Cinderella was in a snit, and who could blame her? She was an orphan swarmed by a family of strangers, accidental intimates, pushy and intrusive and unwelcome. And the most distant stranger of all was the original Prince Charming, the man she had expected would always be beside her.
Physically distant, too, for he led the little brood, prancing on the balls of his feet, ostentatiously trying too hard, while Cinderella dragged her small feet at the rear, palpably punishing Prince Charming. Once he flounced back and tried to jolly her into joining them, into becoming one with them, but she blew him off with a furious shake of her head, horse-whipping him symbolically with her imperious, impetuous, long brown hair.
And something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo. I was sitting on a bench watching the Galapagos tortoises fornicate, a surprisingly delicate, amazingly time-consuming process. The post-modern delegation from the Brothers Grimm came trundling up the path, and they made a fine exhibit, too.
Only a fool would call them a family. They were a composite, an ungainly grafting of two diseased trees. If you keep your eyes open you can spot them all over, whisper-shouting through clenched teeth at the mall, squabbling over dinner at Denny’s, caucusing in sub-groups at gas stations and national parks. He’s responsible for his kids, if he has any, and she’s responsible for hers, and the children, ultimately, answer to no one. Very sad. Very stupid. Very common.
I didn’t pay them any mind, not then. If you’ve seen one tragedy, you’ve seen one too many. But I caught up with them again on the Zoo Train, a sea serpent’s idea of the ideal golf cart, designed for people who would rather sit than see the animals. And I didn’t go looking for trouble, neither; I was sitting peacefully, placidly, blessedly alone when they invaded me. I was waiting for the train ride to begin, and they tumbled into the row of benches ahead of mine, puncturing the quiet with random and raucous thrusts of sound.
The Wicked Stepmother was not the loudest of the bunch, not by half, but she was certainly the busiest. Picking at the Wicked Stepbrother’s clothes, lecturing the pouting Cinderella, brushing at the Wicked Stepsister’s hair, bossing Prince Charming around. She was a porcine excrescence on stubby legs, and her little round face was dominated by an expression that was both smug and profoundly stupid.
“Are we having fun yet!” she shrieked in a tone that mocked jocularity by being hostile. Her demand was directed at Cinderella, who glared in return.
The Wicked Stepbrother’s face was smeared in a technicolor history of his day’s devourings, chocolate and cotton candy and a slurpee and who knows what else. He was maybe five years old, and he wasn’t evil, just practicing for it. He was batting at Cinderella’s hand, trying to get at some small treasure she had clenched in her palm.
The Wicked Stepsister was impenetrably, imperviously, imperturbably wrapped up in the rapture of her own conversation. She yakked and she chattered, she blithered and blathered, and not one of the others paid her the smallest attention. In truth, her discourse was interesting, full of fact and insight, but her words seemed almost like a barrage – the best defense is a good offense.
The Wicked Stepmother jostled her with an elbow, temporarily interrupting her monologue. “Why don’t you tell your sister what you’ve been doing in school.” At the words “your sister” Cinderella blanched. Her face, until then haughty, went blank with rage. Very carefully, very decorously, she stood up, hopped down to the tarmac and climbed up into the bench beside me. As symbolic gestures go, it was nicely done.
Prince Charming’s chief skill seems to be looking the wrong way at all the right moments, but now he tried to intervene, however ham-handedly. “But–” he started, then started over. “But aren’t you glad you’ve got a new sister and brother? You’ve got a whole new family! Isn’t that something!”Of all the many flavors of dishonesty at Uncle Willie’s Palatial Emporium of Lies, hustling children with faked enthusiasm is easily the most repellent. By the sour expression on her face, I’d say Cinderella came to the same conclusion.
“Oh, come on, honey,” he wheedled, betraying his knowledge of the truth by pretending to deny it. “She didn’t mean anything by it. Would you rather she called you her stepsister?”
Ice burns when it’s cold enough and Prince Charming winced and looked away when he saw Cinderella’s icy glare.
The Wicked Stepmother couldn’t leave bad enough alone, though. She didn’t say anything, but she kept turning back and looking at Cinderella. Sometimes furtively, sometimes angrily, sometimes hurtfully. I had the idea she was trying things more or less at random. I also had the idea that the shame of being spurned was far more important to her than the reason for the spurning. To her credit, Cinderella ignored her entirely.
