Interview with Adeline Dieudonné
Adeline Dieudonné is a Belgian author who lives in Brussels. La Vraie Vie (Real Life), her debut novel, was published in France in summer 2018 and has since been awarded most of the major French literary prizes: the prestigious Prix du Roman FNAC, the Prix Rossel, the Prix Renaudot des Lycéens, the Prix Goncourt–Le Choix de la Belgique, the Prix des Étoiles du Parisien, the Prix Première Plume, and the Prix Filigrane, a French prize for a work of high literary quality with wide appeal. Her novel has recently been translated into English by Roland Glasser.
1) Can you tell our viewers about your latest book?
Once upon a time in a weird family, in a strange house full of hunting trophies, were living two children. The little heroin and her young brother Sam. We will follow them for six summers from her ten to fifteen years old. First summer an accident occurs that will traumatize those two kids. The girl will fight to save her brother. On her way she will meet the woman who lives in the woods, kind of a witch, a beautiful champion of martial arts, kind of a pervert prince charming, a crazy professor of physics and the creatures that hide in the dark, waiting to devour her.
Real life is the story of this young girl struggling to survive in a surrealistic and terrifying world.
2) What inspires you in your writing?
Everything basically. Persons and situations I meet, emotions that surround me, books I read, movies I see… And also, last but not least, music I’m listening to. When I’m writing, I listen to heavy metal. It helps me a lot to connect with my own savagery and darkness. It helps release emotions, positive ones and, much more interesting, negative ones.
3) What books have had an impact on your life and your work?
A lot!!! So many, I couldn’t tell. I read a lot of non-fiction, and it’s very important for my work. For example, “The third industrial revolution” by Jeremy Rifkin was an earthquake for me. But I’m not sure it’s what you’re interested in. For Real life, I was deeply influenced by “We need to talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, “The little girl who loved Tom Gordon”, by Stephen King and “La Vie Sauvage” by Thomas Gunzig, a great belgian writer. Lately, my big chocks were “Lolita” by Nabokov, “Last exit to Brooklyn”, by Selby and “In the forest” by Jean Egland.
4) Is there a topic you’d like to cover in your writing and haven’t gotten to yet?
No, I’m not thinking of topics when I’m writing. It’s more about landscapes or backgrounds I want to visit, or characters I want to meet and spend time with. The topic appears afterwards, when I have finish the manuscript, I finally realize what I was talking about.
5) As we celebrate independent bookstores here, what can you say about the role that independent bookstores have in communities and have had in your own life and career?
I think I owe a large part of the success of Real life to the independent booksellers. In France and in Belgium, they were very quick to notice and support my novel. I remember when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in a bookstore because the bookseller was very good and able to make me discover writers and novels according to my tastes. I’m really grateful, because thanks to him I discovered the pleasure of reading. Now I’m a writer. I try to be very supportive with independent booksellers because I know how they are struggling with unfair rivalry of web giants. So I go in bookstores to meet the readers, as much as I can, because it’s a pleasure, first of all, but also because that’s a way to attract people in bookstores and tell them, if it’s possible for you, if you’re are physically able to do it, come in bookstores, don’t buy on the web. And see, we are having much more fun than alone in front of a computer.
Discover the first chapters :
Our house had four bedrooms. There was mine, my little brother Sam’s room, that of my parents, and the one with the carcasses.
Deer calves, wild boar, stags. And antelope heads, of all sorts and sizes, including springboks, impalas, gnus, oryxes, and kobus. A few zebras minus their bodies. On a platform stood a complete lion, its fangs clamped around the neck of a small gazelle.
And in a corner was the hyena.
Stuffed she may have been, yet she was alive, I was sure of it, and she delighted in the terror she provoked in any gaze that met her own.
In the framed photographs on the wall, my father posed proudly with various dead animals, holding his rifle. He always took the same stance: one foot on the beast, fist on hip, the other hand victoriously brandishing the weapon. All of which made him appear more like a rebel fighter high on genocidal adrenaline than a father.
