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Bladder Stones


I was visiting my parents in New Jersey for a three-day break during my first book tour, and I had just come from the car wash, where I had taken their minivan to be disinfected. My parents are two of the most unsanitary people I know. They will leave fast-food bags, soda cans, coffee cups, and perishable items in their car for weeks at a time. When my father picked me up from the airport, there was a half-eaten apple rolling around on the floor mat, a melted chocolate bar stuck to the passenger seat, and a small order of McDonald’s french fries in the glove compartment.

“I have an idea, Chels,” my father said to me as I walked in the door. “I think you should start your own clothing company but only design thongs and lingerie.”

My sister Sloane was sitting on the couch playing with her new baby girl, Charley, while our dog Whitefoot looked on in disgust. With every baby my brothers and sisters had, our dog became more and more depressed.

“He’s been talking about it for the last two hours,” Sloane said as she rolled her eyes. “He also wants you to write on all the clothes ‘I’M A CHELSEA GIRL.’”

“Whaddya think, love? We could really rake in the big bucks,” my father went on. “You’ve got a great sense of style, and with a shape like yours, you could also model the stuff.”

“Why would I design clothing?” I asked.

“Why would she design clothing?” he asked the air and then Whitefoot, as if the answer was so obvious, even the dog would know. “Why wouldn’t you design clothing, is the real question. You’ve got a huge fan base.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Sloane said. “Not big enough to launch a clothing line.”

“A lingerie line, goddammit! A lingerie line!” he yelled.

My father is always yelling for no apparent reason. He yells at unsuspecting people all the time, but his favorite person to yell at is Sloane, who usually responds with a “what the fuck is your problem?” look.

“Calm down, Melvin,” my mother chimed in, as she emptied an entire box of Carr’s crackers into Whitefoot’s bowl along with some freshly made egg salad. Whitefoot’s “bowl” is a stainless-steel baking tray. My parents are under the impression that our dog is Edward Scissorhands and can somehow manage to put the egg salad on top of the cracker and enjoy it like a human.

“Don’t give him the pepper crackers,” my father said. “He only likes the plain ones. The pepper ones give him gas.”

I looked over at Sloane, who was rubbing her temples.

“Anyway, back to the thongs,” my father continued. “We’ll have your sister Sidney run the company-”

“Can you please stop using the word ‘thong’?” Sloane said, with her eyes now closed. “How do you even know what a thong is?”

“Yeah, Melvin,” my mother added. “How do you know what a thong is?”

“Oh, come on! Thongs are the new bloomers. What are you girls, living in the dark ages? All the girls are wearing them; Chelsea’s been wearing them for years. Sylvia, I wouldn’t mind seeing you in one,” he said, looking at my mother with his bowling-ball head tilted to the side and an enormous grin on his face. Suddenly Whitefoot started to bark uncontrollably and run back and forth from the front door to the living room while we were seated.

“That’s the mailman,” my father said as Charley began to wail. “Whitefoot, quiet!”

“Ugh, that dog has some serious problems,” Sloane said, as she picked Charley up. “You need to send him to a dog trainer.”

“He has a little social anxiety, that’s all. You don’t send a ten-year-old dog to obedience school,” my dad screamed over the dog’s barking. “It’s just not done.”

“No, you don’t do it,” my mother said in her most argumentative voice, which is about a half an octave lower than her regular voice.

“The mailman comes here every day,” Sloane said. “You’d think the dog would figure that out by now. He’s so stupid.”

“He’s not stupid, he’s just depressed! But he’s a good Jewish doggy who’s very loyal, isn’t that right, Whitefoot? Goddammit, Whitefoot, come here and shut up! Sylvia, look and see if that’s the mailman.”

“No,” she said, looking in the direction of the front door. “I don’t think so.”

“Dad, how are you supposed to fit ‘I’m a Chelsea girl?’ on a thong?” my sister asked him once Whitefoot also realized it wasn’t the mailman and had quieted down.

“We’ll put it on the front.”

“And who’s going to run this company?” Sloane asked. “JLo?”

