It started out just another typical day with the Adams family. It was Saturday, and there's no way on earth I would have been up at 5 AM. No way I would have dreamed of being up at that ungodly hour. But my daughter Elizabeth assured me with a tug on my nose that it was time to get up.
"Huh?" I moaned. I had just started getting used to sleeping in, undisturbed, whenever I wanted. Actually, I'd been doing it a lot, lately. But then there's the two weekends a month Maggie drops Elizabeth off, and my upside-down world gets turned, well, not right side-up, that's for sure.
Wearily I forced my eyes open, cleared some clothes and magazines off the alarm clock, and reaffirmed my suspicion. "Oh, God, Lizzy, it's too early for Daddy to get up!"
"Water, Daddy," she insisted, tugging on my nose again.
"Water, you want water," I groaned, and sighing, sat up in bed. I stuck my feet over the edge, searching cautiously with a toe for my slipper. You never know what you might find on my floor first thing in the morning.
I found one of the slippers on the first try. But it was soaked. "Huh?" I swallowed, coming to my senses. The rug made a squishing sound when I stepped on it.
Elizabeth jumped up and down, splashing water everywhere. "Water, Daddy!"" she giggled. "Water!"
I grabbed my two-year-old and put her on my bed. "Stay here, Elizabeth," I commanded, and sloshed across the room. I opened the door, and another inch of water gushed in.
"Funny, Daddy!" Elizabeth giggled as I slid out the door and into the kitchen.
It was hard to see across the room -- the kitchen table was piled so high with junk, it blocked the view. Books and pots and food wrappers drifted by as I waded ankle deep toward the sink.
I pushed some of the dirty plates and pots away from the counter while I cursed the broken dishwasher and tried to find the faucet. I pulled a turkey pan out of the way and found it all right. Water spurted up at my face and I gasped as I tried to feel my way for the spigot handle. I grabbed it, but it broke off. The water really gushed out now.
By this time it was wet halfway up to my knees. I knelt down and tried to pull the cabinet door open beneath the sink so that I could turn off the valve. Then I remembered it had been jammed shut for weeks, so even if the pressure of the water against the door hadn't been so great, I probably still wouldn't have been able to open it.
I ran across the room for the stairs. "Daddy!" Elizabeth started to cry.
"Honey, stay there. Don't
get off the bed. I'm going upstairs to get Grandma and Grandpa!"
I dashed up the staircase, slid down a few times, partly because my feet were slippery on the wooden stairs, but partly because there were clothes and pencils and God-only-knows-what-else lying around everywhere.
I moaned and groaned each time I fell, and I could not believe that everyone was sleeping through all this.
I was headed for my dad's room, but my mom's light was on, so I knocked and opened the door.
"Mom, are you in here?" I whispered.
My mom's room is an experience. Her bed is on one side of the room. Her desk is at the other. I think there is an eight-inch wide path between the two, but I've never been able to find it. I don't mean to imply that my mother is messy. Lord no. She's extremely organized and meticulous. That 20,000 pounds of books and papers and clothes and miscellaneous I-have-no-idea-what-else is all in straight, neat, piles, that are packed in so tight I'm sure a physicist would swear her room was a black hole. She just has too much junk, that's all.
I strained to peer over some piles, ever so careful not to touch anything. "Mom," I whispered again, fearful to raise my voice. The last thing I wanted to do was cause an avalanche. She had one of those a year back -- it took six hours to clear a path to her.
"Over here, Mikey, what is it honey?"
"It's not Mike, it's Richard, Mom."
"Oh, sorry, Ricky. You boys sound so much alike."
"Yeah, right," I thought. "When was the last time my older brother Mike uttered a single word that made sense?"
"Where's Elizabeth," Mom was saying. "Is she going to give Grandma a hug? I'm almost finished with my work for the day. What time is it anyway? I can't find the clock. Is there any coffee?"
My mom has odd hours, to say the least. Her workday ends when she's done for the day. Supposedly, she put in a 64-hour day once. But that was under extenuating circumstances -- my sister Susan was born during one of her coffee breaks, and it kind of threw off her schedule.