The centerpiece of his collection, his pride and joy, was an elephant tusk. I had heard him tell my mother one evening that the hardest part wasn’t killing the elephant. No. Killing the beast was as easy as slaughtering a cow in a subway corridor. The real difficulty had been making contact with the poachers and avoiding the patrolling game wardens. And then removing the tusks from the still-warm body: utter carnage. It had all cost him a small fortune. I suppose that’s why he was so proud of his trophy. Killing the elephant was so expensive he’d had to split the cost with another guy. They left with a tusk each.
I liked to stroke the ivory. It was silky smooth and large. But I had to do it behind my father’s back. We were forbidden from entering the carcass room.
My father was huge with broad shoulders, the build of a slaughterman. He had a giant’s hands. Hands that could have ripped the head off a chick the way you’d pop the cap on a Coke bottle. Besides hunting, my father had two passions in life: television and Scotch whisky. When he wasn’t scouring the planet for animals to kill, he plugged the TV into speakers that had cost as much as a small car, a bottle of Glenfiddich in his hand. And the way he talked at my mother, you could have replaced her with a houseplant and he wouldn’t have known the difference.
My mother lived in dread of my father.
I think that’s pretty much all I can say about her, leaving aside her obsession with gardening and miniature goats. She was a thin woman, with long limp hair. I don’t know if she existed before meeting him. I imagine she did. She must have resembled a primitive life form—single-celled, vaguely translucent. An amoeba. Just ectoplasm, endoplasm, a nucleus, and a digestive vacuole. Years of contact with my father had gradually filled this scrap of nothing with fear.
Their wedding photos always intrigued me. As far back as I can remember, I can see myself studying the album in search of a clue. Something that might have explained this weird union. Love, admiration, esteem, joy, a smile … something. I never found it. In the pictures, my father posed as in his hunting photographs, but without the pride. An amoeba doesn’t make a very impressive trophy, that’s for sure. It isn’t hard to catch one: a bit of stagnant water in a glass, and presto!
When my mother got married, she wasn’t frightened yet. It seemed as though someone had just stuck her there, next to this guy, like a vase. As I grew older, I also wondered how this pair had conceived two children: my brother and me. Though I very soon stopped asking myself because the only image that came to mind was a late-night assault on the kitchen table, reeking of whisky. A few rapid, brutal, not exactly consenting jolts, and that was that. In the main, my mother’s function was to prepare the meals, which she did like an amoeba might, with neither creativity nor taste, but lots of mayonnaise. Ham and cheese melts, peaches stuffed with tuna, deviled eggs, and breaded fish with instant mashed potatoes. Mainly.
Our garden backed onto Little Gallows Wood and a small valley, all green and brown, its two slopes forming a large V with dead leaves piled up at the bottom. At the end of the valley, half-buried beneath the dead leaves, was Monica’s house. Sam and I often went to see her. She once told us that the V had been formed by a dragon’s claw, a very long time ago. The dragon had scraped out the valley after being driven mad with sorrow. Monica was good at telling stories. Her long gray hair danced across the flowers on her dress, and her bracelets jingled on her wrists.
“An awfully long time ago, not very far from here, on a mountain that is now gone, there lived a pair of gigantic dragons. These two dragons loved each other so much that at night they sang strange songs of intense beauty, as only dragons know how. But this scared the folk living down on the plain, and they could no longer sleep. One night, when the two lovers had dozed off after singing their hearts out, they came, those morons, tiptoeing along with their torches and pitchforks, and they killed the female. In his fury and grief, the male scorched the entire plain, killing everyone―men, women, and children. Then he ripped at the earth with his claws, scouring out these valleys. Since then, the vegetation has grown back, and people live here once more, but the claw marks remain.”
The surrounding woods and fields were littered with scars of varying depth.
The story frightened Sam.
Some nights he would come snuggle in my bed because he thought he’d heard the dragon song. I explained that it was just a story, that dragons didn’t really exist. That Monica had told it to us because she liked old tales, but that not everything was real. Yet deep down I had the shiver of a doubt. And I always dreaded that I would see my father return from one of his hunts with a female dragon head. But to reassure Sam, I played the older sister and whispered, “Stories exist to contain everything that frightens us. That way we can be sure those things won’t happen in real life.”
