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“I expect you might think the story I am about to tell you is untrue or perversely gothic in some unhealthy way. You might even think I’ve exaggerated the facts in order to twist this book into a modern-day metaphor on the exploitation of human creation, as did Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. Maybe you’ll think I’m trying to spook you with a psychological tale of a murderous double as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “William Wilson,” or to stir up family shame as Hawthorne did in The House of the Seven Gables. But my story is entirely different.”
So begins Jack Gantos’ unnerving drama about three generations of family and friends in a small western Pennsylvania town, held together by the secrets of obsessional mother love–a love so blood-bound that, once revealed, it has no choice but to turn against its keepers.
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Jack Gantos has written books for all ages from children to adult, including the popular Rotten Ralph series. He is nationally recognized as a leading presenter on creative writing and literature for both teachers and students. He lives with his wife and daughter in Boston, Massachusetts.
From the Cassette edition.
The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs
1CURSEDIn the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination.--Wallace StevensTHE TWINS I am a young woman now, but when I was seven years old something unexpected happened that changed my life forever. It was Easter Sunday when a dramatic manifestation of the Rumbaugh curse was revealed to me. I found Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh's dead mother--for the first time--and it left the greatest impression.Abner and Adolph were identical twins, and they grew more and more alike as they got older. There was no simple way to tell them apart, and after years of trying people gave up. Even when one brother was alone shopping along Main Street in our small western Pennsylvania town, people greeted him as "the Twins.""How are the Twins?" a shopkeeper might ask the one who entered his store."We are fine," the single Twin would reply, perfectly comfortable to be both himself and his brother.They were already old when I was born, and for as long as I remember I had thought they were living pieces of history, like the smoky, bug-specked photographs of Civil War soldiers lining the halls in the Westmoreland County Courthouse.Everything about the Twins aged in a singular way, so that they stood out among other men as if they were an idiosyncratic variation within a breed, like cats with extra toes, or albino birds with see-through feathers. The Twins' waxy white hair was horsetail thick and glazed with the dirty gold color of old teeth and tobacco, and their thin, nearly transparent skin looked like milk spilled over a road map of blue and red veins. They were pharmacists, and I've never seen hands as clean as theirs, which they hygienically scrubbed to a ruddy glow at the beginning and end of each workday with a strong boar's hair nailbrush dipped in a shallow dish of coarse salt. When I asked if it hurt to scrub his hands, Ab (or it could have been Dolph) replied as if his words were a medical college oath he had pledged to uphold, "Good health is built on the foundation of a sanitary science." He held his hands erect before him as if he were drying two white-hot flames.Nothing they did ever seemed accidental or whimsical, and pain or difficulty never stopped them from being thorough. You could always find some sense of purpose in their fixed eyes, which were as blue as the Dresden blue porcelain drawer pulls their mother had bought them for a gift after they graduated from pharmacy school in 1944. Once they returned home to Mount Pleasant from the University of Pittsburgh, they establishedtheir own business and worked diligently to keep up with the steady flow of Frick Hospital prescriptions and local clientele. It was only imprecision brought on by exhaustion that sent them down into their basement workshop to relax. Like many men in fish-and-game towns, they practiced taxidermy as a hobby. The Twins competed in contests at the Westmoreland County Fair and as far east as the county fairs in York and Lancaster and north up to Beaver Falls and Erie.It was with great pride that within the pharmacy they displayed their winning entries in dust-proof glass-and-oak cases set on top of the tall shelves. In order that their handiwork be viewed more clearly, Ab and Dolph shimmed the back legs of the cases so they tilted downward for everyone to see. There was a set of squirrel pharmacists grinding medications with a mortar and pestle. There were conjoined pigs dressed in black suits, which they titled CHANG AND ENG after the famous Siamese twins. Another pair of Siamese twins--kittens this time--were titled THE HILTON SISTERS after Daisy and Violet Hilton. One kitten wore a blond wig, the other a brunette, and they were posed in tiny wedding gowns after a scene from the movie poster advertising their biographical film, Chained for Life. In another case a white mink slept on a little tufted bed while a black mink hovered above him. Below the scene was written: "I could not love except where Death was mingling his with Beauty's breath.