Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Devil in Me by Kurt Krumpholz
Angel Lazorzak's mother was a witch and she put a spell on me in fifth grade.
Swear to God.
In retrospect, the name should have been a tip-off. But it wasn't. Had their last name been Schmidt or Williams or Harkins or anything a bit less exotic, I could have been excused. But with a last name like Lazorzak? I should have seen it coming. It's a name right out of the Devil's Handbook for crying out loud. And Angel's mother sure fit that bill all right. Not at all like Angel. And not like any of the other kids' moms in the neighborhood. Mrs. Lazorzak wasn't your Main-Street-Brownie-den-leader-mom or your church-bake-sale-and-garden-club variety mother. No. Somehow she wasn't cut out to be anything other than what she was; a harsh, too-loud, overbearing woman with leathery, over-tanned skin; a smoker's yellow, crenellated fingernails; and a deep, raspy bourbon voice.
But never mind all of that right now. In truth, my first real problem wasn't Mrs. Lazorzak at all. It was Angel.
Christ. Already in fifth grade I couldn't keep it reeled in when I saw a pretty girl. And Angel? Well...Angel was a girl who looked like the name was tailor made for her. Lemony hair and skin. Bright white teeth and gelid eyes as icy blue as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. It was common knowledge around school that Angel was the prettiest girl in the fifth grade at John F. Kennedy Elementary; a brand new, one-story school building considered, in 1968, to be the apogee of modern and enlightened educational environments. Its bright terrazzo floors and glossy enameled cinderblock walls, its classrooms nimbused in radiant green florescent lighting, the faintly musty aroma of wet cement that suffused the air when it rained, the cooling scent of chalk on slate, and the commingled odor of dust and grass stains after a hot spring afternoon recess„were all nothing short of mythological in purport to me.
Angel and I were in the same class. Our teacher, Miss Bungerworth, was a spry and bubbly single woman with a chrome-blond helmet of hair and a predilection for tight-fitting, slubbed-cotton dresses in bright pastel colors, and charm bracelets that tinkled like little sleigh bells when she wrote on the chalkboard. Angel sat in the first row. I sat right behind her in the second, occupying most of my time staring longingly at the back of her head; marveling at her limpid, flaxen hair; the rosy tips of her ears; the faint haze of glinty down on her flushed cheeks.
She was as exotic to me, in the epitome of normalcy she represented, as Wonder Bread and Ring-Dings were extraordinary in the seeded-rye-and-hard-salami world of my rigidly sensible household. The just-washed aroma of Johnson's Baby Shampoo and Ivory soap she exuded were, in and of themselves, enough to send my errant fantasies on a wild pursuit of everything I imagined was decent and healthy about the ceremony of prevailing conventions so desperately lacking from my own life. Whenever I could, I surreptitiously leaned my face forward and inhaled deeply the encouraging whiff of cool temperateness that was to me so totally in accord with popularly accepted standards of order, so encouraging and uplifting to me as to supersede religion itself. Even the most tangential contact with the penumbral fringe of her aura, the outer layers of atmosphere that enveloped this celestial body I orbited each day, was at once so alluring, so elusive, and so addictive„and yet, somehow still so tantalizingly within my reach„that she came to embody for me, at the nascent age of eleven, everything that waited somewhere off in the distant future of my grown up years like the promise of an earthly salvation. I dreamed of being a normal child like her, raised in a normal family like the one from which I was certain she had sprung; in a normal house, with normal food in the fridge and decent normal siblings; instead of the cold physical austerity and blustery emotional turmoil of my own upbringing.
Unlike any other girl I knew, Angel also chewed her fingernails. Instead of the slender and polished pink or red claws other girls brandished, she sported blunt and boyish fingers chewed down to nubs with only the slightest crescent of a nail at the end of each digit. This fact, coupled with her otherwise overtly serious manner and coy shyness, which stood in stark contrast to my own history of noisy hyperactivity and, of late, notorious predisposition toward juvenile misdemeanor, merely reaffirmed my suspicions of her otherworldly origins.
I was in love with her while at the same time thoroughly convinced I was completely invisible to her. For she never once sat near me at lunch or talked to me on the playground or did anything that might otherwise acknowledge she was in any way aware of my presence in this world.
So when one day Angel ran up to me on the way home from school, completely out of the blue and for no reason I could think of at the time„although in later years I would come to suspect it was due to a combination of loneliness and some sort of sixth sense about my own budding predilections„and asked me if I wanted to come over to her house and play, I almost literally jumped at the chance. "Uh, sure," I said, trying my best to conceal the agitated state of shock I had been plunged into. "How 'bout tomorrow?"
