Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond by @LisAnnaLangston is a Fall Into These Great Reads pick #fiction
Title: Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond Author: Lis Anna-Langston Genre: Memoir/Literary Fiction Book Blurb: "In my family, as far back as I can tell, there was no such thing as communication, only secrets." A young girl in a small southern town in the 80's enlists the help of an unlikely group of friends and family to help her survive an unconventional, sometimes abusive childhood. Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond is highly recommended for fiction readers looking for coming-of-age and family narratives that are anything but ordinary and predictable. Its lively tone packs a punch. Excerpt: Prologue Bringing You Up to Speed When my uncle Thurman started boiling frogs alive in big soup pots on the kitchen stove everyone turned a blind eye. When he pulled the tail off a rabbit while it was alive, he retold the story as something funny. It wasn’t. The problems didn’t stop there. Something in my family’s blood told them they were bad. Misfits woven together with a sanity of the sheerest design. As I grew older, I began to realize by natural deduction that something was wrong or that nothing had ever been right. In my family, as far back as I can tell, there was no such thing as communication, only secrets. Big, nasty secrets that hid in the closet with the bogeyman and a layer of dust. All of the real players in the drama are dead now, or at least the ones who could tell us what everyone was trying so hard to get away from. Even so, in moments of contemplation I realize sometimes people are crushed to dust under the burden of their lives and my family was no exception. There would be no warm, fuzzy evenings around a dinner table for me because by the time I entered this world Grand Daddy was dying. Death waited patiently for him on the second floor of our big, turn-of-the-century house. A hospital bed and morphine drip were installed so he could pass his final days in the comfort of a room wallpapered with hundreds of blue ships sailing to god knows where. He died with his clothes still in plastic, tucked in drawers. This elusive grandfather figure fascinated me, as did the fact that we lived side by side a dead man, as if he were coming home any minute to hang up his coat and rest after a long journey into death. Later, I said living that close to death was too much for a family like mine. It was the crack in the teapot, the leak in the dam, and finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. The cancer that killed him ate away at something inside of my family until it mutated and grew into a victim, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a psychotic. A man I never knew was the thread that wove those misfits together, and when he was gone, those seams finally ripped under pressure. But not right away. Before Grand Daddy drove that Buick up to the Pearly Gates my mom was busy trying to find herself by running off to Burning Man to be free and smoke dope. The only thing she found was her way back home, to a chorus of “I told you so,” dragging her teenage boyfriend from Georgia as if she’d hooked him on a weekend fishing trip. They were white middle-class kids who thought their revolution was unique. “Revolution, my ass,” my grandmother said. “They don’t want to start a revolution. They just want to be able to smoke dope out on the front porch without anyone telling them not to.” As I was becoming a glimmer in someone’s eyes my parents ran wild. Or at least they imagined themselves running wild. They were the product of a semi-revolution. Two high school dropouts hell-bent on freedom, chained to the mother of conformity, toting that hippie bible that reads just like anything else—we like you if you’re just like us. No one talks about my conception. My great point of origin. Were there showers of kisses, or random-high-only-semi-good sex that you can’t remember clearly later? Were there grunts or pants or sighs? Was anyone performing that night who hadn’t been chemically altered besides me? Perhaps no one knows, and if by some stroke of luck they do remember, I assure you, no one told the truth. My mother made a hobby out of feigning ignorance when asked to discuss pertinent issues. I have never met my father. So, from thus I was conceived. Seven pounds, three ounces, on a hot summer night. I wasn’t really social in those days, even though it was the beginning of disco and all. Not many expectations were placed on me just yet. My mother moved us out of the house and in with her new junkie/hippie boyfriend, who said the nicest things when he wasn’t high. Then we moved again and then, again. Grand Daddy’s illness surfaced. It killed him quick and from what I can tell, things began to change. The family history hit an all-time high of hush-hush. In that