“Nah, I don’t like the stuff JLo’s coming out with. Too trashy. Something a little more sophisticated. You and your sisters will design the garments and I will make all the executive decisions.”

“Yeah, you seem to have created quite a prolific empire with your used-car company; the obvious next move would be to branch out into women’s lingerie,” I told him.

“There she goes again, beating up on her daddy. You hear this, Sylvia?” he yelled to my mother, who was standing three feet away, ironing a pair of my father’s sweatpants.

“What are you ironing, Mom?” Sloane asked her.

“Dad’s sweatpants,” my mother said with a groan.

“Well, for Christ’s sake, it’s not slave labor. She likes it when I have the creases in the front.”

“No, Melvin, I told you I would prefer you to wear slacks but you insist on wearing sweatpants, and if you’re going to wear them, I at least want them to be ironed.”

“I look good in sweats,” my father proclaimed. “Besides, I can’t keep my slacks on with this extra weight.” The “extra weight” my father was referring to has been there for thirty years.

My two-hundred-fifty-pound father then proceeded to try and get up off the couch, which took three false starts. When he did get up, he called out to Whitefoot. “Let’s go, Whitefoot, you wanna go to the bathroom?” He walked over to the sliding-glass door that leads to our backyard and went outside with Whitefoot. While the dog lifted his leg, my dad chose to simply face the woods and pee in our backyard.

“Mom, I don’t want Charley to come over here if Dad is just going to pee anywhere he feels like it and then not wash his hands,” Sloane said.

“He’s got those bladder stones, Sloane. When he has to go, he has to go,” she said.

“I understand that, but it wouldn’t take him any longer to walk to the bathroom than it does to walk outside, Mom,” Sloane accurately pointed out. My father complains about these bladder stones on a regular basis but refuses to get the operation needed to remedy the situation because it involves sticking a small tube into his penis.

“Just be happy he’s not peeing in the driveway anymore, Sloane. It took me months to get him to go in the back. And to wear suspenders.”

“The suspenders are an improvement, Mom,” Sloane told her. “At least he doesn’t walk around holding his pants up with his hands anymore. You have to make sure he keeps wearing them.”

The problem with the suspenders my mother bought for him is that he hasn’t adjusted the straps since he got them. So instead of attaching somewhere around his midsection, the suspenders clip onto his pants three inches below his nipples. Now picture the suspenders attached to a pair of sweatpants. This vision is what first led me to coin the term “camel balls.”

My father came back inside and headed straight for Charley. “Hold up, Dad,” Sloane interceded. “You need to go wash your hands. Pronto.”

He looked at my sister as if she had asked him for heroin. My mother then took the spray water bottle she was using to iron and sprayed my father in the face. “Melvin, you know you have to wash your hands when the babies are here.”

My mother likes to pretend that she’s on top of the hygiene factor because my brothers and sisters are always dropping their kids off with her, but the truth of the matter is, my mother isn’t washing her hands all that much either. My mother is European and likes to remind us of that every time any of us ask her when she took her last shower.

My father returned from the bathroom holding up his hands to show us the water dripping. “All clean.” Then he came back and sat on the couch across from Charley, chanting her name but not pronouncing the letter r, so it sounded like “Chahley.” He does this slowly but loudly about fifteen times in a row at random intervals throughout the day while my sister sits with her eyes closed.

The phone rang and my mother looked around, startled, as if a helicopter had just landed on our roof. “Telephone!” my father yelled out. Not only can neither one of them ever find the actual phone, but on the rare occasion when they succeed, the battery is almost sure to be dead, or the answering machine has already picked up. I’ve never had a phone conversation with either one of my parents when the answering machine didn’t pick up or I didn’t hear static. “Where is the goddamned phone, Sylvia?” my father asked her.

“Look in between the cushions,” my mother said, as she ran around the room like she was trying to catch a mosquito. “Here it is,” she said, as she picked up at the same time as the answering machine. “Hold on,” she told the person as I got up and unplugged the answering machine. “It’s for you, Melvin; it’s the manager at Shop Rite.”

