will all be together again, you and little Nelson and Mom and I, I can see everything you do very clearly, so I hope you will never cause trouble and always do what your mother tells you." What my mother tells me! I'm not that stupid! I remember what my dad was like, and he would never have written anything like that. He never never ever told me to do what someone else says, especially Mom. Disgusting. Nauseating. So I answered him: "Dear Daddy, since I have to do what Mom says, there's really no point in writing to you. Here's a hug, have fun in the kingdom of heaven, and wait for us. Sooner or later, we'll get there, too." I stopped writing to him, and Mom couldn't say anything. She's an idiot: she shouldn't have tried to trick me.
Then we moved, and Mom burned all the old stuff, even my toys--even my teddy bear. So I opened the jar that has her appendix preserved in formaldehyde, which she's kept since she was little, and I threw it in the fire. Mom ran up behind me and shouted how dare I, and if I don't stop behaving like that (like what?) she'll send me to reform school, like the Lucknows' daughter. Pig. She should be glad that thanks to me she won't catch appendicitis in heaven.
So that's the story of the fake correspondence with my dad. Which is repeated in the diary I bought for myself, with my own money, and is supposed to be from the me of now to the me of later. There's a reason to have a clasp that locks. That way it's clear that it's private. But not to nosy Mom, who immediately has another try at it. What a rat: she wants to know what I'm doing without having to ask me directly. She doesn't want to lower herself, not her. But I fool her just the same. Bobby, Mary Jo's brother, built me a hiding place: he shortened the drawer in my desk, and in the empty space he made a cubbyhole where I can keep my private things. Bobby is a genius carpenter. Mom would never be able to invent something like that.
If a diary has a purpose, which is to record what happened, it's absurd to start, for no particular reason, from this summer, from the day when Robert L. Hilton--Bobby to his friends--made me a hiding place. It's not the day I was born. There are all the days before this one, all the years, the time when there was my dad and the time when there was my brother. Nothing is left of those days, and you, Dolores Maze of the future, maybe you've completely forgotten them, and not even I, Dolores Maze of today, August 8, 1946, can remember what happened every day of my life. I don't want it to seem like nothing ever happened. Before I go to Scout camp (which I hope isn't gross like that repulsive Stinkhorn's, where they had the nerve to send me when I was nine), I want to write down at least the important parts of my life. I wish I could remember the moment when I was born, but there's no way. I remember the death of my little brother Nelson very clearly, but I'll write about that some other time, because it's complicated. Until last year we lived in Whiskey, Mom's home town, in Ohio. There are plenty of photographs of that house, so I don't have to describe it. After my father died we came here to Goatscreek, to my grandmother's house. She wanted to live with a friend in Pomona Beach, Florida. Grandma's house is big. There was a horse, too, which she kept at the club, but now it's in Pomona. Mom doesn't do anything athletic. She plays cards, reads, and does good works with the other ladies at church, which doesn't seem much of a way to spend your time, if you ask me. She took tennis lessons with me at first, but then she gave up and now I go by myself, with Martha and Daisy, because they live nearby and it's convenient. Grandma said Mom wouldn't grow old gracefully because she doesn't get any exercise. Grandma is always in motion, but when you get close to her she smells like saccharin, which makes you think of anything but the outdoors. I haven't seen her in a long time. Anyway, she stayed with her friend for a while, but one day they realized she was staring blankly at the marmalade jar, and they had to take her to a home for senile old people.
More news on the experiments. The problem with the fish is that the atomic bomb might alter their DNA so much that their children won't know what they're supposed to look like. The bomb was dropped on a fleet of ninety-two ships and on everything, dead or alive, in the water, which out there in the Bikinis is full of mollusks and crustaceans. There were lots of animals on the ships, including a very intelligent sow. Afterward they washed the radioactivity off her. That sow is amazing: when the ship sank she immediately learned how to swim, and they finally pulled her out before she drowned. Talk about the survival instinct. I told Celeste about DNA and how the bomb can change it. This scared her. It's terrible, she said, giant sharks could be born, or leviathans like the ones in the Bible, or huge monsters, like the ones from the time when we were apes. I don't get it. With new DNA we might become more beautiful, with longer legs and skin that's tan even in winter; we might always be young, or maybe even no one would die. No one ever said that change is always for the worse. Still, Mom doesn't want me to eat radioactive tuna--she must be afraid I'll become a hundred thousand times prettier and taller than she is.
My dad died last year, right on his birthday. It was a Sunday morning and he was sitting in his armchair, and on the radio they were saying to be careful not to drink liquids that are too cold, because they can cause stomach cramps. They were saying that now that the war is almost over air conditioners won't cost very much, and everyone will be able to buy one. Dad was happy because he thought that with the air conditioner he had secretly invented we would become millionaires, but right at that moment-- boom! --he went. Boom! and Mom decided to move. She decided to move and then all of a sudden she was staring at me, with her evening glass of Dewar's White Label in her hand, looking like she couldn't understand what I was doing there with her. Maybe she was wondering whether or not to include me with the luggage.
I'm leaving for Scout camp soon. Last year Mom forgot about it. After Daddy died she even stopped sunbathing in the back yard. She forgot everything. She got in bed in the afternoon and never got out. In desperation I began to collect spiders. Here's how you capture them: you put a glass over the spider, then stick a postcard under it. After a while the spider dies, and you keep it in a box. Matchboxes are best. Now I have fifty of them, hidden in a place where Mom will never find them. The only problem is that when they're dead the spiders get stiff. Daddy used to do something to make them stretch their legs and grow long again, but I can't remember what.