room dying of lung cancer, wasting away, he begged for morphine. He said his mother came to see him every night, the same mother dead for years. He talked about how she brought him angel’s wings and tiny drops she put on his tongue, making his words spin. With a smile, he recalled how she spoon-fed him hot broth while they talked about his childhood. He forgot the extreme poverty that sucked up his early years. Blood came up every time he coughed, choking him, and he didn’t mention that ramshackle of a house where he grew up. His fingers were bones. He talked openly to the angel of mercy standing in the doorway. He hallucinated, saw his death, called out, failing, fading, fighting, and ultimately losing, because I don’t think he ever really thought he was going to win. He died in the middle of the night without a word to anyone. A few years later I learned how to talk and thus deduce certain things from my environment. The first clue something was wrong with my family was that Preston Brown wasn’t allowed to play at my grandmother’s house when I stayed over on weekends. The second was that in my own home my mother and her new boyfriend Dave, decided that financially it would be better if they were dealing drugs. Around that time my crazy uncle Thurman left my grandmother’s house one night and reappeared the next morning, wet, with human scratch marks all over his face and arms. Caked with dried blood, and torn clothes, claiming to remember nothing from the night before except that he’d heard voices. He plodded upstairs and slept for twenty hours. When news of a murder unfolded on the radio, my family met it with the same tight-lipped resistance they greeted everything else. I was too young to understand the consequences of murder, but I wondered who those voices were, and why they always told him to kill people. I couldn’t recall a single moment when I felt affection for Uncle Thurman. I never curled up in his lap and felt safe or reached up to hold his hand before crossing the street. I learned you don’t cross the street with psychotics— you cross the street to get away from them. Psycho Uncle hung out with a bunch of dudes who thought he was a big fat ass from what I could tell, but they were nice to him for the same reason everyone was nice to him, which was that you didn’t have to spend more than five seconds with him to figure out he was a few marbles short of a game. And he had weed. When you’re certifiably crazy, you have to possess something that lures people in, and for Uncle Thurman weed was his saving grace. My Uncle Stan lived downstairs and wasn’t so bad. He didn’t like Thurman. Stan was a good paranoid schizophrenic. He refused to take baths because he said it made his skin rot off If someone finally laid down the law, he would plop down in the big claw-footed tub, and sit perfectly still, staring straight ahead until my grandmother sent me to tell him to get out. He lumbered out like a big old bear muttering about how baths put him in a neurotic delirium. I loved Stan the way other little kids loved cartoon characters. Even at the age of six, I knew you weren’t supposed to admit to liking Spam. Not Stan. He thudded into the kitchen wearing big boxer shorts from the Dollar General Store and ate an entire can, sitting alone at the kitchen table, lost in his own mind instead of the morning paper. He drank soda pop like someone said there was going to be a shortage. He consumed about a bazillion cans of Campbell’s soup, and when we later tried to change brands on him, he politely told us that the other manufacturers put poison in their soup, and while we may be fooled, he wasn’t. If you pushed the issue with him, he would also, very politely but with a tone that suggested he meant it, tell you to go to hell. But Stan was different from the rest, and if I laughed long enough and hard enough then eventually, he’d laugh with me. Aside from the fact that occasionally he’d slice his arm open with a kitchen knife, or that he thought the people who lived next door were shooting his brain with an x-ray gun that made him hear voices, or that periodically he’d refuse to pee in the toilet for reasons that escape me now, he lived in his own world and what a world it was. Every once in a while, I’d burst in on him and catch him dry humping a pillow with all of his clothes on. He didn’t care. Why would he? Everyone had the same urges, did some of the same things, but they cloaked theirs in secrecy and claimed superiority. Not Stan. As far as I knew, he was the only 40-year-old virgin high on Thorazine in the whole neighborhood. And he was great. He liked to go to the zoo and eat candy bars and fried chicken and take rides in the car every Sunday. Aside from the fact that he was a little weird, Stan proved to be about as harmless as Bambi. The rest of my family should have been so lucky. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .
