Little Boys and Snips of Donkey Tails
“It’s a children’s book launching. Children are necessary. You know that.”
Richard hated it when Marie, his marketing agent, spoke to him as if he were a lost-and-found anteater on its way into the eye of a hurricane.
“And pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey always ensures a huge success,” she added. It was her way of pointing out a trail of life-saving ants before him.
In the fourteen years they’ve worked together, Marie never knew Richard’s secret: that just because he wrote children’s books didn’t mean he was actually fond of children. He also wrote a lot about rabbits, and these too he abhorred. After selling four million copies of The Magical Carpet Bunny in Tahiti, which he wrote while visiting Gauguin nudes in Paris, he broke into his therapist’s office. There he stole most, if not all, of the session tapes with his ramblings and meanderings on bunnies. He still recalls the chill he got when he realized that Dr. Orten actually labeled them “Richard’s Rabbits.” He’d said (and more): I keep my allies close but my enemies closer. And: I have names for the ways they twitch their ears, how they just lie there, for example, panting in the sun.
Luckily Dr. Orten didn’t notice that someone had stolen the tapes. Richard, after all, still valued their appointments and didn’t want to cut her off totally. He knew he could count on her to keep billing even though he cancelled over half of their meetings at the last minute. He needed that time for himself. The paper trail was his name for the arrangement.
Richard’s wife, Lorraine, was mildly jealous of Dr. Orten. Richard thought of Lorraine as his wife even though they were no longer married. They’d divorced several years before and had recently reunited-to the displeasure of mutual friends and bankers who preferred Lorraine alone with, perhaps, a bottle of wine. Richard needed a wife like he needed a therapist. He was conscious of this and tried his best to conceal it from both of them. At least Lorraine didn’t want kids. Her sprawling home was a perfect ecology for him, in both temperature and in how it faced the sun to the east. He slept and wrote soundly there, without any drug inducement.
“Earth to Richard,” chirped Marie through the megaphone.
He could feel himself walking away. Rather rudely. He was past the water cooler and Darcee’s desk and half way inside the elevator before he realized what he was doing. He hated it that Marie never ran after him in public. Instead, she used the megaphone which she carried around in her a showy floral hangbag along with pins and plastic balloons.
The only thing Richard was allowed to decide about his book launch was the hour. He made it nine o’clock. As a child, he was never allowed to stay up later than eight. He was counting on the guests to be solely adults, but the adults disappointed him-as always. They came accompanied by their children. Watching them enter, hand in hand or screaming at each other, he felt a sourness sting his mouth.
In Richard’s mind a small list, like a contrail, fleeted horizontally in his mind: What Sane People Shouldn’t Bring to a Book Party.
Children came up first naturally. Even though they bought or, at least, manipulated their parents to buy his books, he still couldn’t think kindly of them. Once, he even received a fan mail from a little girl in Kansas who addressed him as Dear Santa. No, there was no liking them at all. Especially after Carmen. He’d been in L.A. for a book appearance five years ago, and was cleaning up Lorraine’s place when she called. She mentioned something about being pregnant. It was late in the day, but he still whined, Do you know what time it is! He knew he could throw her off every time he made her aware that she never knew what time it was. She had always been quite vulnerable about this, but never cured her low self-esteem by buying a wristwatch. He’d called her crazy and switched off the phone.
Then jello. He particularly disliked signing books smudged with strawberry jello. He felt that it took the edge off his pen. Not being allowed to sleep later than eight in the evening can grow a child overnight into a cynic. Green jello was almost as bad. It reminded him of him whenever he thought he could or might have actually gotten anyone with child.
Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. This was obvious. Like DNA testing to find out the biological parent. No one ever thought about how the donkey felt. Personally, if he had lost his tail he would’ve much preferred not to find it, or worse, have it pinned back erroneously on his nose. In his school days, he saw this done every year from his bedroom window. His parents never allowed him to attend any parties because they suspected an alien conspiracy in anything that begins with the letters L-M-N-O-P.
Which brought to his mind parents. Somehow it occurred to him that even his parents came generically under the letter P. Aliens. At least, his taught him the meaning of camouflage underwear. They had never warmed up to Lorraine and Marie. Or accepted Dr. Orten as part of the family. Ironically, perhaps, because of their beliefs, they’d have approved of Carmen. When he first met her, she was working in a publishing house. She kept inviting him out for some chocolate pecan pie and finally he relented. He thought it was safe enough. He was even flattered when she wrote herself promiscuous notes under his name and left them in public places-like a phone booth or ice cream parlor. Dear Carmen. She actually thought she could handle his electric knife and still keep her side of his bed.
On the night of the party, Richard got off the elevator on the tenth floor of his building, as usual. It took him but a moment to notice that the party wasn’t there at all. Of course, it was across the street at Le Bec Fin. He loved their food, but the thought of kids stashing some of it between the pages of his books rather sickened him. The company had gotten a pro to play Chopin or Satie, he was looking forward to that. They’d have some nice champagne, at least. He couldn’t think of new ploys to make himself more late, without being too late, so he sighed and pressed Down. When the elevator doors opened there was Marie.
“Thought you’d be here,” she laughed. When she grabbed him by the elbow, it was almost friendly. He thought, she might be my friend, this Marie. She might stop bursting balloons with pins to get his attention.
“They’ll want to know about your next book, Richard. How is it going?”
Could he tell her? Open up? He was trying to branch out, write about donkeys, even business managers. A story with complications, with a climax-with more than a punchline. Something for a human being for heaven’s sake. Stories serious enough to hold ambivalent adult twins (fraternal) and spies in feathered capes. He felt ready for that.
At the same time, he was afraid to know what was going to happen next.
Eventually, Marie pulled him into the party lounge. A crowd of around two hundred was already waiting. And frowns waited heavily on the waiters’ faces. The plush oriental carpet had stopped resembling a plush oriental carpet-here and there escargot and roast drippings presented a sort of conceptual art that might’ve been entitled, “Agoraphobia.”
When Marie blindfolded Richard, she left just enough room so he could cock his head and sense the lay of the donkey’s rump. Was that Carmen in a Tahitian mouse get-up? Wasn’t she transferred in a high-security prison? He never knew whether she was being truthful or sarcastic. The whole two months they were together, she had complained incessantly about where she was, wherever he was, and here she was again.
Sex, he thought, should not be the only subtext for anyone’s life, even Carmen’s. Or gambling. Or hotels with heated swimming pools and underwater Bach. Lorraine, at least, never suffered such hang-ups, even though now and then she would refuse to wash behind her ears for weeks. Where was she now that he needed to get rid of Carmen?
In the background, he could hear children clap and holler. There was no doubt he’d pin the tail on the damn donkey with aplomb. That wasn’t the reason he had all sorts of escape plans weaving in and out of his mind.
Through the slit Marie left for him, he thought he could see the shoulder of a boy. And Carmen’s finger was pointing at it.
In “Little Boys and Snips of Donkey Tails,” Arlene Ang and I were especially interested in developing the character of Richard, who has been popping up in some way or other in many of the stories we’ve been writing. We went back and forth with the edits in a highly methodical way. Richard is always on the edge of something, and we think a lot about how obvious we should or should not make this. In some of the stories that feature him we tend to use a lot of description of his physical surroundings, his habitat. This episode explores his mental, voice-filled landscape.
In this interview, Robert Watts discusses with us our ongoing collaborative work.