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It’s always a joy to sit down and talk with Michael Kimball. He’s into his cats, he plays softball (and is quite competitive!), he likes music, and he wears interesting T-shirts that make you want to scoot your chair back so you can get a good look. BIG RAY is Michael’s fourth book and, I think, his most intimate and moving. Whereas his other novels (Us, The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody) all deal with loss of some sort, and are touching and powerful, BIG RAY emotionally dives down to a whole new level. You can’t help but be somewhat changed after reading this book.

Here’s what Michael Kimball has to say about BIG RAY:

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”

 


I did something this morning that I swore I would never do:

I picked up a steaming pile of dog shit—with my hand.

Dog owners do it all the time, and I assume it’s no big deal to them. They carry around their extra plastic bags from Target and Stop & Shop, and when their dogs take a crap, they stick their hands in a baggie, lightly grasp the turds, turn the bag inside out, and tie it shut at the top. Done. No shit on the street, no shit in your hands. Everything contained neatly in plastic.

But I’m not a dog owner. And the idea of touching a hot crap while it still holds the body’s heat disgusts me—even if there is a layer (or two) of plastic separating skin from excrement.

Before any pet owners jump on me, let me say: I see the need for this, and I support it wholeheartedly. Out here in Boston, where green space is limited and houses lack the spacious yards that I grew up with in Minnesota, the hand-bag-crap grasping is a necessity. Unless you want shit everywhere on every sidewalk, you’ve gotta do it. (When I went to Paris several years ago, I never saw Parisians chasing their puppies with plastic bags, so turds littered the sidewalks like confetti after Mardi Gras. It was repulsive.)

But I don’t own a dog. So I wasn’t planning on doing it.

Where I grew up, in a farming community 45 miles west of Minneapolis, my dog shit in your yard and your dog shit in my yard, and we called it even. Or, more often, my dog shit in her outdoor enclosure, and I took care of it later: hours later or days later. When I picked up the poo, I did it with a shovel; there was never any risk of physical contact.

This week, I’m dog-sitting for my sister and her partner, who are vacationing in Sanibel Island. It was 70 degrees and sunny there this morning. Here in Dorchester, it was 30 degrees: cold enough for shit to steam when it comes out.

They have four dogs. Four dogs make a lot of steaming hot crap.

Before my sister left, she asked me to pick up dog shit once a day or once every other day. “There are baggies under the kitchen counter, and you just reach inside, grab the poo through the plastic, and jooooooop!” she said, retracting her hand fast to illustrate.

That’s what she thinks.

I eyed the snow shovel on her pack porch. Yes, I will pick up Luca, Lily, Sweetie Pie, and Ginger’s crap. But, no, I will not do it with my hands.

The first day out in her yard on crap duty, I spent 15 minutes chasing turds with a shovel. It was like a frustrating game of hockey. Every time I thought I had a log ready for bagging, it would roll back off of the shovel onto the grass. Chase, roll, repeat. Quickly, I changed my strategy: instead of shoveling willy-nilly at the turds and futilely chasing them across the grass, I would scoop uphill or into a stationary object, like a fence, to keep the hardened logs from rolling away.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the turds just smashed all over the shovel, making a second mess for me to clean up.

I gave up and went inside.

This morning, after letting two days pass, I wielded the shovel again. I engaged in chase, roll, repeat with two piles of hardened turds. But then I came square against a mustardy-brown pile of hot, steaming crap, fresh out of Lily’s Chow Chow ass.

This would make a dastardly mess of the snow shovel. Then I would have to clean it off with paper towels—increasing the hand-poop proximity.

I exhaled, defeated.

Stuck my hand inside of two bags.

And gingerly retracted the poop claw.

I swear the dogs were laughing at me.