The Snake Pit
by Mary Jo Pehl
Lately people have been asking me, quite innocently enough, "How are you, Mary Jo?"
Let's see...I don't have a job and I'm broke and I'm living in my parents' basement in the suburbs without a car and I'm going to be 41 in two weeks. I want to shriek, HOW THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM?!?!
When my job ended last year, I sold my car, all my worldly possessions, and my apartment (much to the dismay of my landlord), and I traveled for almost a year. The plan was that when I returned home I would stay with my parents while I figured out the next phase of my life. This all sounded good in theory. Then it actually happened. And now I'm living with my parents in their basement. It's very unnerving when plans go the way you planned. My mother keeps pointing out gently, "You're not living here—you're just staying here until you move. Besides, we like having you here...and it's not a basement, it's a lower level."
I haven't lived at home since I was eighteen. After a certain age, you're not supposed to live with your parents. I'm not sure why exactly: I'm sure it has something to do with our homicide laws.
I have no idea who these people are. My mother is short and wide. When she gets ready to go outside in the Minnesota winter, she puts on so much clothing that she looks like a diabolical experiment of a human head transplanted on top of a pile of laundry. She had knee surgery not long ago and when I hear her walking around upstairs, her laborious, ponderous steps sound like Godzilla storming Tokyo above me.
My father is big and jovial with the round, pink face of a retired cherub. He sneezes huge cataclysmic sneezes that shake the house to its foundations. He has amassed thousands, perhaps millions, of National Geographics and he thinks Benny Hill is one of the brilliant comic minds of this and any generation.
On Sundays my mother invites me upstairs for dinner with her and my father. She experiments with odd recipes, usually involving some variation on chicken, cream of mushroom soup, and frozen hash browns. In this house, sour cream is considered a side dish and butter a spice to be used liberally. My parents salt everything; sausage, salad, apples. My mother makes weekly trips to the Wonderbread Outlet bakery (yes, there is such a place) and buys loads of marked-down, day-old bread which she puts in the utility freezer. The bread might be eaten in a couple of weeks or a couple of years. It doesn't matter once it's frozen, she declares. It's just as good as fresh. My mother would buy used bread if she could.
Sometimes I'll catch my parents at the kitchen window, as they watch the neighbors or passers-by. They comment to each other in terse conspiratorial voices, eyes riveted out the window, coffee in hand. "Ohhhh, look at that guy, " Dad says. There is silence as they look at that guy. "There goes Mr. Cool," Mom will mutter. Dad laughs, "Yup, check out Mr. Cool." Thus fixated they continue watching the said "Mr. Cool." To my parents, a "Mr. Cool" is usually some fellow who might be parading around wearing a T-shirt with a rock band logo or perhaps driving a late model car.
Their house is well-stocked with all the things that a retired middle-class couple could need or want. Plenty of sheets and dishes and televisions and the like. So I am alarmed when I find several plastic cups from a motel, still wrapped in their plastic. My parents, while not wealthy, do not want for objects from which to drink. Are they preparing for some catastrophic shortage of cups, or bread, or National Geographics?
At night as I lay in my bed I can hear the vrrrrrm vrrrrm of my parents' adjustable beds in the bedroom above mine. I hear the motorized beds throughout the night as they adjust the angle at which they watch TV. They have many recliners placed strategically throughout the house: four upstairs and two downstairs. My parents are living the American dream of being able to recline wherever they want whenever they want. I am startled when I occasionally find them standing.
I sit in the basement, calling people, sending out résumés, and making plans to move to New York or Chicago. My mother tries to help me out. She sits in one of the recliners with a mirror and tweezers, plucking the goat-hairs on her chin and she says, "Mary Jo, have you ever thought of being a news anchor on CNN?" I say no...why? "Well, all those anchors have such nice skin and you have such a beautiful complexion!" Later she says, "Why don't you go to Las Vegas and be in a show? You'd be so good!" I'm not sure if she has in mind that I should have a magic act or be a topless showgirl or be in some extravaganza with tigers but it's an idea. I guess.
And I start to think, what if I'm not just staying here, I'm living here but I don't realize it until it's too late? Maybe three, seven, twenty-eight years from now I wake up and realize my plans to move just sort of got away from me, and there I am: I have collected thousands of magazines—and cats, too—and I wear two housedresses at once and I have begun to salt my food, ice cream and canned pears, and there I am hoarding mugs and tumblers and Dixie cups just in case?!?!
Mary Jo Pehl is a former writer for "Mystery Science Theater 3000." She has been a commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered" and on "The Savvy Traveler" (Public Radio International). Other credits include The Funny Times, Cranbrook Journal, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Minnesota Women's Press, and Ironminds.com. One of her essays is featured in Life's a Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women's Humor, recently published by Random House. Ms. Pehl read a shorter version of "The Snake Pit" on National Public Radio in March 2002.