The summer I turned three my mother called me out to the driveway.
“Cotton, come out here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
It was dark outside, but I could see a tall, handsome man who looked like he’d stepped out of the magazines I shredded to make collages. I suddenly became conscious of my scraped knees with big ugly scabs and tugged at the hem of my dress.
The handsome stranger knelt in front of me, extending his hand. “Hi. My name is Dave. What’s your name?”
A lamp post blasted light against the back of his head. Shadows were everywhere. I felt my mother’s eyes on the back of my neck, making my hairs tingle.
I blurted out, “My birthday is coming up.”
The handsome stranger shifted, smiling. “How old are you?”
I held up my entire hand, fingers spread, then pulled my pinky finger and thumb back to touch. “Almost three.”
Shadows slanted down his cheeks. “What day is your birthday?”
“Mine’s coming up in June,” he said, excited.
For some reason this made me like him tremendously. “What kind of cake do you like?”
“Boston cream pie with all of that creamy custard in the middle.”
“Me too,” I said. “My grandmother buys Boston cream cakes for me and my Uncle Stan because he doesn’t have any teeth.”
“Cotton.” My mother cleared her throat behind me.
I turned, “What?”
“Maybe we don’t need to talk about Stan right now.”
The handsome stranger butted in, “What do you say we go and get something to eat?”
Early summer was still a little chilly. Suddenly I wanted my poncho and to put on the sample bottle of perfume. I turned, running up the knobby gravel, trying to stay upright.
Behind me I heard the stranger say, “You never told me your name.”
Without looking back, I yelled, “Cotton Ann. I was named after a honeybee because I’m sweet with a sting.”
Then I ate dirt. Gravel, to be precise. The heels of my palms felt the deep gauge of sharp rocks, and my knees thundered in pain. My cheeks flushed hot. I stood up to keep running, blood trickling down my shins. I burst through the front door, horrified I had fallen and even more horrified over how I might look.
Once in the bathroom, I slammed and locked the door, looking over at the full-length mirror glued to the wall. Oh my gosh. Blood dripped down into my socks. Criminy. How embarrassing. Not only had someone just taken an interest in me but now, in a matter of less than a minute, I had fallen flat on my face and was bleeding to death all over my clothes. I searched frantically for a solution. Quickly I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and wet it under the bathtub faucet. I cleaned all of the blood off of my shins, and then I saw the answer. My black corduroy bell-bottoms lying dirty on the floor.
What’s your favorite thing about autumn:
Everything. The weather, the way the nights slip into a cool chill. The steaming mugs of coffee at dawn on the deck. The hint of holidays in the air.
What inspired you to write this story:
The original drafts of this book were written in a creative autobiography class while I was living in Asheville. It was always my intention this book be a memoir. It all started with a character name I’d written down on a note pad years before.
The manuscript stayed nonfiction until, one day, my agent at the time called me and said, “Let’s change the ending.”
While I changed a few things, the story and facts stayed in tact.
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Runs September 1 – 30
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Lis Anna-Langston was raised along the winding current of the Mississippi River on a steady diet of dog-eared books. She attended a Creative and Performing Arts School from middle school until graduation and went on to study Literature at Webster University. Her two novels, Gobbledy and Tupelo Honey have won the Parents’ Choice Gold, Moonbeam Book Award, Independent Press Award, Benjamin Franklin Book Award and NYC Big Book Awards. Twice nominated for the Pushcart award and Finalist in the Brighthorse Book Prize, William Faulkner Fiction Contest and Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award, her work has been published in The Literary Review, Emerson Review, The Merrimack Review, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review and dozens of other literary journals. She draws badly, sings loudly, loves ketchup, starry skies & stories with happy aliens.
You can find her in the wilds of South Carolina plucking stories out of thin air.
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B00IXKUOEQ