washingtonpost.com
One Summer ...
Learning taxidermy and other tales under the sun

Memoir by Nicholson Baker
Sunday, July 10, 2005

One summer I lived in a house that was being renovated, in a bright yellow room, with a mattress on the floor. I woke up late and tried to type in bed. I was working on a story about a man who by chance runs into his brain on the street. His brain is wearing a jaunty hat and is in a hurry. It has some kind of a sales job. At night I walked to a restaurant called Gitsis Texas Hots and ordered two hot dogs and a cup of coffee and reviewed the day's work on "My Brain." The story was never finished.

One summer my family went on a boat in Ontario's Georgian Bay with another family. There was a girl who slept on the boat with her eyes open.

One summer a friend and I went on a bicycle trip. In a small town in New York state, somebody opened a car door, and we both collided with it and fell down on the street. And we were fine. Later, a flock of birds gathered in the tree above our sleeping bags in the early morning.

One summer in California I owned 100 shares of stock in Koss Corp., the headphone company. I bought a newspaper and discovered that the stock had doubled in value. I sold all my shares and bought a Honda Passport motor scooter. My girlfriend rode on the back, wearing a red helmet, and I had a blue helmet, and it was lots of fun except that she burned her leg on the muffler and had to go to the emergency room.

One summer my girlfriend and I got engaged, and we went to Jordan Marsh and bought a mattress and a box spring from a salesman named Sam. Sam said his wife liked a softer mattress, but he liked a firmer mattress. He led us to a mattress that was both firm and soft. The thing about this mattress, he explained, was that on it the two of us could "sleep to the edge." If you got a cheap queen-size mattress, he said, it was really like only getting a full-size mattress, because you couldn't sleep to the edge. We bought the mattress Sam recommended, and 20 years later we are still sleeping to the edge on it.

One summer I painted the floor and ceiling of a room in the same day. The paint didn't stick very well to the floor, however.

One summer I tried to write about a man I'd interviewed named Pavel Moroz. Mr. Moroz had invented something he called a microcentrifuge. He took tiny spheres of liquid and spun them at the highest speed he could spin them at, using a dentist's drill. Nothing spins faster than a dentist's drill, apparently. Mr. Moroz believed that ultracentrifugation would transform matter into new states of purity and whatnot. But nobody paid attention to him. When I talked to him, he was taking classes to become a licensed masseur.

One summer I had a paddle board, and I went up the side of a big wave to the top. Then I was under the wave looking up at its sunlit crest. Then I was turned some more, and I saw sand and gravel doing a little polka on the bottom. I had no idea there was so much going on inside a wave.

One summer there were several cars with trick horns installed that played "La Cucaracha."

One summer I heard someone next door typing on an electric typewriter while I sat outside in the sun. I listened to the swatting of the keys and thought how rare that sound was now. I tore an article out of the newspaper about the bankruptcy of Smith-Corona.

One summer I sat at a table with Donald Barthelme, the short-story writer, while he drank a bloody Mary. He said he was planning to buy a new stereo system. I recommended that he go with Infinity loudspeakers.

One summer I worked for a company that made modems. I began working 12 hours a day. In the morning, driving to work, I held the coffee cup in my teeth when I was unwrapping a doughnut. Once, passing a truck, I forgot that the coffee cup was there, and I whipped my head around to be sure a car wasn't in the next lane, sloshing coffee on my shirt and my seat belt. Another time a can of 7-Up exploded in the glove compartment. The car, a Dodge Colt, began to have a sweetish smell that I liked.

One summer my grandmother took us to visit a blind woman who lived by the sea. The woman told us that when she swam, she would listen for her dog, who barked whenever she drifted too far from shore. Once she went out to do errands and didn't come home till very late. Her dog had had a bathroom emergency under a knicknack shelf, away from where she would step, which she thought was very considerate.

One summer I worked at a place where they stored old copying machines. I learned to drive a forklift, and I drove it around the old copying machines, beeping the horn, which made a plummy "meep meep." The second floor was filled with metal desks, and when it was break time, I would go up there to read spy novels. One of the people I worked with wandered around these desks drinking clear fluid from a bottle. That man sure drinks a lot of water, I thought. He opened and closed the drawers of the desks, checking to see if something of value had been left behind. I would listen to the sound of drawers opening and closing, far away and nearer by, and fall asleep.