She smiled. "Okay," she said, her voice filled with unsuppressed glee. She tucked a loose strand of blond hair behind her left ear and then skipped off ahead of me toward home. Her brilliant white skirt flounced behind her like the tail of a rabbit bounding across a morning lawn still wet with dew.
I had passed the blank face of Angel's house many times, with a sinking heart, on my way to, or home from, school. But never once did I dare to so much as step foot on their curb. The Lazorzaks lived just down the hill and around the bend from us in the same subdivision of Pheasant Run, a neighborhood of brand-new, split-level homes, so uniform, bland, and uncompromisingly featureless as to have been stamped out of plastic on some massive assembly line in the steaming bowels of the Midwest. I was convinced that everyone in my neighborhood hailed from some adjunct of this same factory that cast and molded stock families emboldened with typical middle-American values and character. All except for my own, of course.
Because my parents were both immigrants, we were nothing if not renegades and outcasts in the eyes of those with whom we shared this enclave of apple pie homogeneity. But imagine my surprise to find that Angel's was an even more unusual, an even more eccentric, house than anything I was accustomed to or had ever imagined possible. So unlike the squeaky clean TV-fantasy world I imagined all my friends and neighbors inhabited in a seemingly parallel and impenetrable universe contiguous to the one I was marooned in.
The first thing that struck me when Angel swung open her front door that afternoon was an overpowering miasma of mildew and fungal funk; a rank-smelling moldiness given off by the slow decay of upholstered furniture left out in the rain. Angel looked over at me with a doubtful smile. I turned away and stood looking at the dark and airless rooms. How could this be her house, I wondered as my eyes adjusted to the gloom? A heavy and talc-like dustiness hung in the air struggling in tandem with the caustic reek of cat urine to strangle my breath. Immediately to the left of the door was a pile of yellowed newspapers stacked in a leaning tower of parchment taller than me. And on the coffee table, side boards, credenzas, stacked in precarious piles on the floor, backed up in corners, and even heaped on the stairs to the second floor„everywhere I looked„were books. Hardcover books and paperback books left splayed facedown on the side tables and armchair cushions. Literary journals and magazines like Harpers and The New Yorker left lying open around the house. I had never before seen so many books and periodicals in one place outside of a library. Not just the color magazine insert from the Sunday paper or a couple of just-for-show volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Classics lined up amidst Hummel figurines on the living room shelves like we had at home. No. These were serious books; thick and dusty, sheathed in tattered dust jackets marred by coffee cup rings, with dog-eared and yellowed pages, and scraps of old store receipts and slivers torn from spiral bound notebooks used as bookmarks sticking out of the pages at odd angels like lolling paper tongues. These were, in short, books that were clearly used, lived with, and obviously well-read.
I was instantly mystified as if being let into the inner sanctum of some secret cabal or stumbling into the midst of a strange and undiscovered alien race. Before I could catch my breath, a large, sad-eyed St. Bernard with a beard of foamy drool approached from out of the gloom of a side room. He advanced toward me with a rumbling growl in his throat, his long nails clicking on the imitation parquet flooring, his eyes fixed dead on mine. Instinctively, I froze. He padded up to me and stopped, nonchalantly sniffing my yellow and black striped T-shirt once, then twice, before running his rough and slobbery tongue up the side of my face. I recoiled, my heart pounding, then slowly opened my eyes and wiped my palm across my cheek. "Yech!" I muttered.
"That's jez Wilbur," someone shouted from the other room. The voice brayed like a lighthouse fog horn in the distance. "He won't hurt ya. Don't you nevermind him."
I stiffened. Angel turned to me and grinned. "That's my mom." She rolled her eyes and giggled.
"Oh," I said, drying my wet hand on the thigh of my jeans. I squinted through the darkness of the living room off toward the kitchen.
"I told her you were coming. I don't have friends over much." Her voice was oddly plaintive, as if betraying some secret loneliness or unspoken embarrassment.
I silently nodded my head and looked around me. If there was anything more foreign or more alien in the world than that house, I had never seen or heard of it. Not even in National Geographic photos of sagging-breasted aborigines in the outback had I seen anything quite so odd and grotesque and, at the same time, exalted as this.