And to my credit, I said nothing – for a change. Instead, I waited for the Wicked Stepmother to look away for an instant, then I tapped Cinderella gently on her clenched fist. She looked up at me with pale blue eyes, sad and defiant and enormous. I shrugged and she opened her hand as though it were a treasure chest. In her palm was a tiny locket on a delicate gold chain. “He was trying to take it from me,” she said, pointing the Wicked Stepbrother.
“Is it from your mom?” I asked.
Her chin quivered and I thought she was about to bawl. Instead she said, “He gave it to me.” She gestured with her head at Prince Charming. He displayed his talent for looking the wrong way at the right moment.
And without being told, I knew the rest of the story. Cinderella was visiting her daddy’s new home. His new wife, who was not her mother. His new children, who were not her brother and sister. Not really his children, but she had no way of knowing that. A father’s relationship is to his children. A mother’s relationship is to her children. But a stepparent’s relationship is to his or her new spouse, and the relationship to the children is indirect and attenuated. That’s why the composite families shout and squabble and caucus, because they’re not really families. They can’t be. Everybody knows the stepparent is an after-market add-on, spare parts. And everybody pretends not to know. And everybody betrays the pretense, constantly undermining the stepparent’s false status by affecting to uphold it.
But Cinderella couldn’t know that. From her point of view, she was the spare parts. Her daddy had abandoned her – or so it must have seemed to her – and now he had replaced her and her mother with a brand new family, complete and ready-made. She had been robbed of her father and he had been robbed of his fatherhood and both of them were doomed by blindness and longing to race frantically after vain substitutes for the treasures that can never be replaced.
Very sad. Very stupid. Very common.
But everybody’s gotta take a side…
I said: “It’s hard to believe it’s so cool today when it was so hot just last week. Fall has fallen, resoundingly.”
She giggled, and that was good enough.
“I was swimming this time last week. I jumped in the water, and I got some up my nose. And just for an instant I was eight years old again. I had a pure and perfect memory of being a kid and getting water up my nose every time I went swimming. Does that ever happen to you?”
“I always get water in my nose. In my ears, too.”
“That’s not what I mean. Did you ever have a memory that’s as perfect as a dream? The other day I smelled a two-stroke engine, and it just about knocked me over.”
“What’s a two-stroke engine?”
I smiled. “I’m not going to explain internal combustion engines, not without a blackboard. A two-stroke engine is a simple little gas motor. You find ’em on garden equipment and motor boats. That’s what was so weird about it, though. I smelled that motor and it took me back thirty years. I felt like I was standing on a dock launching a fishing boat with my grandfather. I could smell the motor and the water and the fish and the dirt and the nightcrawlers. I could hear geese a long way off and I could hear my grandpa whistling, and it was just like I was right there, all in a flash. Does that ever happen to you?”
The Wicked Stepbrother had turned around and he was watching me with rapt attention. His chin was planted on the back of his bench, and he wasn’t missing a word. His mother was straining to turn and straining not to turn and doing everything she could to interpose herself between Cinderella and me, everything except actually planting her fulsome fundament between us.
Cinderella scrunched her tiny little shoulders in a shrug and I said, “I can think of a hundred little things like that. Camping out or riding my bike on dirt roads or bouncing around in the back of a pick-up truck loaded with Halloween pumpkins or looking at a great big yellow moon and wondering why it was so big.”
“I know why it was so big,” announced the Wicked Stepsister, launching into an endless lecture about perspective and proportion.
I said: “The point is, my past isn’t gone, it’s all right here.” I rapped myself on the noggin and the Wicked Stepbrother laughed with a wicked delight. “The good part is, it’s all in there, pure and clean and perfect. The bad part is, I didn’t pick what’s there, it sort of picked me.”
“What’s that mean?” Cinderella asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, precisely. When you live, you just live. You don’t think, ‘I must remember this, I must forget this.’ You just remember and forget, and you don’t have a lot to say about it. But you do have a little to say about it.”
“What?” she demanded. Who could resist a hook like that?
