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Be Sweet
by Roy Blount Jr. (Knopf)

Be Sweet From Chapter 14, "An End of Something: I Am Born"

I did bring indelible disgrace on the family once, in the eighth grade. Thirty-odd years later I was on a radio talk show in some far-flung city (Portland, Oregon?), decrying the Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill and belittling Clarence Thomas (which had nothing to do with the book I was supposed to be promoting--I will say this for myself, I am terrible at marketing), when the guy in the booth who was screening phone calls held up a card that said, "Ann--cheated with him in school."

Hey, great, we may make news here, I thought. We broke for a commercial. Then we came back and the caller on the air was Ann Bloedorn, who had cheated in school not with Clarence Thomas but with me.

Ann sat in front of me, alphabetically. During a test she looked over her shoulder to ask for one of the answers, and I, always happy to share
my erudition, gave it to her. And Miss Head -- who had reputedly been a marine in Korea -- descended upon us as if we were Chinese Communists. On the next report card, I had an F in conduct. With an asterisk next to it, referring to a handwritten footnote that said simply, "Cheating."

In ink.

I don't remember what my punishment was, other than a profound sense of having ripped my mother's heart right out of her body. When I got a U (for Unsatisfactory) in conduct in the third grade, for talking, she wouldn't let me go see the final episode of the Superman serial that had been showing every Saturday for months at the Decatur theater. I never did find out how Supe got out of whoever's clutches he was in.
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Anyway, when I realized it was Ann Bloedorn who was calling, my immediate reaction was a kind of delight. Here I was being exposed on the radio for the worst thing I had ever done in school, worse, no doubt, than anything my mother ever did, worse probably than anything Clarence Thomas ever did in the eighth grade--my permanent record coming back to haunt me--and I didn't care. I wished I were before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and my mother were there, and I could turn to her in the gallery and say, "Mom! It wasn't that bad!"

From time to time I run into somebody I knew in high school, or the wife of somebody I knew in high school, and he or she says, "Remember that time we put cherry bombs in the boys' room toilets?" or "Ted told me about the time you and he stole a mummy from the museum at Emory." I always say, "Oh, yeah, heh-heh, those were the days," because it gratifies me to have become someone who would presumably have played such tricks, but the truth is (and would I lie, now, when the mummy-stealing escapade might make this book the next Tom Sawyer?), I never did anything that high-spirited. It would have killed my mother. Ann, however, remembered the cheating incident exactly as I did.

"The worst thing about it," Ann said on the radio, "was my mother said, 'You cheated with Roy Blount?' "What Mrs. Bloedorn must have meant was, "You cheated with Louise and Roy Blount's son?"

I grew up with the feeling, which I retain to this day, that everything I do is probably in some sense profoundly wrong.

Woody Allen once told an interviewer that being funny "is always a second choice." The first choice, I guess, is being ... sweet. Or happy, or something.

When I was a child and had a friend over, my mother would say, "Now you children run outside and eat on the steps, so the grown-ups can enjoy supper at the table," and when the friend would look unsettled she would say, "I'm just teasing. Maybe y'all don't tease as much at your house as we do."

When my mother was a child, she felt genuinely shunned.

What was the tone in which she told me how close I came to killing her? Seems like it was almost wistful, somehow. Almost flirty, too. When I was a little bitty kid, I called her Sugar, because my father did. I don't remember doing that, I just remember her bemoaning, for many years, the fact that I had ceased to.

"You used to call me Sugar," she'd say. What was I supposed to say to that? I remember giving her a big, sudden kiss on the cheek in church once when I was, I don't know, kind of old to be doing that, and then suddenly thinking to myself, Hm, that's weird. It seemed to startle her, even. That may have been the last time I kissed her spontaneously.

When I was in high school, she got it into her head that I didn't want to be seen with her. Once we happened to be walking past school together, after classes, when girlfriends and boyfriends were lingering out front, and she suddenly sped up and opened up a lead of several strides, the very picture of a woman scorned. That was embarrassing. I lurched into an awkward gait, trying to catch up with her -- and she could motor when she was steamed.

One reason I never resolved my Oedipus complex, I think, is that I may have had for my father the fellow feeling of one frustrated suitor for another. Fellow feeling mixed with why didn't you just once say to her, "Hey, come on, Sugar, give the kid a break"?

"Lighten up," he might have told her with a wink and a little pat. But God knows I can't imagine anybody telling my mother to lighten up. He'd've drawn back a nub.

My mother loved me to pieces, as she often said, and I'm still trying to put them together.

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Excerpted fromBe Sweet, by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 1998 by Roy Blount Jr.. Used by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All rights reserved.

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