"Look, Mom, the kitchen sink is flooding all over the place," I wheezed, still trying to catch my breath.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Oh, dear. Well, get your father. I'll call the plumber. If I can find the phone, that is. Now where did I see it last? I think it's under this pile here...No...Oh, dear... Get your dad, honey; I'll use the phone in the hall. It'll just take a second to find that path. I know it's here somewhere. Maybe it's this way. No...Um...Hmmm...Let's see..."
I moaned, realizing I wouldn't see her for quite a while, and stalked over to my father's room.
You can tell where my mother's side of the second floor ends, and my father's begins, quite easily. They both have a lot of stuff. But my father's is not in neat piles. And everything on my father's side seems to have something growing on it.
You'd still be able to tell whose side was whose even if you didn't look at how the junk on the floor was arranged. There's a big red line delineating the border on the walls and ceiling.
(The line continues on the floor, too, but that part hasn't been visible in years.) On the walls on my dad's side of the line you will also find clocks and calendars plastered everywhere.
My dad is what they call "time-oriented." I'm told that when he was younger he could see a clock ticking in his head, and no matter where he went he could tell you exactly what time it was. Then he was taking nap once, and he woke up in a sweat. He didn't know where he was and had no idea at all about the time of day. The clock in his head had stopped, and ever since then he's made sure that there was always a clock visible no matter where he turned his head.
It wasn't that long ago that every wall in the house had clocks and calendars hung all over them. But Mom put her foot down. Now he's allowed only one clock and calendar per room. Except on his side of the red line on the second floor, of course, where there is one of each precisely 39 inches apart on the walls and the ceiling. (We once asked him what the significance of that particular distance was, and he mumbled something about physics and farkels or something. We didn't bother asking any more.)
Although Dad feels most comfortable while safely behind his red-lined time zone, he is quite capable of venturing beyond, thanks to the six watches on each arm and the digital clocks implanted in the tops of his shoes.
One Christmas we chipped in and had them put in tiny clocks in the corners of his glasses, but he couldn't wear them -- they were too distracting. He found himself constantly staring in fascination, and he was stuck in a trance for three days before we were able to yank the glasses off.
Meanwhile, back in the hallway...
I was leaning on the banister, trying to untangle a network of extension cords that had wrapped around my legs like an octopus. But as I struggled, the extension cord monster pulled up off the floor clumps of "Oh-god-I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-please-don't-let-it-touch-me." And then I noticed a switch at the end of one of the extension cords. It had a blue dot on it. My eyes lit up.
"Blue," I thought. "Blue is for lights, right?" I could sure use a little light around here. I hesitated. "Or does blue turn the radios on...or set the clocks back...?"
Did I happen to mention that my father is rather fond of extension cords -- you probably figured it out, considering he has all those clocks. But clocks are only the tip of his extension cord mania. My dad also has quite a few radios in his room.
We live in one of those radio wave interference zones where it's really hard to get a good signal unless you point the antennae just right. He's figured out the best position for every radio station -- so he's got one radio per station, and each radio has a toggle switch to turn it on and off, color-coded and numbered, of course. (But not with the station number. The numbers seem purely random to me, but he claims he's got a system.)
And of course, so that he can get the best lighting to see his clocks and calendars no matter where he is in his red-lined time zone, he has dozens of full-spectrum lamps standing at attention everywhere.
Now our house is kind of old and each room only has one wall outlet. So all these appliances and hundreds of others are connected by extension cords and outlet strips and splitting jacks, one into another, in an intricate mess.
What makes it even worse, is that every appliance also has one of those plug-in toggle switches attached to another cord, which he uses instead of turning the appliance on and off because "they don't make the switches on appliances very well and they're always breaking, leaving you with a perfectly good but unusable appliance."
Anyway. I was pretty sure blue switches turned lights on. But then Dad was always changing his system, and I couldn't swear lights was definitely blue this week. With a sigh, I turned the switch and clamped my eyes closed, expecting to be flooded with a dozen lamps.
A dozen radios blared instead, and I jumped back against the bannister, and squeezed my eyes even tighter.
Odd. It almost felt like I was falling.
I opened my eyes in a slow-motion blur and discovered I was falling.
"DAD!" I screamed. The heck with the piles in Mom's room. At this point, just let them fall!
The banister, like everything else in the house was, to put it modestly, in need of repair. Needless to say, it wasn't equipped for an acrobatics act at 5 o'clock in the morning.
I fell into the living room, through eleven inches of water, through the rickety, crickety floor, and landed in the basement.