I liked going to sleep with his little head right under my nose so I could smell the scent of his hair. Sam was six years old, I was ten. Brothers and sisters are usually at each other’s throats, riven by jealousy, fighting, whining, crying. Not us. I loved Sam with the devotion of a mother. I guided him, and told him everything I knew; that was my mission as his big sister. It was the purest form of love that could exist. A love that expects nothing in return. Indestructible. He was always laughing, with his tiny baby-teeth. And each time, his laughter warmed me like a mini power plant. So I made him puppets from old socks, invented funny stories, and put on little shows just for him. I tickled him too, to hear him laugh. Sam’s laughter could heal any wound.
Monica’s house was half-swallowed by ivy. A pretty sight. Sometimes the sunlight falling through the branches resembled fingers caressing it. I never saw the sun’s fingers on my own house, or on the other houses in the neighborhood. We lived in a development called “The Demo.” Fifty gray detached houses lined up like tombstones. My father called it “the Demucky.”
Up until the 1960s, this was all wheat fields. In the early 1970s the development sprouted like a wart, in less than six months. It was a pilot project, at the cutting edge of prefabricated technology. The Demo. Demo of I don’t know what. Those who had built it must have had something to prove at the time. Maybe it actually reflected their aims back then. But twenty years later all that remained was the muck. The beauty, if there ever was any, had dissolved, washed away by the rain. The street formed a big square, with inner houses and outer houses. And then all around lay Little Gallows Wood.
Our house was one of the outer houses, on a corner. It was a little better than the others because it was the one that the architect of the Demo had designed for himself. But he didn’t live there long. It was larger and lighter, too, with wide patio doors. And a cellar. Seems silly, said like that, but a cellar is an important thing. It prevents groundwater rising up through the walls and rotting them. The houses of the Demo smelled of old damp swimming towels forgotten in a sports bag. Our house didn’t smell bad, but it did have the animal carcasses. I sometimes wondered if I wouldn’t have preferred a house that stank.
Our garden was also bigger than the others. On the lawn was an inflatable swimming pool, which looked like a fat lady who had fallen asleep in the sun. Come winter, my father would empty it and pack it away, leaving a wide circle of brown grass. And at the bottom of the garden, just before the wood, there was the goat pen: a bank covered in creeping rosemary. It contained three young nanny goats: Cookie, Josie, and Nutmeg. But soon there’d be five because Nutmeg was in kid. My mother had had a billy goat brought over to service Nutmeg, and this had caused no end of trouble with my father. Something odd occurred with my mother when it came to her goats: a kind of maternal instinct would gush from deep within her, making her capable of standing up to my father. Whenever that happened, he always looked like a teacher outdone by their student. Mouth open, he vainly sought a comeback. He knew that every passing second depleted his authority a little more, like a wrecking ball taken to a building blighted by dry rot. His open mouth would twist a little, producing a kind of growl that smelled like a skunk’s burrow. At that moment, my mother would realize she had won. She would pay for it later, but for now that little victory was hers, although she didn’t appear to derive any particular joy from it, and simply returned to her amoebal activities.
Nutmeg was in kid and Sam and I were overexcited by the imminent birth. We watched for the slightest sign announcing the new kids’ arrival. He giggled as I explained how the little ones would be born:
“ They will come out of her privates. It’ll look like she’s pooping, but instead of poop, two baby goats will come out.”
“ But how did they get into her tummy?”
“They didn’t, she made them with the billy goat. They were very much in love.” “But he was here for less than a day, they didn’t even know each other, they couldn’t have been in love.”
“Oh yes they could. It’s called love at first sight.”
If you crossed Little Gallows Wood then went through the field without being seen by the farmer, you got to the big slope of yellow sand. And if you went down it, hanging onto plant roots, you entered the labyrinth of broken cars. There, too, you had to make sure you weren’t seen.