“Aha. This is Melvin… Yes, sir… Okay then. Very good.” Click. The dial tone is the only indication to any caller (myself included) that the phone call is over. “All right, everything’s all set. You have a book signing Monday morning at the Shop Rite,” he said, looking in my direction. My sister started to perk up-she found this new development very amusing. Her eyes were still closed, but a large smile had emerged on her face and her shoulders were shaking.

“Now, how are we gonna get the books?” he asked.

“First of all, Dad, I’m not doing a book signing at a grocery store. Second, we can’t just have the publisher overnight us books; it takes a couple of days,” I told him.

“Well then, call Amazon,” he said.

“You can’t call Amazon, Dad, you have to order them online and it’s not like they just hot-air balloon them over. Furthermore, I’m not signing books at a grocery store. Who’s even going to show up?” I asked him.

“I’ll print up flyers,” he said, which caused my sister to spit up a little bit.

“Print up flyers?” Sloane asked him. “You can barely use the telephone.”

“Where am I going to sign the books, anyway?” I asked. “In the produce section?”

“Really, Melvin, I don’t know if that’s really Chelsea’s audience,” my mother chimed in.

“What about the car wash?”

“No,” I said.

“How about the deli?”

“No.”

“I sold three at the Starbucks the other day.”

“To who?” my sister asked.

“To customers, Sloane! Who do you think? I told them my daughter is a bestselling author and she’s a graduate from Livingston High School and they should buy the book. I’ve been a salesman for forty-some odd years. You don’t think I know how to move a couple of books?”

“Well, if you’re such a good salesman, why don’t you sell some of those cars in the driveway?” my mother chimed in.

My parents fight about two things: the ten to fifteen cars my father has had parked in the driveway for more than ten years, and his eating habits. My parents live in a nice neighborhood, and my father doesn’t seem to understand why our neighbors are continually calling the police to report him for having too many cars in our driveway.

“Oh, here she goes,” he says, looking at my sister and me. “Listen, right now my focus is on Chelsea and the book. I’ve got a lot of plans. How about doing a signing at Best Buy? God knows they’ve got the equipment for a speech.”

“I turned to Sloane and asked her if she wanted to see a movie.”

“Oh yeah,” said Sloane, immediately perking up. “Let’s go see Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

“Excuse me?” I replied disgustedly.

“I’m dying to see that movie.”

“If you think I’m going to go give those two homewreckers my money, you’ve completely lost your marbles. I will never go see another Angelina Jolie movie again.”

“Oh, please,” she said, groaning.

“Oh, please, nothing!” I told her. “I will not support the two of them. The only temptation, obviously, would be a third installment of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But I think I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

“Please,” she begged, “I really want to see it.”

“Absolutely not,” I told her. “It’s either happy hour, or we can go see Herbie Fully Loaded.”

“I’m not going to happy hour,” Sloane said. “I have a baby.”

My sister had been using this baby excuse ever since she had the kid, and it was starting to get on my nerves. “Oh, would you shut up with the baby already?” I said. “That’s all you ever say anymore, as if you’re the only one in the world who’s ever had a baby. I could have a baby too…if I had gone through with any of my pregnancies.”

“Chelsea,” my mother said, with the same look she reserves for me whenever I tell my sister that the back of her baby’s head is flat.

“I’ll take a baked potato,” my father blurted out, the same way an attorney would yell “objection” in a courtroom.

“Here, Melvin,” my mother said as she handed my dad his freshly ironed yellow sweatpants. “Please put these on.”

“And not out here,” Sloane added.

“Aren’t there any regular pants you can put on?” I asked my dad. “I really don’t think sweatpants are a good look for the outdoors. Especially on you.”

“They’re the only thing I can fit into right now, love; why can’t you just accept your daddy the way he is?”

“Because, you’re not the biggest man on the planet, Dad. There are other men who seem to find pants that fit them.”

“What if I wear a tie?” he asked.

“Sloane, dear, how about some fresh grapes?” my mother asked in a voice more appropriate for a six-year-old.

“I’ll take some grapes,” my father called out. You’d think my father was stapled to the couch the way he barks out orders, but the simple truth of the matter is that he’s entirely too top-heavy to make a clean sweep from the sofa to the kitchen without knocking something over.