Fortunately, my older brother Mike lives in the basement. Although, of course, no one would ever know it. He doesn't come up for weeks at a time, and when he does, he doesn't say a word. He doesn't even look at you. He just stares off into space, packs up some food, and then disappears back into the basement. Sometimes he goes off on his motorcycle for a couple of weeks. That's how he uses his PhD in Philosophy!
But then, I shouldn't talk. I'm 24, with a Fine Arts degree, and I'm back living with my parents, out of a job, separated from my wife, a failure as a father, and with no idea at all what to do with my life.
Anyway, I fell on Mike's
bed. I split the frame, but thank goodness it broke my fall. Besides,
it didn't matter -- Mike doesn't use his bed. It's only down there because
Mike sleeps on the floor. He says he'd rather sleep on a bed of nails. My sister Susan found one once, but, fortunately, Dad made her get rid of it before she showed it to Mike.
I sat there on Mike's bed, gasping as hundreds of gallons of water crashed down from above onto my head.
Staggering off the bed, I saw Mike on the floor in the lotus position, meditating. (What else is new!)
"Hi Mike," I muttered as I watched the water creep around his ankles.
"Ommmmmm..." he chanted contentedly.
My panic and frenzy seemed to float away in the sound of his voice as it echoed around the water-sogged room. I was almost even starting to feel good. Mike has that effect on people. He's really weird, but it kind of makes you feel calmer inside just being around him.
"Sorry about the hole in your ceiling," I offered, breathing much more calmly as I looked up at the water gushing down like a waterfall, bringing with it all kinds of junk from above.
"Ommmmmm..." he sighed again.
I was feeling like I was floating away to sea, when something wet and soppy flew off the waterfall and landed in my face. Gasping and feeling really gross, I whipped it away and landed back in reality.
"Look, Mike," I sniffled, splashing toward him. The water was inching over his kneecap.
I glanced around his room as I waded over. It was kind of weird seeing stuff floating everywhere. Mike doesn't have anything down here, and seeing him and possessions in the same room seemed to defy reality somehow.
"Mike, you've got to get up...the water..."
"John," he said, opening one eye.
I stopped and spun around, sloshing and swirling. There was no one else there.
Mike stared at me and said "John" again.
Was he receiving some telepathic message from our long lost brother?
"John's not here, Mike. We haven't seen him in years."
"John," he said again.
"John, your name is famous."
He closed his eye and went back to his chanting.
"What the heck does that mean?" I wanted to gasp. But I just stared as I watched his legs become completely submerged.
I was getting a headache you wouldn't believe, and felt like banging my head against the wall. I refrained, deciding quite wisely that the whole house would probably fall apart if I did, and with a sigh of exasperation, I trudged up the stairs out of the basement.
Mom and Dad were in the kitchen yelling and splashing. It seemed like they were actually enjoying this. I noticed the water had stopped. Apparently Dad had broken the cabinet open. With what, I wasn't too sure. It could have been any number of things floating around.
Unfortunately, a broken guitar floated by on its way to the hole in the living room, giving me a slight clue -- Suzie was going to be upset! Not that she could really play the thing; gosh was she awful! But, even so, she practically worshipped that stupid guitar.
Speak of the devil. Just then, Susan and her latest emerged from her room.
"What is all this noise out here? And why is my room all wet?" she demanded.
Rick or Joe, or whatever-his-name-was, was standing behind her in his underwear, with his mouth hanging open. Give him a club and you'd have the Missing Link.
"Cool!" he grunted.
Dad gave him a half-glance. There was a time he would have exploded and tossed the guy out on his ear. These days he didn't even acknowledge Suzie's overnight guests.
Cro-Magnon Man scratched his chest absently. "Like I didn't know you had a beach here. I would of brought my boogie board. Catch the waves much, Mr. A?" he snorted to my father who tried desperately to pretend he hadn't heard.
"Oh, brother!" I gasped.
Again, speak of the devil. David, my little brother, emerged from his room. "Thank goodness my dancing shoes were on the shelf!" he yelled as he splashed down the hall, slid into Susan and company, and rolled into the kitchen. Cro-Magnon's head smashed what was left of the guitar. Rather interesting choreography, I had to admit -- just like the kind of stuff Davey danced.