--E. A. Poe."There were dozens more, many decorated with blue and red prize ribbons and some with brassy shoulder braids like on anarmy general. I especially liked the long case that was labeled in gold script across the bottom of the frame THE RUMBAUGH BROOD--FITTER FAMILY CONTEST WINNER. In it was a father mink, a mother mink, and a dozen mink children in descending stair-step order, with all of them standing straight up in healthy muscleman poses except for the mother. She was cradling twin mink babies in her arms. Beneath each mink was a name, but I always skipped over them and read just the Twins' names, ADOLPH AND ABNER (PERFECT TWINS), because it made me smile warmly to think of them as cute little minks. Across the top of the frame was printed EUGENIC HEALTH EXHIBIT--WESTMORELAND COUNTY FAIR, 1921. Hanging from the corner was a gold medal kept in full shine with the image of parents reaching for a plump, smiling child, who in turn was reaching for them. Circling the family were the words "Yea, I Have a Goodly Heritage."The Twins' father, Peter Rumbaugh, who was a mink farmer and taxidermist, had made the display for the Westmoreland Chapter of the Eugenics Research Association after the Rumbaugh family was awarded the Fitter Family Medal. He practiced taxidermy on minks from his mink farm, and the Twins, before he signed them over for adoption to the Eugenics Research Association, must have watched him. He even made them baby toys of stuffed animals on wheels--also on display--little minks and squirrels and chickens with metal loops through their noses and beaks to which leather pull cords were attached. Many years later he sent the Twins the pull toys and family mink exhibit in an attempt to reconciletheir ruined relationship--which I will explain later. But no gesture could assuage their feeling that he had betrayed them. Besides, their mother, Mrs. Rumbaugh, with whom the Twins lived, steadfastly forbade the mention of his name.As a child I stood on a step stool for hours and studied the various displays and creatures, admiring their fixed postures and expressions, the meticulously painted backgrounds, and especially their tiny clothes which the Twins had sewn with the help of their mother. She was good with her hands and made extra money by braiding elaborate mourning jewelry from the long hairs of the dead.Despite their peculiar activities, the Twins always presented themselves very earnestly to the world. They wore identical black boiled-wool three-piece suits, each with a collarless white shirt which was fastened at the top with a single copper stud the size of a tack head. They wore the same shirts all week, so that circles of green oxidation edged the white buttonholes where the studs pressed just below their Adam's apples. On Sundays they wore the same suits, with freshly laundered and starched collared shirts and black ribbon bow ties. They were thin necked--"pencil necked" my mother called them--but because of their age both had identical wattles of ruddy chicken skin gathered over the collars of their shirts. When they spoke they pecked at the air as if the words were grains of corn, and their wattles flopped about like deflated balloons.For some inexplicable reason, unknown to me when I was young, I was born deeply in love with the Twins. I adoredthem so much it hurt to see their physical flaws because I wanted them to be perfect in the way you wish a drawing to appear on paper as precisely as you saw it in your mind. I wished I could have taken a small scissors and snipped off the extra folds of skin and finely sewn the necks back together and smoothed the scars with lanolin. I knew even then it could not have been difficult to do so.
On that astonishing Easter morning, my mother and I had worn matching yellow dresses with wide white patent-leather belts pulled tightly round our waists. We wore identical yellow satin headbands with our black hair pushed back behind our ears and our bangs combed forward to just above our dark eyebrows. She wore red lipstick, and after she kissed me on the lips we examined ourselves in the mirror and I was very pleased to see that my lips were red, too. "Mom and mini-Mom" we called ourselves as we left the Kelly Hotel and walked in our black patent-leather shoes down Diamond Street toward the Transfiguration Polish Catholic Church. It was a warm sunny day and I was very happy.Easter Mass is always a festive service at T.P.C.C., with potted lilies lining the central aisle at every oak pew. Their white blossoms were pointed toward the altar, where the glowing monstrance stood like a golden lighthouse. The sacred body of Christ beamed out through that glass eye as mysteriously as a holy Cyclops. Along the walls polite arrangements of carnations graced the feet of the apostles and saints. But an earlyspring garden of vibrant flowers framed the stained-glass window that pictured a trapped coal miner kneeling in prayer before the image of the Virgin Mary. The older ladies in black dresses may have lost husbands, brothers, and sons in the local coal mines, yet they never lost hope that the buried would someday emerge from the ground like Lazarus, a miracle to behold. Once, a coal tunnel dug by mistake under the edge of town caved in. Above it, buildings staggered, then toppled. Trees slipped down holes like vanishing scarves in a magic trick. The older ladies gathered on the banks of the open trench, calling out names, hoping their lost men might be alive like the French troops who had been trapped in their elaborate tunnels during World War II, only to surface years later, blinking and pale as grubs.After Father Baumann led us in prayer, he pointed out how the trumpet-shaped lily blossoms announced the good news of salvation. Then he transfixed me with the story of how Jesus had been fitted