Mrs. Lazorzak emerged from the kitchen carrying a perspiring glass of iced tea in her left hand and a thin book tucked under her other arm. The ice clinked in her glass as she walked. She was a tall, thin woman, seemingly much older than my mom, dressed in blue canvas boat shoes (without socks), paint-spattered chinos with a rip at the knee, and a faded denim shirt left untucked. Her coarse and wiry blond hair was streaked with ash gray and pulled back into a tight ponytail. A telltale green pack of Kool cigarettes poked out of the shirt's breast pocket. "So, this must be your little friend, Angel, huh?" she said. She stopped and looked down at me with suspicious regard, then took a sip of the drink.
"Yes, Mommy. This is Morgan Heller. He's in Mrs. Bungerworth's class with me."
"Well, I'll be," she said, smacking her lips. "Enchanted." She dipped slightly at the knees in a mock curtsey, then laughed out loud and doubled over, coughing up a lung full of phlegm. Still bent over, and gasping for breath, she reached out and pushed aside a mound of books to set her iced tea down on the coffee table, then righted herself, pounding her swelled chest with her fist. "Damn cigarettes," she said in a hoarse and rasping wheeze. She cleared her throat and held out her hand. The book was still in it.
I thought for a second, then cautiously extended my hand as if to shake hers, fighting off the unsettling feeling that I was preparing to submit to some grave and perilous act. I watched her closely with an air of expectancy as though I honestly thought she might at any moment simply whack me over the head with the book. I was dizzy with bewilderment. Noting my confusion, she chuckled again and looked at it. "Whatsamatter, Morgan? Never seen a book of poetry before?" She glanced down at me and smiled, revealing her tobacco-stained teeth, then leaned over bringing her face close to mine. She poked me once gently in the chest with the edge of the book as if testing to see whether I would topple over backward.
And so I took it and allowed her obsession to enter into my soul, unaware that the moment would mark the very beginning of my lifelong illness; my enduring struggle with books. The inception of the bibliophile I was eventually to become in adulthood can be traced back directly to that instant when I reluctantly received the portentous benediction of Mrs. Lazorzak's offering.
In later years my own house would come, in some ways very deliberately and in others quite unintentionally, to resemble the Lazorzak's, in spite of the fact that I lost touch with them the summer after sixth grade when they moved back to their ancestral home in coastal South Carolina. When I was twenty-eight I married a girl who, in retrospect, I have come to recognize as the spitting image of womanhood I imagine Angel was destined to evolve into. My addiction to books is now such that their gradual accretion over the years has built a collection that eclipses all rational means of restraint. Like the Lazorzak's house of my childhood, every table and flat surface in my home is banked with cocked towers of books. The sagging
bookshelves in every room are all stockpiled at least two deep. Even the floors around my bed, the armchairs and couches in the family and living rooms, are adrift with a hodgepodge flotilla of backlogged books.
Yet I still continue, unchecked, to amass more and more: brand new hardcover novels, worn paperbacks picked up cheap at used bookstores, two, three, and sometimes even four different editions of particularly loved texts. Remainders. Imports. Library discards. Advance reading copies. It doesn't matter. Amazon.com, Half.com, e-Bay, Bookfinder.com, the array and assortment of search engines and book repositories accessible on the Internet has brought the entire world of new, used, and collectable books right into my lap. I have been distracted from work for hours at a time guiltily surfing these online outlets with almost salacious zeal. I have forsaken family and business obligations to browse discount book warehouses I've stumbled across while running errands or driving to meetings; the kind that spring up overnight in abandoned strip mall storefronts and just as mysteriously vanish after only a few months. I have snuck away on Sunday afternoons, under the guise of stopping out to the hardware store to replace some misplaced wood screw or drill bit, to steep in the mollifying climate of the franchise book emporium„those dens of venial indulgence with their pacifying displays, aromatic and congenial caf»s, and invigorating live music„just to peruse the new release racks and awaken a dull mood or excite an otherwise lackluster day. Nothing, it seems, can curb my appetite to read„to own and possess„books; a passion in no way constrained by the limits of reason, finance, storage space, or any sensible expectations of household order.
And to this day, whenever I ease myself down into the cracked leather of my favorite club chair, with whatever the book de jour I am reading may be, I can still hear Mrs. Lazorzak's voice cackle with delight across the chasm of lost years, transporting me back to the day that little boy sheepishly reached out to accept the slim volume of Dylan Thomas in her hand.
"Go on, boy. Take it," she said. "It won't hurt ya."