It was a vast metal boneyard, and I really liked the place. As I stroked the cars’ shells, I would imagine them as a heap of creatures, motionless yet sentient. Sometimes I talked to them, especially the new ones. I told myself they must need reassuring. Sam would help me. The pair of us could spend whole afternoons talking to the cars. Some had been there a long time, so we got to know them well. There were those that were virtually unmarked, and others that were slightly damaged. And then there were those that were totally wrecked, hood ripped open, body shredded, as if chewed up by some huge dog.
My favorite was the green car devoid of both its roof and its seats. It looked as though it had been scraped clean at hood level, like foam on a glass of beer. I wondered what could have sliced it like that. Sam liked the Boom-a-roller, as he called it. We would imagine that this funny old Boom-a-roller had been put into a giant washing machine, but without water. It was dented all over. Sam and I would get inside and pretend we were in the washing machine along with the car. I would take the wheel and cry, “Boom-a-roller! Boom-a-roller! Boom-a-roller!” while bouncing up and down on the seat to make the car shake. And Sam’s magic laughter would climb all the way to the top of the slope of yellow sand. At which point we knew we had to skedaddle because if the owner heard us, it wouldn’t be long before he turned up. The labyrinth was his domain and he didn’t like anyone coming to play there. The older kids in the Demo had told us he set wolf traps to catch children playing close to his cars. So we always looked carefully where we put our feet.
Whenever the owner heard us, he would arrive yelling “What’s all this?” and we would have to scram before we got caught, climbing back up the slope, hanging onto the roots, fighting the fear that made breathing difficult, and run a long, long way from the shouts of “What’s all this?” Being fat and heavy, the guy couldn’t climb very far up the wall of sand.
One day, Sam grabbed hold of a too-slender root, and it broke. He fell straight down, landing a few inches from the huge hands that were trying to catch him. He leapt like a cat, I caught him by his sleeve, and we barely made it out of there. Once up top, we laughed in fright. We went to see Monica beneath the ivy to tell her about it. She laughed too, but warned us not to have any hassle with him. She said it just like that, in her voice that sounded like an old car horn, and with her beachy scent: “You know, kiddies, there are people you shouldn’t approach. You’ll learn that. There are people who’ll darken your skies, who’ll steal your joy, who’ll sit on your shoulders to stop you flying free. He is one such person. Stay well away from people like that.” I giggled, imagining the owner of the wrecking yard sitting on Sam’s shoulders. Then we left for the Demo because we heard the music—Tchaikovsky’s “Flower Waltz”—coming from the ice-cream man’s truck, bang on time, as he was every evening. We went to ask our father for some money. Sam always had two scoops, vanilla and strawberry. I chose chocolate and stracciatella, with whipped cream, even though whipped cream was forbidden: my father didn’t approve, I don’t know why. So I quickly gulped it down before we went home. It was a secret I shared with my little brother and the nice man in the truck. He was very old; he was bald, tall, and slender; and he wore a brown velvet suit. He would always tell us, in his gravelly voice and with a gleam in his eyes, “Eat it fast before it melts, kiddos, because it’s sunny and windy, and there’s nothing worse for ice cream.”
One summer evening, my mother had made peaches stuffed with tuna, which we ate on the blue stone terrace overlooking the garden. My father had already left the table to settle down in front of the TV with his bottle of Glenfiddich. He disliked spending time with us. I think nobody in our family liked gathering for the evening meal, but my father imposed this ritual upon us, as much as he imposed it upon himself. Because that’s how things were. A family takes its meals together, whether they enjoy it or not. That’s what we saw on TV. Except that people seemed happy on TV, particularly in the commercials. They chatted, they laughed. They were beautiful and loved each other. Family time was sold as a reward. Along with Ferrero Rocher, it was supposed to be the treat you were entitled to after long hours working in the office or at school. Our own family meals seemed more like a punishment, a big glass of piss we had to drink daily. Each evening proceeded according to a ritual that bordered on the sacred. My father would watch the TV news, explaining each subject to my mother—on the principle that she was incapable of comprehending the slightest bit of information without his enlightenment. The TV news was important to my father. Commenting on the news gave him the impression of having a role to play in it. As if the world depended upon his reflections in order to progress in the proper manner. When the end credits boomed out, my mother would yell: “Dinner’s ready!” My father would leave the TV on, and everyone would sit down to eat in silence. When he got up to return to his couch, we felt something like a liberation. That evening, too, like all the others.