"Uggh. Maybe it'll sound better this way, Suz," the caveman grunted, holding the few scraps of wood and strings out like a present.
Susan exploded in one of her typical unladylike four-letter word outbursts.
Elizabeth was crying in my room, and my headache was pounding as I ran to get her.
When I came out into the kitchen, Dad was giving his famous lecture.
"This is the last straw. Your mother and I work from dawn till dusk. We haven't had a break in over 30 years, and in all that time, all you kids have done is leech off us. Now you've all moved back in."
"Johnnie's not here!" Suzie muttered.
Dad flinched. If there was one thing you don't bring up in front of Dad, it's our brother John.
John and Dad had a terrible fight six years ago, and we hadn't heard from him since. I know Dad feels awful about it, and to avoid the pain he just pretends he never had a son named John.
Mom's tried several times to track him down, but no one's been able to find out where he is. We all had our suspicions that Mike knew, and had spent some time with him while off on one or more of his motorcycle trips. But, of course, trying to get anything out of Mike is rather difficult.
Dad gave Suzie an awful glare, then licked his lips, composing himself again. "None of you have any jobs," he roared with even more anger than before. "The whole house is crumbling under us and we don't have a dime to fix it. You kids have got to get jobs or move out!"
"But, Dad, I'm still in high school," Davey complained. "I wouldn't be able to dance at all if I got a job."
"Unless my calendar is wrong..." Dad started.
"Which one!" Suzie, Davey and I laughed at once. He asked for that one!
Dad sneered at us. "You are on your summer break, are you not?" he growled, turning back to David.
"Well, sure, Dad, but I've got a lot of practicing to catch up on."
Dad was steaming. He turned to Suzie and then me. There was fire in his eyes.
We didn't even bother to try and argue this time. We'd been saying we were looking for jobs for a good three months. Truth is, neither of us had even opened the Want Ads in nearly four.
"You shouldn't have tried to become an Olympic sweepstakes stamp licker," Suzie muttered. "Then we wouldn't have to worry about money." Fortunately, this time Dad didn't hear her.
Another thing you can never mention around my father is the word "sweepstakes."
My parents used to be pretty well off, once upon a time, back when Dad was a rocket scientist. But you know how things are with the defense industry. One day business is booming, the next you're ancient history.
Dad was devastated. Going from 50K a year to nothing overnight is pretty upsetting. Then he had an idea. He did a little calculating on his computer and figured out that sweepstakes could make him rich. He showed Mom the printouts. It couldn't miss.
Mom was pretty reluctant when they mortgaged the house to the hilt, but dutifully she helped him lick stamp after stamp. (I understand Mike and I did quite a bit of licking ourselves,
but I don't remember it at all. Still, to this day I can't lick a stamp without cringing.)
Anyway, $262,789 later, they'd sent out the last batch of sweepstakes entries, and Dad showed Mom for the umpteenth time the calculations that statistically proved they were guaranteed 19% of the winnings in 14,000 sweepstakes for a total cash value of a little over 22 million dollars.
They waited, and waited,
They didn't win one penny. Not one penny. Not a single vacation, or T-shirt, or poster, or anything. NOTHING. Oh, well, so much for statistics.
After that, Dad could never watch Carson for fear that Ed McMahon would rub it in, in front of millions of viewers, and Mom has to dash down to check the mail every day, before Dad sees it, to pull out all the envelopes that might remind him he "may have been a winner" -- but he wasn't.
Now, working three jobs apiece they make pretty good money, but with the debt they acquired, it would take a miracle for them to ever get out of the hole. All they had left was this big, old house, which they'd never be able to sell, because, well, they're lucky it hasn't been condemned. And, of course, the 40 acres of prime Virginia landlocked woods behind us, which although they are completely worthless monetarily because the zoning laws won't permit us to subdivide, still end up costing my folks nearly a thousand dollars a month in property taxes!
Anyway, sweepstakes is another word you do not mention around my house.
"If only we could think of a way to get rich..." my father was muttering.
"We could sell the kids," Mom joked.
At least, I hoped she was joking. We all swallowed nervously.
"Maybe we could write that novel we've always talked about," my mother sighed.
We all groaned. One of my mom's jobs is writing a column called "It Matters to Mary," a series of essays on how to right the world's wrongs for our local paper, "The Eagle Rock Observer." No one ever reads her column and the job pays next to nothing, but she loves it because she's always wanted to be a writer.