My mother walked over with a bowl full of grapes and handed a bunch to my sister, who then inspected them like she does every piece of food-as if there’s anything that could stop her from inhaling it.

“What is it?” my mom asked, as Sloane made a face at her grapes.

“Nothing,” Sloane said, pulling what looked like a dog hair off the top of her bunch with disgust and then popping one after another into her mouth.

In between bites of his own, my father plucked a grape and attempted to throw it into Whitefoot’s mouth. Instead, the grape hit the sideboard, ricocheted and bounced off the side of Charley’s head and right into Sloane’s eye.

“Ow! Dad!” Sloane yelled out.

My mother once again reacted like there had been gunfire and dropped the bowl of grapes on the floor. “Melvin, what the hell is the matter with you?” she said in her feeble version of yelling as she hurried over to my sister’s rescue.

“Bad doggie!” my father yelled, as Whitefoot ran over to eat all the grapes that had just fallen to the floor.

“Sorry about that, Sloane. I was just trying to give Whitefoot a grape,” my father said as he winced at his misfire. “Goddammit, Whitefoot, why didn’t you catch that grape?”

“Are you okay, darling?” my mother asked, cuddling Sloane like she had just fallen off the monkey bars at the playground.

“Look at that faggot,” my dad motioned as some guy promoting exercise equipment came on the television screen.

Whitefoot started barking again.

“Sylvia, look and see if that’s the mailman.”

She walked from the kitchen into the living room and looked out the front door again. “Yes, I think so.”

“Okay, I gotta go talk to him about Sloane’s diet,” he said as he got up and almost fell over.

“Is the mailman moonlighting as a nutritionist?” I asked Sloane, who was now eating grapes with one eye shut.

“You’re gonna like this one. Dad told me that he would pay for me to go on NutriSystem. He said it would be my birthday gift because it’s kind of expensive. So, after he convinced me to do it, which I wasn’t all that excited about in the first place, I went online, picked out thirty days’ worth of meals, which took about an hour. Then I punched in Dad’s credit card number. And it was declined.”

“What does that have to do with the mailman?” I asked her.

“His theory,” my sister explained, “is that the mailman’s mad because Whitefoot barks at him, and so in retaliation, he takes some of his mail and throws it in the Dumpster at the post office. That’s why the credit card company didn’t get his payment.”

“Well, that seems like a logical explanation. Is that where you think the rest of the bills he never pays on time are?”

“Dad is very good at paying his bills,” my mother added. “Sometimes they’re late, but he always sends them.”

“I don’t doubt that he sends them, Mom,” I explained. “My point is that there usually has to be money in the account for the check to clear.”

My father walked back in the living room and sat down. “Guy’s a deadbeat. Sylvia, remind me to go down to see the postmaster tomorrow.”

“I’m going home,” Sloane said, shaking her head.

“Well, I’m coming with you,” I said. I needed some one-on-one time with my niece to ensure that my sister Sidney did not secure the favorite aunt position. All my brothers and sisters live in New Jersey and I live in Los Angeles, so I constantly have to fly from coast to coast in order to make my presence known to my nieces and nephews.

Sloane wanted a baby for a long time and it took her three years to get pregnant. She’s one of those people who has wanted a baby her whole life. Meanwhile, I’m on the Internet investigating tubal ligations and researching how to bring on early menopause. I don’t want to permanently tie my tubes, but I want to prevent any further accidents. I’m interested in something more temporary-like a slipknot. I know having a baby is a huge responsibility. It’s at least a five-year commitment, and I would be silly to think I was ready for it.

After she had her baby, Sloane was the happiest person in the world. “You will do things for a child that you would not even do for yourself,” she told me over the phone a couple of weeks after she had Charley.

“That’s totally how I feel about midgets!”

“I think they prefer to be called little people,” she said.

“Well, Sloane,” I told her, “you’ve obviously never hung out with one, because I know from personal experience that they either like to be called ‘midget,’ or ‘little fucker.’”