One summer I went to Italy with my girlfriend and her family. My girlfriend's uncle brought a set of dissolvable capsules containing foam circus animals. Every night at cocktail hour we dropped one capsule into a glass of water. As each foam leg emerged, we would say, "There's another leg!"

One summer two of my friends and I found a loose door. We hauled it up to the top of the garage roof and positioned it there with some struts so that we could sit on the door and look out at the world. There wasn't much to do once we were up there except eat crackers, and the asphalt roof shingles were soft and easily torn, like pan pizza, we discovered. They overlapped unnecessarily, wastefully, so we tore off quite a number of them and flung them down. They glided like Frisbees. My parents were unhappy because they had to have the garage reroofed.

One summer I worked as a waiter in a fancy restaurant that had been owned by a reputed mobster. The mobster sold the restaurant to the head chef for a lot of money. But many of the people who'd gone to the restaurant had been friends and associates of the reputed mobster -- when he stopped going, they stopped going. So business dropped, and I stood wearing a ruffle-fronted shirt with a black bow tie, looking out at the empty tables.

One summer I converted all my old word-processing files, written on a Kaypro computer, to DOS. And that was fun.

One summer a guy down the street got mad at the fact that people were allowing their dogs to poop every day in front of his yard. He took some white plastic forks and put them in the dog poops. They looked like little sailboats.

One summer we had four fans set up in the upstairs bedrooms. One fan started smoking, and our alert dog barked to let us know. Then we had three fans.

One summer I read the Edmund Scientific catalogue a lot of times and fantasized about owning a walkie-talkie and communicating with my friends with it. But a set cost $100.

One summer I was on the verge of making a bologna sandwich. I had the tomato in my hand, and I'd opened the door of the refrigerator, and I was looking down at the jar of mayonnaise on the bottom shelf, and then I thought, No, no bologna right now. And I closed the refrigerator door. I was able to resist that bologna and put it out of my mind.

One summer I read an old copy of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater with great fascination.

One summer my father put up a Tarzan swing in our back yard. My friend and I used an old refrigerator crate as the leaping-off point, with two smaller boxes on top of that for extra height. We swung so high that we could grab a branch in a spruce tree and hold onto it. Then one time the branch broke, and my friend fell. He lay on his back going, "Orf, orf." I was worried and got my mother. She said he'd had the wind knocked out of him, but that he would be fine. And he was.

One summer I got a crush on a girl who was 11 and had a sunburn. I was 11 and sunburned at the time as well.

One summer my father planted an herbaceous border in our yard. I helped him plant the Santolina incana and mix in the peat moss. On weekdays he would go out after dinner and water in the dark, so that if I went out to get him I could only see the spray from the hose reflecting the porch light, and hear his whistling.

One summer I went to see a new movie called "Annie Hall" with two women who played the harp. One harp player didn't like the movie, one harp player really didn't like it, and I liked it a lot.

One summer I spent a lot of time in my room trying to learn how to handstand. But one of my wrists was not flexible enough.

One summer a photographer was doing an ad for a bank and needed a woman to make a funny face. He called up my mother because he had heard that she could make funny faces. The two of them went out onto the front porch, and he said to her, "Okay, now make a funny face." She grimaced, then laughed. He said, "Try not to laugh. Good. Now puff out your cheeks." So she puffed out her cheeks. The ad, announcing a higher interest rate on savings accounts, came out in the newspaper. The picture looked nothing like my mother. I spent a good deal of time making funny faces in the mirror in case a photographer called me.

One summer I went to a science camp called Camp Summersci. We were driven in a used hearse to places of scientific interest. In Herkimer, N.Y., we chiseled quartz crystals called Herkimer diamonds out of a rocky hillside. One of the campers was a kid who knew more about the Lord of the Rings than I did. We talked about the Lord of the Rings for many hours in the back of the hearse.

One summer my father and I put up a basketball hoop on the garage, and I played basketball with myself for a week and then stopped.

