Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond
by Lis Anna-Langston

Published: 2022-05-24T00:0
Kindle Edition : 368 pages
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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. Often left in the care of a paranoid schizophrenic uncle who lives downstairs and a psychotic uncle upstairs, the ...
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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. Often left in the care of a paranoid schizophrenic uncle who lives downstairs and a psychotic uncle upstairs, the narrator stacks up a few heartbreaking observations. One child's vulnerability and resilience to forces beyond her control make a raw and colorful splash in this tenderhearted memoir. ~ A recommended read by the US Review

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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 . . .

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Discussion Questions

1. Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond is composed in a style of novel writing known as Roman à clef. In this French style real life events are altered only slightly and presented as fiction. Did you like finding this out at the end? Was it compelling to learn this was a real story, about real people?

2. What did you think about the relationship between Cotton and Stan? Was it endearing? Was it part of what brought friendship to the story?

3. What was your biggest takeaway when you finished the Author’s Note and closed the book?

4. How thought-provoking did you find the book? Did the book change your opinion about any of the issues related, or did you learn something new from the characters or plot? If so, what?

5. What aspects of this story could you relate to? What aspects were completely foreign? 6. If you had to pick one character from Skinny Dipping in a Dirty Pond and make them a superhero, which character would it be and what superpower would you give them?

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