Of course, she'd rather not write for that crummy paper with its 1262 readers -- what she'd really like to write is science fiction -- but the column makes her feel like she's a writer, so she spends a lot of time doing it. Not that she has any extra time on her hands, you understand, with her other jobs as a translator of Chinese recipe books for the government and background researcher for a trash romance novelist.
"Mom, everyone's writing these days. It's so hard to break in," Susan snickered, and the gleam in my mother's eyes fizzled away.
Mom gave the family cynic a dirty look. Suzie just shrugged and waved the broken guitar in the air, wondering if maybe now it really would play better.
"A book," Mom was muttering.
"John, Your Name Is Famous!" Mike yelled from the soggy hole.
"Why does he keep saying that?" I snapped.
"Daddy, I want to be famous, too," Elizabeth cooed, hugging me tightly.
"That's it!" my mother gasped.
"Huh?" I groaned.
Mom grabbed Dad's arm and sloshed toward the living room. She motioned with her head for us to follow.
Susan looked at her Cro-Magnon man staring dumbfoundedly into space. "Er, Steve..."
"Joe," he corrected.
"Yeah, whatever. Go find the cereal and help yourself," she recommended, pointing to the jungle on the table.
"You got a weird family, babe," he muttered as we left him alone to fend for himself among the ruins.
Mom stood by the living room hole and peered down at Mike. "Hi Mikey!" she waved.
The water was up to Mike's waist, but he still hadn't budged.
Dad and David pulled the couches through the wet junk in the living room so that they were facing the hole. Elizabeth demanded I let Grandma hold her, and we all sat down on the couches around the hole as if it were a campfire.
"Good morning, honey," Mom cooed over Elizabeth.
"All right, Mom," we demanded. "What's this all about?"
"Huh, oh, well, what do you think of a series of books, each one about a name?"
"What do you mean, honey?" Dad asked politely, not really paying attention. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he was still trying to think of some way to get us out of the house.
"Each book would be about a single first name..." Mom continued, and her face was beaming.
"A first name?" Dad muttered.
"Exactly, George. Each book would be all about the name... you know, the different variations around the world...um...famous people with the name..."
"MARY!" Dad gasped, and his eyes were huge. "You know, that would make a perfect gift for anyone with that name."
"But there are a million names. Where would we start...?" Dad sputtered.
"JOHN, Your Name Is Famous..." Mike mumbled from below.
"Exactly!" Mom laughed. "There must be millions of people named John. Not to mention Juans...Jeans...Seans...Ivans..."
"Those are Johns?" I sneered.
"Yep. John has to be the world's most common name!"
Dad fidgeted uncomfortably. "Maybe we could start with a different name. Mary's nice."
"Well, I think we should start off with the book that has the best chance. It seems that John would be the smartest choice because there are more Johns for people to buy the book for. What do you kids think?" Mom asked turning to us.
"Oh, boy," I thought. "Is she looking for trouble asking our opinion on something -- we're the cynic children!"
I waited for Susan to rip into the idea. But she was nodding her head. "John makes sense."
David was shrugging,"Why not?"
"But...but..." I stuttered. "Do you know how much work it'll take to research all this?" I pointed out. "It'll cost a fortune to hire researchers to dig up all that information..."
Mom looked at us and smiled. "You guys aren't doing anything, are you?" She laughed as she jumped up, dumped Elizabeth in my lap, and dragged Dad towards the stairs while the protests began.
Susan and David were yelling now. "I'm not doing it!"
"No way!" Mike said from below, and he poked his head out of the living room hole, before some plaster broke loose and he fell back into the basement with a splash.
"We're all famous!" Elizabeth laughed, jumping up and down on the couch.
My head was pounding. I closed my eyes and wished I could disappear as the yelling grew louder and louder.
That crazy morning was like so many other mornings at the Adams house. Dad always claimed we were descended from John Adams, the nation's second president. Mornings like this always made me think we were related to a much more contemporary TV and movie family with the same name (although a slightly different spelling, of course).
As Elizabeth dragged me
off toward the kitchen, food, and Cro-Magnon Man, I suddenly realized
things were going to be different for us now. It was almost like we
were closing the door on a chapter in our lives. Maybe our names would
be famous after all.