Sam and I had left the table to go play in the garden. The sun caressed the fading day with a light that bore the sweet scent of caramelized honey. In the hallway, my mother was cleaning Coco’s cage. I had tried to tell my mother that it was cruel keeping a parakeet in a cage. Especially as the garden was full of them—which was a problem, in fact, because the parakeets ate the food of the little birds such as the sparrows and chickadees; not to mention our cherries, which they devoured before they had time to ripen on the tree. The reason we had parakeets around was that there had once been a small zoo several miles from the Demo. But it went bust when an amusement park opened nearby and drew all its visitors away. Most of the animals were sold to other zoos, but nobody gave a damn about the parakeets, and transporting them would have cost too much. So the director simply opened their cage. Perhaps he thought they’d die of cold. But they didn’t. On the contrary, they adapted, built nests, and had young. They always moved as a group, forming big green clouds that flew across the sky. It was pretty. Noisy but pretty.
I didn’t understand why that poor Coco had to stay in a cage and watch the others having fun without her. My mother said that it wasn’t the same, that she’d come from a store, that she wasn’t used to it. But still.
So my mother was cleaning Coco’s cage. It was “Flower Waltz” and ice-cream time. The truck had stopped alongside our house, by the hedge. The old ice-cream man was there, a dozen children chirruping around him. Monica had told me that he wasn’t like the owner of the car boneyard, he was kind. When she had talked about him, I had seen something strange in her eyes. I told myself that since they were both old, perhaps there had been something between them once. Perhaps a beautiful love story thwarted by old family feuds—I was reading quite a lot of Harlequin books at the time.
When the ice-cream man handed Sam his vanilla and strawberry ice cream, I looked at his hands. There’s something reassuring about old people’s hands. As I imagined how their delicate, elaborate mechanism had functioned and obeyed this fellow without him thinking about it, for such a long time, and as I thought about the tons of ice creams they had made, without ever letting him down, it gave me faith in something I couldn’t define. It was reassuring. The hands were beautiful too, the skin so thin over the tendons they were almost bare, the blue veins like streams.
He looked at me, eyes twinkling:
“And for you, my little darling?”
It was my turn. I’d been repeating the line in my head for the past five minutes. I didn’t like to improvise when ordering an ice cream, I don’t know why. There had to be someone in line ahead of me, giving me time to choose what I wanted and to put together my sentence. So it would come out right, with no hesitation. We were the last that day, the rest of the kids having had their ice cream and left already.
“Chocolate and stracciatella in a cone with whipped cream, please sir.”
“With whipped cream, my little lady! But of course …”
He winked as he pronounced the words “whipped cream” to let me know it was still our little secret. Then his hands, his two faithful dogs, set to work, repeating their little dance for the hundred-thousandth time. The cone, the ice-cream scoop, one scoop of chocolate, the tub of warm water, one scoop of stracciatella, then the siphon, a real siphon, containing homemade whipped cream.
The old man leaned forward to put a pretty whirl of cream on top of my two scoops. His blue eyes were open wide, tightly focused on the cloudy spiral, the siphon against his cheek, the movement gracious, precise. His hand so close to his face. Just when he had reached the summit of the little cream mountain, right when his finger was preparing to ease off and he was about to straighten up, the siphon exploded. BANG!
I remember the sound. It was the sound that petrified me first. It slammed into each wall of the Demo. My heart skipped two beats. It must have been heard as far as the depths of Little Gallows Wood, as far as Monica’s house.
Then I saw the kind old man’s face. The siphon had smashed into it like a car through the front of a house. Half of it was missing. His bald head remained intact, but his face was a mash of meat and bone. A single eye hung in its socket. I took it all in. I had time. The eye looked surprised. The old man stayed standing for a couple of seconds, as if his body needed time to realize that it now had mincemeat for a face. Then it crumpled.
