The Big Book of Misunderstanding › Excerpt

This excerpt from The Big Book of Misunderstanding has been adapted for the stage by Barrymore Award winning actor Frank X as part of the Interact Theater Company's Writing Aloud performance series in Philadelphia, which has also featured work by authors including Lorene Cary, Ken Kalfus, Diane McKinney Whetstone and Rachel Simon. Broadcast on WHYY Radio, the Writing Aloud performance was introduced by curator David Sanders as follows:

"George Orwell wrote 'A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien underwater world which we can only penetrate by divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely' ...Jim Gladstone not only penetrates this underwater world that Orwell describes, he takes us deep below the surface and holds us there, caught between laughing and crying."

* * *

When I was sevenand Lew was 6, our father invented a game called the Royalton Varsity Bellyfights. Lew and I would call him up from downstairs when we'd stripped down to our underpants getting ready for bed. We happily marched into Mom and Dad's bedroom where our father positioned us on opposite corners of their enormous mattress.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Kingdom of Bellyuppus," Dad would announce, eliciting giggles. "You see before you, two of the finest young men ever to set foot on the planet Earth, let alone this bouncy, bouncy bed."

"Young Lewis is a quarterback, pitcher and can belch the entire alphabet with unparalleled grace. And Joshua can do things with a magic marker that the world's greatest artists can only imagine."

"But tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you will see them face-off against each other in the most bulbous, the most gelatinous, the most indigestible competition known to man, The Bellyfight!"

And at that, we'd hop to it. Clasping our hands behind our backs and refraining from kicks and head-butts, we would puff up our guts and bump abdomens until one of us lost his balance. We both had weak eyesight and wore plastic tortoiseshell glasses. I would glance from the bed to the full-length mirror on Dad's closet door, watching us bounce up and down, grinning and bopping our tummies together in white briefs and spectacles.

Flopped on the bed after one particularly tiring round, I was struck by an intriguing possibility.

"Since Lew has an outtie bellybutton and I have an innie, maybe they really can button together!"

"I bet it'll work," giggled Lew, rolling off of his back and straddling my legs with his knees.

"OK, now you have to aim it really perfect." I said.

"You too!" cried Lew.

Dad cleared his throat.

Lew and I cupped our hands under our guts and tried to shift our bellies into perfect alignment.

"Alright, I think you've got it, Lew. Now lower yourself. Don't crush me. Houston, prepare to button!"

Lewis and I both began to laugh hysterically as he lay atop me and slid his abdomen back and forth trying to get a perfect match.

"Is it in?" I was cracking up.

"I think we're buttoned, Dad!" Lewis cheered.

"Okay," I cried. "Now let's stand up without coming undone."

"Ready, Josh - " Lew sputtered with laughter "1 - 2 - 3 - Up!"

We were halfway there when I lost my balance and plopped back down to the mattress.

"No problem, Button Brother, lets do it again!" I enthused.

"No guys, I think that's enough of that game," Dad ruled.

"OK, OK, round three of the Bellyfight," Lew countered. "Who knows Joshy, now that we're thinking about it, we might accidentally get buttoned in the middle of a fight."

"No. Enough with Bellyfights." Dad sounded like he was bugged at us. "Its time to go to bed."

"Did I do something wrong?" I wondered.

"Just brush your teeth, alright?"

Almost every night, between washing my face and brushing my teeth, I would get caught up in my own reflection. I would lean in close to the medicine cabinet mirror and stare at the two miniature versions of myself staring back out from my reflection's brown eyes. In this communion of infinite, identical boys, I would dip into a moment of trance. Then, catching the green night light in my peripheral vision and sensing my father silently observing my foolishness, I would run cold water on my open palm and smack myself hard on the cheek.

"Snap out of it , Joshua!" I chided.

It was during one of these brief lapses into self-realization or self-hypnosis that the skeleton story came to me.

Earlier that week, I had dug up a plastic skeleton from the bottom of a Frankenberry box. It was the same glow-in-the-dark green as the phosphorescent night light. I had wiggled my hand down through the cereal pieces and grabbed the skeleton's cellophane wrapper. As I brought it up to the surface, I remembered my mother's frequent warning:

"Don't play with plastic bags. You could suffocate and turn blue." Or eerie green, I then suspected.