My sister handed me Charley as she started packing up her baby items. She was on her way to the front door when the phone rang again, which I ran over to answer before another Hiroshima ensued. It was a call for my father about one of the cars he had listed in the paper. He is frequently advertising the cars in our driveway, and has been fielding inquiries about them my entire life. He has the phone manners of Saddam Hussein, and instead of being civilized while trying to lure a potential buyer, he interrogates them about their salary, nationality, and religion. He hung up the phone and met my stare. “Change of plans. Chels, I’m going to need a ride. I got an Oriental who wants to look at the Mustang.”

My sister looked at me and smiled. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive,” he said, as he put his hand out for me to help him get up.

“Dad, this better not take four hours,” I told him.

Growing up in our house, my brothers and sisters learned quickly that “a ride” could take anywhere from two hours to two days. My father has cars parked all over New Jersey. Some are parked at office buildings, some at private businesses, some are at the local high school. He once parked two of his cars in a family friend’s driveway for two months while he was in the hospital having a bone marrow transplant.

“Well, I’m going to take a nap,” my mother said, as she put my dad’s baked potato in a bowl and headed upstairs to take one of her three naps per day. Apparently the two telephone calls had taken their toll.

“What are you doing with my baked potato?” my father asked, standing there aghast.

“You can’t eat a baked potato while driving,” she responded, and turned the corner.

We headed outside to the minivan and got in. “Put your seat belt on,” I told him.

“Can’t. Won’t fit.”

My father refuses to wear a seat belt, and I can’t think of anyone whose driving skills require it more. I reached over as he raised his hands in the air and I strapped him in. I looked in the backseat and saw a box of my books that my father had purchased at Barnes & Noble.

“You know it’s illegal to resell books you buy at Barnes and Noble, right?”

“That Charley is something, isn’t she? What a girl! What a girl!” he said as he ran a stop sign. “Sloane really loves that little girl. She really loves her.”

“I should hope so. She’s her daughter.”

“And you’re my daughter, and I’m very proud of you. You got a lot of chutzpah. You know where you get that from? Your daddy.”

If you don’t respond to my father, he will continue as if you’re waving your hand to say “Keep going!” It is very important to interrupt him before gets on a roll.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

“Newark. We gotta pick up the Mustang. It’s parked at the DMV, and then we’ll show it to the Oriental and move it to a lot in West Orange. I got a schvartzah at the DMV, big woman.”

“Huh?”

“She helps me flip titles, helps with registration, nice lady, black as night, though, and she’s got a tuchas the size of midsize sedan.”

“What does she get out of the deal?”

“What does she get out of the deal?” he asked. “I bought her a watch from Costco, that’s what. You know, Orientals are cheap. They don’t want to spend a lot of money. Car’s listed for $2,235 in the paper and that’s what I intend on getting. Mileage is a little high, but it’s got A/C and tires. Even had the floor mats washed.”

“How many miles does it have?” I asked him.

“120,000,” he said as he changed lanes without signaling.

“Does this car have airbags?” I asked, looking around for mine.

“The reason I listed it for $2,235 is tricky,” he went on. “If you put an odd number for the price, that will catch the eye more than say, $2,200 even, or $2,240. An odd number will stand out much more than an even number.”

“Well, what happens when they actually see the car?” I asked.

“Well, they either take it or leave it. They get one shot!” he said, pointing his finger in the air. “Some people want to think about it,” he said, making air quotes. “That means they’re not interested and they’re liars. Not serious about buying a car, just trying to waste my time. If the person’s gonna buy the car, they’re gonna show up with cash like I tell them to, and decide right on the spot. There’s no time for dillydallying.” While my father gave me those details, a guy in a convertible Jaguar we had just cut off was laying on his horn while simultaneously giving us the finger.

We finally arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles in downtown Newark, where my father headed toward the back corner of the parking lot to collect his gold 1990 Ford Mustang with tinted windows.

“Is that a bullet hole?” I asked, noticing what looked like gunfire on the passenger-side door of the Mustang.

Melvin stopped the car and sat there looking at his seat belt like he had no idea how to unbuckle it until I leaned over and pressed the button to release it. “Gotta warm up the car. Give me a couple of minutes and then follow me,” he said as he hopped down from the minivan. Following my father in a separate vehicle is not dissimilar to playing Pole Position. He will go through yellow lights, leaving you to either run a red light or lose him completely, only for him to call you from his cell phone minutes later asking you where you got your license.