It seemed like a joke. I could even hear laughter. Not real laughter, and not coming from me. I think it was death. Or fate. Or something like that. Something much bigger than myself. Some supernatural force that decides everything and that was in a mischievous mood that day, and so decided to have a little fun with the old man’s face.
I don’t remember much after that. I screamed. People came. They screamed too. My father came. Sam stood motionless, his big eyes open wide, his little mouth agape, clutching his cone of vanilla and strawberry ice cream. A man puked up melon with Parma ham. The ambulance arrived, then the hearse.
My father took us home, in silence, then returned to his seat in front of the TV. My mother gave the floor by Coco’s cage a quick sweep. I took Sam’s hand and led him to the goat pen. He followed me like a sleepwalker, staring straight ahead, mouth halfopen.
It all seemed unreal—the garden, the swimming pool, the rosemary, the night that was falling—or rather it seemed tinged with a new reality, the savage reality of flesh and blood, of pain, and the march of time, linear and relentless. But above all, it was the reality of that force I heard laughing as the old man’s body crumpled to the floor. That laughter which was neither within me nor outside me. That laughter which was everywhere, in everything, as was that force. It could find me wherever. No place to hide. And if I couldn’t hide, then nothing existed. Nothing but blood and terror.
I wanted to go see the goats because I hoped their ruminant indifference would pull me back to reality and that this would reassure me. The three of them were grazing in their pen. A bunch of parakeets perched on the branches of the cherry tree. Nothing made sense anymore. My reality had dissolved into a vertiginous void from which I saw no way out. A void so palpable I could feel its walls, its floor, and its ceiling tightening around me. I felt stifled by a primitive panic. I would have liked someone—an adult—to take me by the hand and put me to bed. Reposition the markers of my existence. Tell me there’d be a tomorrow after this day, and then another day after that, and that my life would eventually look like it had before. That the blood and the terror would dissipate.
But nobody came.
The parakeets ate the still-green cherries. Sam maintained his wide-eyed stare, mouth agape, little fist clutching the ice-cream cone covered with melted vanilla and strawberry. I told myself that if nobody was going to put me to bed, I could at least do that for Sam. I would have liked to talk to him, to tell him something reassuring, but I was unable. Panic hadn’t loosened its grip around my throat. I took him to my room and we both got into my bed. My window overlooked the garden, the goats, and the wood. The wind set the shadow of an oak tree dancing on the wooden floor. I couldn’t sleep. At one point I heard my mother coming upstairs. Then my father, an hour later. They never came up together, but they still shared the same bed. I imagined this must have been part of the “normal family” package, like the meals. I wondered sometimes whether there were moments of tenderness between them. Like there were between Sam and me. I wished it for them, without much conviction. I couldn’t imagine a life without tenderness, particularly on a night like this.
I watched each minute chasing the last on my clock radio. They seemed to get longer and longer. I felt like puking. But I didn’t want to get up and risk waking Sam if he’d been fortunate enough to fall asleep. His back was toward me, so I couldn’t see his eyes. Around five in the morning, something called me outside, a kind of intuition. I went down into the garden. The darkness terrified me even more than usual. I imagined there were creatures crouched in the shadows ready to gnaw off my face—the way the ice-cream man’s had been. I went as far as the goat pen. Nutmeg was standing a little apart from the others. A long, viscous thread hung beneath her tail.
I went back up to my room.
“Sam, the babies have come.” Those words, the first I had uttered since ordering my ice cream with whipped cream, sounded quite odd, as if they had come from a vanished world. Sam didn’t react.
I went to wake my mother, who came downstairs, quite beside herself. I don’t know how to describe an overexcited amoeba; it’s all messy and clumsy, and it talks fast and loud, dashing all over the place: “Warm water, camphor-alcohol, Betadine, towels, a wheelbarrow, straw …”
I pulled Sam out of my bed so he could come see. By the time we got down there, two little hooves had already appeared. Then a muzzle. Nutmeg pushed, bleated, pushed, bleated, pushed. It looked painful. And hard too. Then, all of a sudden, the kid slid out of her body. Nutmeg began pushing again, and bleating, pushing, bleating, pushing. There was a strange smell. A warm smell of body and guts. A second baby appeared. Nutmeg got up and, while she was licking her kids, a large brownish slimy mass spurted out of her and splatted on the ground. Nutmeg turned and began to eat the brownish mass. The warm smell had grown stronger. It seemed to emanate from Nutmeg’s belly to fill the whole of the earth’s atmosphere. I wondered how such a small goat could contain so much smell.