Long ago, I imagined, the skeleton was a bad boy. His tiny family lived in the General Mills monster cereal factory where regular-sized people made Count Chocula, Frankenberry and Boo Berry. One day he was playing with the mini-marshmallows and he found a big cellophane sack, as long as his whole body, like the plastic on the clothes hangers my mother brought home from the cleaners. The boy pretended it was a sleeping bag and crawled inside. Unfortunately, It was too much like a sleeping bag and he really did fall asleep in it. The plastic pulled in tight around his mouth and nose, just like his mother had warned him. Dreamland, forever. The cereal factory workers buried the boy at the bottom of a box, still in the bag that killed him. They shoveled the cereal over his body like earth in a grave.

That night, I tossed and turned for hours, wide awake but dreaming of the tiny dead boy, rotting inside his own bedtime tomb. I crept across our room to make sure the closet door was shut tight on my fancy holiday clothes which hung there, sheathed in sheer, deadly plastic. I turned around the dinosaur model on the desk so its eyes wouldn't stare at me.

Lewis snored contentedly in his bed, oblivious to my agitation. "Why does he have it so easy?" I wondered angrily. "Why isn't his life full of scary, complicated thoughts?" When Dad yelled at Lewis, it hit my brother with the momentary explosion of a water balloon, but then everything seemed to dry off. When my father showed disdain for me, his words and actions seeped inside, running all through me, like twisted rivers. I clenched my jaw and held on to my pillow for dear life.

* * *

The next day was Wednesday, the day of the week when the third grade boys were bused over to the high school for swimming lessons. I carried my dark blue swim shorts, my Charlie the Tuna towel and a little black comb in a plastic bag that said Anderson's shoe store. The changing area at the pool was thick with a humidity that carried the intermingled smells of chlorine and teenage perspiration. High school boys weren't scheduled for swimming when we kids came in, but their feet and armpits and scrota haunted the locker room.

The adolescent atmosphere provoked my anxiety. My mother always said to be wary of strangers, particularly teenagers who seemed to me not regular humans of a certain age, but an altogether different and dangerous species. Walking home from school, I always crossed to the other side of the street if someone I judged to be a teen was approaching: this included most boys and men between twelve and 25. (Girls weren't included unless they smoked or wore anything with leather fringe). My homeward path on any given school day was a wild, frightened, zig-zagging line.

In the locker room, damp in the vapors, my mind went back and forth on itself. "I'm scared," I worried. And then, in response, "Don't be stupid."

Scared, stupid, scared, stupid; I was one and then the other in an endless loop. Standing there dazed before the gunmetal lockers, I got lost in the dirty grout between aqua tiles, oblivious to the boyish chatter and rat-tail towel fights around me. A high echoing laugh followed by the smack of a swinging door that finally brought me back.

"I'm the only one here!" I suddenly realized. All the swirling thoughts in my head gave way to the more immediate fear of being late for role call. I stripped off my clothes, tugged on my trunks and ran - although the signs said DO NOT RUN - across the clammy locker room floor.

I slipped into the pool water's chemical glow, sliding into place amidst the line of boys along the wall. After calling out "Here!" in response to our names, we all gripped the edge, extended our legs and kick, kick, kicked. The flutter kick, it was called. Stretch out your ankles and beat your feet like butterfly wings on the water. All of that seven-year-old energy, concentrated into the feet, exploding in neat sharp splashes from hundreds of little boy toes.

When the Coach called "Halt!" our legs drooped down into the bathtub-warm water. Breathing heavily, we let go of the wall and stood on the bottom, our chins barely above water as we bounced on the balls of our feet.

The water seemed to cut our heads off from our bodies. Our fleshy faces, pink and brown, bobbed atop the pool, a disembodied flotilla, while below, cast in chlorine-tinted submarine light, our necks and torsos, hips and legs stood headless and translucent. It seemed to me that the high school pool, lapping over its edges and wetting the surrounding floor, was an enormous X-ray machine. Beneath the head of each of my classmates was a glowy green phantom of bone. Inside each child, I saw a seven-year-old skeleton, a drowning or plastic bag suffocation just waiting to happen.

"No wonder they call it the dead man's float," I whispered inside of my head, knowing I was onto something important. I stared up at the distant ceiling. I would not look underneath.

* * *

Our parents were out at the movies one Saturday night. Janice, the sitter, was ensconced in the downstairs den, watching "Bridget Loves Bernie" and yapping with her girlfriends on the phone. I had already changed into my PJs when Lew scooted in from the bathroom in his underwear and glasses, a vestige of minty foam around his mouth. The corners of my eyes almost tickled as I watched Lewis yank down his briefs, then hop around comically as the elastic band caught around his left ankle for a moment.