I shrugged again. “I’m too stupid for this job. I think you find what you’re looking for, so I guess the thing to do is look for things in your life that you hope someday to find in your memories. Does that make sense?”
“Well, something’s gonna go in there, and it’s gonna come back out, again and again, pure and clean and perfect. If you live for pain, if you treasure every little wound, if you pick at your scabs so they never, ever heal, that’s what you’re going to find in your memories. But if you live for happiness, for the joy and accomplishment you can find in life, then that’s what you’ll find in your memories.”
Cinderella said nothing, just looked thoughtful. The Wicked Stepmother looked like she was about to bust a valve.
“Do you know the word ‘wrest’? As in ‘wrestle’?”
Cinderella shrugged. The Wicked Stepsister said, “I do,” and launched into a dictionary definition.
I said, “To wrest something means to take it away by force, like you might wrest a weapon away from a bad guy. I want you to remember that word, because the most valuable thing I know is this: To live, to love your life, you have to wrest joy from pain.”
She whispered it: “Wrest joy from pain.”
“Wrest joy from pain. If you remember that much, you’ll remember this day forever.”
She said it again, louder. “Wrest joy from pain.”
The Wicked Stepmother glared at me, and I would have been delighted to know whatever it was she thought she might want to say to me. The simple truth is that I’m a subversive, and I do nothing to hide it. But not very many people know how I’m subversive. And who is going to get in the way of a man who’s talking a little girl back from the depths of misery? I’m sure the Wicked Stepmother wanted to, though, more from censorious impulses than understanding. Prince Charming was quietly delighted to have me solve his problems for him.
I said, “Do you know the story of Cinderella?”
“She got married to the prince!” said the Wicked Stepbrother. The train was moving, snaking along like a gaggle of Shriners on tricycles. It wasn’t safe to jump off and back on, so the little boy climbed over the bench and hopped down beside me, tucking himself under my arm. Prince Charming tried to haul him back over but he wrestled free then handily wielded the rusty scalpel of stepfather emasculation: “You’re not my daddy! You’re not the boss of me!”
I ignored all these events. “It’s just at the end of the story that she marries the prince. Here’s what really happened,” I confided.
It’s not the story, it’s the storyteller, and I have proof: The Wicked Stepsister closed her flapping yap and turned around to listen. The Wicked Stepmother was ostentatiously not listening with all her might. Prince Charming seemed to be grateful to be temporarily relieved of all the indefinite responsibilities of his tenuous non-position.
I said, “Cinderella was a little girl who lived with her mother and her father, and she was very happy. But then her mother died. She was sad for her mother, but she was happy that she still had her father. But then her father married a very wicked widow woman who had two very wicked daughters.”
“They were mean to her!” said the Wicked Stepbrother.
“They were mean to her,” I agreed, “but she still had her father, and she was happy when they could be alone together. But then her father died, and Cinderella was all alone. She was an orphan, but no one knew it. They thought she had her stepmother and her two stepsisters, but really she had no one left at all. She was all alone, but no one could see that. It didn’t matter that they were mean to her, that they made her do all the work. What mattered was that she had lost her whole family and no one knew it, no one could see the truth.”
To their credit, the Wicked Stepsister and the Wicked Stepbrother both had tears in their eyes. Cinderella’s eyes were glassy but defiant. I said, “Wrest joy from pain,” and she nodded.
The train was stopped by the baboon exhibit. I looked at my watch. “Gotta run, my lady. Empus-tay ugit-fay.”
She giggled. “What’s that mean?”
“It means time flies right over your head.”
Prince Charming turned and said, “Thank you.”
I smiled a sweet, subversive smile. “If you only knew…” I looked into Cinderella’s big blue eyes. I said, “Wrest joy from pain.”
She said, “I’ll remember,” and I knew she would.
The Wicked Stepmother felt compelled to reassert herself. “Say good-bye to the nice man,” she said in a sing-song, saccharine voice.
To her credit, Cinderella ignored her entirely.
I touched my fingertip to the end of her tiny nose, the only Fairy Godfather on call at the zoo. “Don’t fall for the first idiot who rubs your feet.”
She giggled, and that was good enough.