My mother got down on all fours and began to hug and kiss the baby goats. Two males. She rubbed her face all over their sticky little bodies. Then, still on all fours, she turned to us, her face smeared with residue from the amniotic sac.
“They will be called Cumin and Paprika.”
It was hot the following days. White sun pouring from an empty sky.
My father was on edge. He came home from work with furrowed brows. I had noticed before that he was like that when he hadn’t been hunting for a long while. He slammed the front door, chucked down his keys and briefcase, then began to search for a reason to spew all his rage. He went from room to room, scrutinizing everything in the house, the floor, the furniture, my mother, Coco, Sam, me. Sniffing out a scent. Times like those, we knew it was best to vanish to our bedrooms. My mother couldn’t, she had to prepare the meal. Sometimes he settled for merely grumbling before going to sit in front of the TV. This could go on for several days. Brewing. And then, as always, he finally found it.
He asked the question quite gently, and very quietly. My mother knew that whatever she said it wouldn’t go well. But she answered anyway.
“Macaroni with ham and cheese.”
“I know it’s macaroni with ham and cheese.”
He was still speaking very softly.
“Why did you make macaroni with ham and cheese?”
And the longer he spoke in this gentle voice, the more dreadful his building rage would be. This was the scariest moment for my mother, I think, when she knew it was going to come, that he was examining her, savoring her fear, taking his time. He acted as if it all depended on her answer. This was the game. But she lost every time.
“Well, everyone likes macaroni with—”
“EVERYONE? WHO IS THIS ‘EVERYONE’?”
And so it began. The best she could hope for was that my father’s anger would be expended in the yelling—which was in fact more like a roar. His voice detonated from his throat to devour my mother, ripping her to shreds, annihilating her. And my mother was OK with that. Annihilation. If the roaring didn’t suffice, his fists were ready to help out, until my father’s rage was totally spent. My mother always ended up on the floor, motionless. Like an empty pillowcase. After that, we knew we had a few weeks of calm ahead.
I don’t think my father liked his job. He was an accountant at the amusement park that had made the little zoo go bust. “The big eat the small,” he would say. It seemed to amuse him. “The big eat the small.” Personally, I thought it was amazing to work in an amusement park. When I set off for school each morning, I said to myself: “My father’s going to spend his day at the amusement park.”
My mother didn’t work. She looked after her goats, her garden, Coco, and us. She couldn’t care less about having her own money, as long as her credit card worked. Emptiness never seemed to bother my mother. Nor the absence of love.
The ice-cream man’s truck remained parked in front of our house for several days. I asked myself all sorts of questions. Who’s going to clean it? And once it’s been cleaned, what happens to the bucket full of water, soap, blood, bone fragments, and bits of brain? Will they pour it on the old man’s grave so that all the pieces of him stay together? Has the ice cream in the fridges melted? And if it hasn’t melted, will someone eat it? Can the police put someone in prison for asking for whipped cream? Will they tell my father?
At home, we never talked about the death of the old ice-cream man. Maybe my parents considered that the best response was to act as if nothing had happened. Or maybe they told themselves that the birth of the baby goats had made us forget the mincemeat face. But in fact, I think they had simply not given it any thought.
Sam remained silent for three whole days. I didn’t dare look in his big green eyes because I was sure that in them I would see, projected on a continuous loop, the film of that exploding face. He didn’t eat anything either. His fish and mashed potato grew cold on the plate. I tried to entertain him. He followed me around like a docile robot, but he was dead inside.
We went to see Monica. Something quivered beneath the skin on her neck when she learned what had happened to the ice-cream man. She looked at Sam. I hoped she’d do something for him, that she’d take out a cauldron, a magic wand, or an old spell book. But she just stroked his cheek.