Sometimes, before he put on his pajamas, Lew would take his glasses off and rest them on top of his penis. He called the resulting long-nosed character Weelore Dickinson and spoke for him in a squeaky, high-pitched voice.

"Good evening, Philadelphia, this is Weely D. with the Evening News. The weather report is rainy. Yes indeedy-do, lots of yellow rain expected. Just don't get any on the seat, if you know what I mean! This is Weelore Dickinson, signing off!"

I wheezed through gales of laughter at this brazen ridiculousness. My brother was so much less self-conscious than I.

"Dare you to run outside!" I challenged.


"I mean like that, nude."


"You wouldn't."

"Watch me."

"Yeah, I will. And so will old Mrs. Diamond on her porch and everyone else who's outside."

"I'm not scared."

"Sure you're not. What about Lisa? Bet Lisa bites your balls off."

Lisa was the ill-tempered, ill-named male German shepherd that belonged to the Browns next door. I was terrified of him although I figured I would act nasty, too, if my parents had named me Lisa.

"Do you dare me or not?"

"Yeah, I dare you. I double dare you."

"Adios!" Lewis yelped as he bolted, demonstrating a bit of his Sesame Street Spanish vocabulary.

My jaw hung slack as I watched the smooth white halves of Lewis' tush rise and fall. He cheerfully bounced his way downstairs, unlatched the front door and exclaimed "Abierto !" as he swung the door open, then zipped out onto the lawn, running until I could no longer see him from the head of the stairs. The night air, scented with mowed grass and lilac, climbed the steps in Lew's absence. I was scared for my brother, scared for myself and lonely as a seven-year-old boy could be. I clenched my teeth and growled, imitating Lisa.

An infinite 20 seconds later, Lew barreled back into the house, slamming the door.


He sprinted up the stairs, tossing his head back and panting from the giddy exertion. He dove onto me, naked and laughing.

"I won, I won, I did it! I won the bet!"

"OK, OK already, you won. Big deal. Running around naked in front of people."

"What did I win? What's the prize?"

"Get your pajamas on, Lewis! The prize is that Mrs. Diamond didn't call the cops on you?"

"I don't care, I don't care anyway if there isn't a prize! It was fun! You should try it sometime Joshy, if you aren't too chicken!"

PJs on, Lewis sat on his bed, Indian-style, doing funny little dances with a toy I had given him as a gift the week before. A plastic skeleton.

"Skelly-ton! Skelly-ton! Bony, bony, fun, fun, fun!"

"Knock it off, Lewis, or I'll take that back," I said, knowing that there was nothing I wanted less.

"Such a sourpuss!"

"Shut up and go to bed."

Lew went silent, but as we lay there in the dark, I could still feel a gnawing tension. I squeezed my eyes shut to make things calm down, but the squeezing made thunder in my head. I thought of the skeleton, the dead boys, all the time my father had begun to spend coaching Lew's Pee Wee softball team.

"Hey Lewis," I whispered.


"You know the little green TV plugged in by the bathroom mirror?"

"You mean the night light?"

"Well sure, it's just a night light if you don't know the secret."

"What secret?"

"No, no, never mind."

"Come on, you brought it up."

"Well, do you remember what midnight is?"

"You mean when the big hand is, uh..." Lew was just learning to tell time.

"Right, when the big hand and the little hand line up at 12 in the night time."

"Yeah, midnight."

"Well at the stroke of midnight, the green screen of the night light turns into a TV."

"No way."

"Oh yes! And do you know who appears on that screen? Not Scooby Doo, not Big Bird."

"Mister Rogers?"

I caught myself before I burst out laughing and broke the mood. Then I brought my voice down to the quietest whisper and conjured up words and images from a commercial I'd seen for the Creature Feature.

"No Lew, its none of those friendly guys. The one who appears in the haunted TV is...Satan!"

"Well, well, who is this Nathan guy?"

"Not Nathan, Lewis, Satan. The devil, the evil one, Beelzebub!"

"What does he do Joshy? What would he do to me?"

"Oh don't worry, Lewis. He only kills little boys who are in the bathroom when he appears at the stroke of midnight. So don't be afraid, buddy. Just don't go pee at twelve. Everything will be just fine..."

I let my voice trail into mumbling, fake sleep. But I knew I'd be asleep for real soon enough. I smiled into my pillow, thinking of Lewis, squirming, maybe even wetting his bed. For the first time in over a week, I felt calm. I felt clever. I felt like my father that night.

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