One summer a new friend said we should learn taxidermy at home. He sent off for Lesson One. The course instructed us to look around for dead squirrels to stuff. I told him I didn't know where any dead squirrels were. His voice was already changing, and mine wasn't. He laughed: "Heh-heh." I laughed nervously back. He shook his head and said, "See, I knew you'd laugh. All I have to do is pretend to laugh, and you laugh."

One summer my girlfriend was unhappy with me when we went out for dinner because I pulled the onions out of my salad with my fingers and put them on the bread plate along with a glob of salad dressing. Later I leapt up from the table to watch a brief fistfight between a waiter and a patron. I said I was sorry, and she forgave me.

One summer my daughter learned how to read the word "misunderstanding."

One summer I rode to the top of a hill on my bike and then coasted, and the wind came under the back of my neck and down in my shirt and cooled me down. It felt very good. This was somewhere in West Virginia.

One summer my friend Steve and I went out to a movie. He was getting his medical degree then. He suggested we go buy some cheese at the Super Duper. That sounded like a good idea to me. We bought two large pieces of mozzarella cheese and got into his car and ate them, talking about the current state of science fiction.

One summer I worked at a job where we had to wash hundreds of Venetian blinds in a tall metal tank that stood in a loud room next to the air circulation fans. We dipped the blinds in soapy water in the tank, and then we moved them up and down. The dipping was supposed to remove the dust from the slats, but the dust had bonded with the paint, and it stayed. So the man said we had to wash the slats by hand, with a rag. This made the white paint come off. We put all the blinds back in the windows, although they were bent and peeling and sorry-looking.

One summer I went to a Nautilus fitness center at the Americana Hotel in Rochester, N.Y. I did various strenuous things on the machines, and then I crossed the street to McDonald's and ordered two Big Macs. My hand trembled so much from the exercise that I could barely push the straw through the little cross in the lid of my root beer.

One summer my son and I built a treehouse near the compost pile. We painted it green. We ate dinner up there a few times.

One summer, after my wife and I spent all day packing boxes, I had a dream in which I'd grown a split personality that snarled and lunged at me like a police dog. I woke up and lay perfectly still, too afraid to close my eyes or click on the light. After several minutes of motionless nostalgia for the days when I had been a sane person, I finally touched my wife and said, "Dear one?" She made a questioning noise from deep in her sleep. I said, "I'm sorry to wake you, but I'm having some kind of unusual panic attack." She said, "I'm so sorry, baby." I said, "It's really bad. I'm scared about everything. I'm even scared to turn on the light." She said, "I'll hold you. Everything is good. Go back to sleep now." She held me, and I turned a different way in the bed, and the fear dissolved, and I went back to sleep. I woke up feeling fine.

One summer I warmed up a bowl of hot fudge in a microwave and then dropped it onto the kitchen floor of a Howard Johnson's and burned myself.

One summer my friend and I dug in his back yard using a hose to blast holes deep in the dirt. We made a series of small ponds and bogs. My friend's mother was unhappy with us because the water bill was very high.

One summer my family and I ate dinner at a restaurant that had a machine that made saltwater taffy. The machine had two double-pronged forks that folded and stretched the taffy ball onto itself until there were unimaginable numbers of layers. When the taffy had been stretched and folded enough times, a man rolled it into a loaf and mounted it in a machine that cut it and wrapped the cut pieces with wax paper wrappers. The device that twisted the wrapper ends moved too fast for the eye to see. The taffy man looked at us without acknowledging us or smiling. He had a small mustache. He had no privacy -- he was like a zoo creature.

One summer we moved from Boston to New York state. I was driving the old brown car and my wife was driving the new red car down Route 5 and 20. There was a big hot blue sky and enormous trees. I rolled my window all the way down. Immediately the wind sucked a map of New York state off my dashboard. In my rearview mirror I saw the pale creased shape float on air for a moment, as if deciding what to do. Then it plastered itself to my wife's windshield, where she pulled it inside. She waved.

One summer I wrote "Truth wears sunglasses" in my notebook.

Nicholson Baker's novels include The Mezzanine, Vox and Checkpoint.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company