with the crown of thorns, nailed to the rugged cross He had been savagely beaten to carry, then pierced with a spear and left to bleed to death. He was laid to rest in the cool stone tomb and later came back from the dead and wandered about, convincing Doubting Thomas and performing various miracles, before ascending on a gilded cloud toward the blue curtain of the sky, where God and the Holy Spirit and a chorus of angels in shimmering robes reached out to greet Him.This all created a beautifully staged pageant in my mind andhad me thinking about coming back from the dead and what that might mean. Could you come back all healed? Would you remember who you were? Would you remember where you had been while dead? Or was there no coming back for us regular people? Was death for us just a stone hole of lonely black air where there was no difference between keeping your eyes open and keeping them closed?I had turned toward my mother to whisper these questions in her ear when I saw she was crying. Her open eyes were like shards of ice melting. Suddenly a strong feeling flooded my heart with as much power and clarity as any thought which had ever entered my mind. I knew she was feeling what Mary had felt. While everyone in Jerusalem was looking up to heaven and praising God, Mary was weeping inside her child's empty tomb. How could Jesus endure leaving her behind, I wondered, when just the thought of leaving my mother for a moment was unbearable? He preferred the glory of heaven above, but I preferred my beautiful mother, who was heaven on earth.I slid my hand across the pew and held hers, which was always as warm and soft as the inside of fresh bread. I waited until we were outside before I asked the question on my mind. "If you die first, would you come back from the dead if you could?""Ivy Spirco, if I could look halfway decent and not moldy like Lazarus, who was more of a zombie, I will. Otherwise," she said without melancholy, "I'll just stretch out on a nice cumulus cloud and wait for you.""And what if I die first?" I asked.She waved off the question. "God forbid," she said, then before I could hang on her coat sleeve and tug more talk out of her, Ab and Dolph swung forward and blocked our path like a set of identical doors.They belonged to the German Lutheran church up on Main Street. My mother had told me that the difference between the Catholics and the Lutherans was that when Catholics got out of church they were more relieved than when they entered, and when Lutherans got out of church they were more worried. Neither seemed right to me. I always wanted to stay in church and imagine my mother and me in heaven, dressed as tiny brides and living side by side in towering wedding-cake houses."Excuse me," one of the Twins said, snapping to attention."Would you care to retire to the pharmacy for some Easter refreshments?" the other enunciated, speaking precisely, as if he were adding up numbers rather than asking a simple question.They were very odd talkers, because when they spoke in public their thoughts lashed out like military announcements, and when they spoke in private conversation, they only whispered like conspirators hatching a plot. But I was used to them because every day I spent a few hours at the pharmacy between when I got out of school and when Mom's bus pulled in from Greensburg, where she worked as a courtroom stenographer."Let's go," I said to Mom, and squeezed her hand as ifspurring a horse. We had plans to have Easter lunch at the Kelly Hotel dining room, but we still had time for refreshments. Besides, the Twins kept cold drinks and tubs of ice cream behind their gray marble and pleated chrome soda counter, and I had given up ice cream for Lent and was eager for a bowlful.Mom glanced at her watch. "We'd love to," she replied, then reached out to brush something that looked like sawdust off Ab's or Dolph's coat sleeve. "Termites?" she asked playfully.He looked horrified and awkwardly jerked away from her, then slapped at his sleeve as if it were on fire. "It's nothing," he said nervously. "Nothing at all."It was something, but I was too fixated on ice cream at the time to care about a little sawdust. "Let's go," I said, and hauled Mom forward. As she passed the Twins she gripped Ab's or Dolph's hand and he grabbed his brother's. They were slow walkers when they had to follow, and they were speed walkers when they led."Come on, Ab," she said as if coaxing a donkey. "Pick it up, Dolph."I could never tell one from the other so seldom chanced any name and stuck with pronouns, but Mom never cared if she had gotten their names right. When I was younger I thought she possessed psychic powers for telling them apart, but as I grew older I realized the Twins simply adjusted to whichever name she gave them. They were as interchangeable to each other as they were to us. They told me that themselves."You heard her," Dolph snapped at Ab. "Don't be slow-footed.""Don't you be, neither," Ab said curtly, and clenched his jaw."Now, boys," Mom said, and she yanked again on Dolph's hand and in turn he yanked on Ab's and we tacked down the brick sidewalk all leaning forward as if battling headwinds.They were seventy-one years old.
I broke my Lenten fast with three scoops of chocolate ice cream in a white glass sundae dish that was the shape of an eyewash cup. I ate quickly because I had something else on my mind. Something thrilling. In the basement I had my special after-school play area, which I called the Rabbit's Hideaway because the floor was mat...
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