I was at Mary Jo's and we ate canned tuna fish with potatoes: when I told her that according to my mother radioactive tuna could change our DNA she got scared and went to the bathroom to throw up. She wanted me to stick a finger in my mouth, too, so nothing would be left inside me.
"If you don't, you'll have monster children."
"What kind of monsters?"
"Children ..." but she didn't know how to continue. She's so scared her DNA is already changed that she doesn't even dare to think what her children might look like.
Mom's got it in her head that when I grow up I'm going to be a nuclear physicist and invent big bombs like the ones in Hiroshima. She gave me a book, Atomic Energy in Human and Cosmic Life, and I leafed through it. It tells about this energy that's been around for millenniums and how it's going to be liberated and never imprisoned again, and for this very reason ought to be used for some grand purpose, like exploring the universe, and not wasted on some boring thing. This energy is in a totally weird state called metastability, and to understand it you have to imagine water enclosed in a large crater at the top of a mountain. If you make a gash in the crater the water pours out and produces a ton of power, like the power for electric light. That's because it's high up. As long as the water's closed up in the crater it can't do anything, but as soon as the crater's breached this water pours out with all the hidden force of water confined above sea level, that is, far from where it usually is. Coming down, it releases all the energy that was blocked on top of the mountain: it's like the genie in The Thousand and One Nights --he's shut up in a bottle, but just open it a crack and no one can stop him. So you have to pay attention, because afterward it's too late to be sorry--you have to think carefully beforehand what you want to ask the genie when he comes out, because afterward no one can shut him back up in the bottle. It's the same with the energy in atoms: every time you split one it's an opportunity lost forever.
Mom likes the mushroom cloud so much that she put the picture up on the kitchen door. I don't want to do something that's already been done. I want to invent stuff that's completely new. I'd like to study smells. Last year I studied Mom's smell, which was the only thing to do besides collecting spiders, sunbathing, and reading a little. One time Mom managed to stay in bed for days without getting bored, just staring at the fan blades. So I got in the big bed and put my nose against the yellow calluses of her feet. She didn't notice. I breathed very softly. I liked that odorless odor, sort of like butter, but stronger, like butter with a rind, maybe even slightly rancid butter. Her feet are whitish because she never goes out in the sun and never does any sports. She also has flat, translucent but darker yellow calluses on her heels. A color like the color of rubber. Feet of butter and rubber. I couldn't touch her, but I sniffed her, and as I sniffed I realized that her smell changes depending on how I sniff. It's always essentially the same, but it moves, becomes more concentrated or more diffuse. If you sniff hard, the smell is overpowering, and if you sniff lightly you can hardly smell anything, as if there's nothing there, only scentless dead air.
I'm leaving next week. For a Scout camp in the Berkshires recommended by Maud's mother. Mary Jo is going to Illinois, to a camp her mother saw in Vogue . I wanted to go there, too, but Mom says I have to stop being so attached to Mary Jo--I have to spend time with my other friends, widen my social circle. At least she's not sticking me in another Holy Cow, where the cabins were practically rotting and the "social activities" were confined to Bible readings by that awful Stinkhorn, and there were no sports, no swimming, no canoeing, only walking in the woods. Constantly. I got such indigestion from the woods that by the end I hated them. Worst of all were the orphans with their pimply faces and greasy hair. The head girl in our cabin was always smearing her face with Acnomel, and every so often she'd kneel down and say her prayers. She claimed that the cream worked better combined with prayers. Meanwhile pimples were breaking out right before your eyes. Still, she never lost her faith; she was so dumb she couldn't even do two times two. She came with a group from an orphanage in Wellesley, and she was convinced that no one would adopt her because of her pus-yellow face. It was awful, the way her voice drawled. I stuck my fingers in my ears so I didn't have to hear her, which was really a pain when I was reading and had to turn the page. And she stank: she made the whole cabin stink of rotten wood, rotten pus, rotten prayer. On Sundays we had to put on white shorts and go to the chapel in the woods, which was a tent. The holy tent. On the last day they made us exchange addresses and give each other a hug goodbye. Stinkhorn even made me embrace the pimply girl, and for at least two months afterward I was afraid that I would break out in those same revolting pimples. If I had a pimply face like hers I think I would kill myself out of shame.
Dear diary, I'm sorry if I left you at home. Camp really wasn't bad, because there were lakes and hills where you could ride horses, and you could take tennis lessons, and the director was really loony and had fun with us. I learned tons, and we actually had a lot of free time. We slept in these really cool tents, with only two people, which was fantastic because I was alone with Maud. I had never realized how nice she is, because in class I was always with Mary Jo and she was with Maggie, but with the two of us together it was like being in paradise. I'd lie in my hammock and she'd caress me all over, she'd smooth my hair and then kiss me, just touching me with her lips and darting her tongue in the corners of my mouth, and do a lot of other things that made me tingle all over. I confess, dear diary, that I gave her the first kiss of my life, which is O.K. since Maud is convinced she's a boy and told me, in strict secrecy, that her real name is Charlie. The last night at camp she burst out crying. I'm her ideal, she says, and next year they're sending her to a different school, where she has to stay overnight. It's a special very swanky school, where they learn a lot of foreign languages, even Russian and Japanese. We'll never see each other again, she said, sobbing, and I comforted her a little, but at the same time it didn't seem like such a big deal, because it would have been so incredibly weird to have a boyfriend named Maud. It could take her forever to become a real Charlie. Besides, Mary Jo is my best friend and to have two best friends is so complicated you could go nuts, and anyway it seems weird for her to be so in love with me.
Copyright © 1999 Dmitri Nabokov.