I followed him to a Wendy’s parking lot, where he parked the Mustang and got out. Motivated by pure boredom, I decided to go to the drive-through and get some chicken nuggets. After ordering, I pulled around to the window to pay and found my father standing there telling the woman behind the window that he wanted a cheeseburger. The lady was trying to explain to him in broken English that he needed to be in a car to order food, when I interrupted and told him to take a hike. “You’re not having a cheeseburger, that’s the last thing you need.”

My father looked at me, looked at the woman through the window, turned, and walked back to the Mustang. Soon after, the Asian who had called about the car pulled up in a black Honda Accord with his son and parked next to the Mustang. They got out of their car and spoke for a couple of minutes with my father before getting into the Mustang to take it for a test ride. This I had to deduce on my own, because it would never occur to my father to come over and tell me he would be back in a couple of minutes.

Just as they were pulling out of the parking lot, the car stalled. My father got out after a couple of seconds and popped the hood. I was watching this circus from inside the minivan while chewing on a chicken nugget, wondering what my father thought he was going to find under the hood. He’s not a mechanic. Unless the problem was something as obvious as the battery not being attached, he wouldn’t be able to fix a car if his life depended on it. He leaned in under the hood for a couple of seconds and then walked around to the driver side, where the Asian father was seated, and gestured with his thumb for the man to get out. Surprisingly, my father hopped in and was somehow able to start the car. He got back out, shut the hood, and walked back around to the passenger side.

I sat alone in the Wendy’s parking lot for about forty minutes until I was joined by a homeless woman with full eye makeup wearing a cape. The driver-side window was only open a crack and I was too lazy to turn the engine back on to lower it. “Here.” I took one of my chicken nuggets and squeezed it through the open part of the window. My calculations were off, and instead of the nugget fitting perfectly through the quarter-inch opening, it ended up losing its breaded coating on its way out. She took the chicken nugget, looked at it, and then slammed it on the ground. I understood that the nugget had lost some of its appeal in the transfer, but was a little alarmed at her reaction. I was, after all, sharing. We stared at each other for a full minute before I reluctantly took a dollar out of the consul and shoved it through the window.

“Good luck with everything,” I yelled as she walked away without saying “thank you.”

I retrieved my eye shades from my purse, reclined my seat, and fell into a light slumber until I heard the car door open and saw my father grabbing one of my books out of the Barnes & Noble box. “Make it out to Quan,” he barked, and handed me a Sharpie.

He took the book and walked back over to the Asian man and his son. They looked over with big smiles and waved. Then the man took some money out of his pocket, handed it to my dad, and got into the Mustang while his son got into the Honda and drove away.

“How much did he pay for the car?” I asked as I pulled out of the parking lot.

“You must be a good-luck charm, love,” he said, patting my leg and then taking out a wad of cash. “Nice guy for an Oriental-had to negotiate a little bit, but he ended up buying the car after all. And he bought a book!”

“How much did he pay for the car?” I asked as I moved my leg away from his hand.

“Asking price was $2,235. I gave it to him for $2,225. But I made $5 on the book. Charged him twenty bucks for that. I paid fifteen bucks for it at Barnes and Noble,” he said, as if I didn’t know how much my own book cost.

“Let’s take the girls out to dinner and celebrate,” he said. “Call your mother and tell her to meet us for dinner.”

“She said she was taking a nap,” I replied.

“She’ll be up by now, and call that Mormon sister of yours. She won’t turn down a meal. And don’t miss the goddamned light!” he yelled as we approached an intersection with a yellow light.

“Goddammit, Chelsea!” he screamed when I did the unthinkable and decelerated instead of stepping on the gas and gunning it through a major intersection in a minivan at ninety miles an hour. “This light is a disaster. We could be here for hours.” Then he opened his passenger-side door, got out of the car, turned his back to me, and peed in the middle of the street.


Prison Break | Are You There, Vodka, It`s Me Chelsea | Big Red