Babar

Jeffrey Schuster

I'm one of those people, it seems, who generally just grabs whatever's at hand. I conform to my surroundings. In this small apartment, a table would take up too much space, so for the past couple of years I've been eating on my bed, using Babar's La Fete de Celesteville -- an oversized hardback children's book -- as a kind of table.

The other day after dinner, as I was brushing the crumbs from a sandwich off of Babar and into the wastebasket, I started thinking about children's books. I tried to remember the books from my own childhood. To be honest, I don't remember them so well. But I do remember my mother's college copy of Dante's Inferno -- a little window into the world of adults. In the living room when I was growing up, we had a narrow bookshelf that had this burgandy-colored hardback filled with gruesome engravings. I had no intention of reading it. Occasionally, though, I would steel myself and look through the illustrations of people being tortured in various parts of Hell. The expressions of agony on their faces were quite realistic. It seemed doubly strange because of the way their bodies were covered with these spidery nets of lines that the engraver had used to render his subjects.

We also had the World Book Encyclopedia. This reference work came in handy when I was in the fifth grade. This was the mid-sixties and Batman was a popular primetime show. One spring afternoon, there was a downpour and we had to stay inside for recess. The teacher told us we could take sheets of construction paper and draw whatever we wanted. I set to work and suddenly found myself drawing an enormous Batwoman. She was standing up in the Batmobile and must have been about three times the size of the car. Next to her, Batman and Robin were less the midgets. A couple of my friends came over to see what I was doing. Soon a group formed around my desk because Batwoman had no shirt on and she had gigantic breasts. All my friends were laughing and pointing, clapping me on the back, praising my skill. And then, from somewhere above, an adult hand came swooping down and snatched the drawing from the top of the desk. I was in deep trouble.

I was taken to the principal's office. They phoned my mother and explained the situation. They told her that I'd be staying late for my punishment. At three o'clock, as all my friends headed for home, I stayed in the classroom and began writing "I will not draw dirty pictures." I had to write that sentence two hundred times. At first, I would write all the words in order, but then I realized it would be much faster to divide the sentence into columns. So, on the left-hand side of the board, I would make a long column of "I"s, then move on to "will"s and so on. This seemed to speed things up. Every now and then one of the nuns came in to check up on me. By her expression, I knew she disapproved of my method but she didn't say anything.

The walk home was horrible. I knew I was walking into an ambush. My mother would be waiting for me by the kitchen stove. I had to think of an excuse. This occupied my mind all the way home. I was a block away when I found the solution. In the World Book Encyclopedia, there were lots of photos of Greek statues. Naked women with missing arms. At home, when my Mom demanded an explanation, I blamed it on the pictures in the encyclopedia. That's where I got such ideas, I told her. Maybe I did, too. Anyway, it didn't help much. I knew that my father would be home pretty soon and then it would be the belt, no way around that.

About that same time that I was learning about the dangers of pictures, I experienced for the first time how overwhelming reading can be. Once a month, on Fridays, the nuns at St. Francis Xavier would hand out copies of this Catholic comic book called Treasure Chest. In it, we would follow the serialized story of a kid named Chuck White. He was trying to make the football team. He's not very good, but through persistence, he not only makes the team but becomes a hero by catching the winning touchdown pass. At the library I found a book that was pretty much like Chuck White's. That evening, I went back into my room and started reading. I couldn't put the book down. I stopped at one point to brush my teeth and put my pajamas on, but then, after everyone fell asleep, I turned my closet light on and continued reading. I read all the way through the night, finishing the book around dawn. I remember looking out the window. The backyard looked eerie in the morning light. I was bone tired. I fell asleep and then was woken up an hour later by my Mom. I couldn't tell her what I had done, so I went through school the next day like a zombie. I decided to stay away from long books like that. This lasted until high school.

In high school I read the same books as my classmates, the ones assigned to us, books like Orwell's 1984 and Steinbeck's The Pearl. But then, in college, reading became a passion and eventually got out of control. I spent most of my waking hours in the imaginary worlds that books helped me create. I reached a point where I covered my windows with blankets and read through the day and night, diving right from one book into the other.

I was living in a rooming house in Iowa City. Except for a mattress on the floor and a kitchen table in the center of the room, the room was filled with books. One night, while sitting on my bed and reading, I noticed something flashing above the pages of my paperback. I thought my eyes were getting a little buggy. I rubbed them and continued reading. A few minutes later, I saw this flashing again. I lowered the book and saw that the end of my bed was on fire. I leapt up, threw the door open, and doused the flames with glasses of water from the communal bathroom. The cause was obvious. Like an idiot, I had connected too many extension cords into one socket. I tore the sheet off my bed -- it was ruined -- and inspected the burnt hole in the mattress. It looked fine. I got my book and went back to reading. About ten minutes later, I still smelled smoke and, oddly, it seemed to be getting stronger. I reluctantly put my book aside and took a look at the charred hole. A thin plume of smoke was rising from it. I looked inside but couldn't see anything. Then, leaning over, I brought my foot down hard on the mattress. A huge flame jumped out and almost burned the end of my nose. It was then that I realized that the whole inside of the mattress was on fire. In a mad panic, I drug the mattress down the steps and out onto the front porch. I took the garden hose and stuck the nozzle in the hole, pumping in quite a few gallons. That night I finished the book, sitting on the floor on my room. For the next couple months that soggy mattress hung over the railing of the porch.

Tonight I opened up Babar and turned the pages. All the animals come together and throw a big party. There are all kinds of diversions for the elephants, giraffes, monkeys, camels, and birds. Everyone has a good time. The pictures remind me a little of the carnival that used to come to my hometown every August. But Babar's world and mine -- or the world as I see it today -- are pretty different.

By the way, Babar is also my writing table. As I put down this last sentence, Babar's trunk is partially covered by this piece of paper and the pen is kind of scratching his nose.

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