Surely you’ve heard this one. It was a favorite of ours growing up. Here’s the short version:
A couple has a baby with a strange birth defect – a golden screw stuck in his belly button. Doctors assure them there’s nothing to be done about it. So the couple takes him home and raises him right and proper. The boy, alas, grows up ashamed of his difference and blames it on the fact that he has no friends, can’t get a date, has a crummy job, etc. (In truth, his problems are not due to the golden screw, but to the fact that he is, in fact, a total asshole. But perhaps I am editorializing.) Anyway, he goes to experts around the world to remove the screw, and gets nowhere. He’s told to just live with it. He sees scientists and surgeons and witch doctors and gurus and philosophers and sorcerers of all kinds and descriptions. Finally, he goes to a holy man who lives in a tower in the desert somewhere, who says, “I’ll tell you how to get rid of this thing, but you won’t like it. Maybe you should just accept yourself as you are.” But the guy insists, so the holy man gives him a set of instructions to follow during the next full moon. He follows the instructions to the letter, then lays down on a lawn chair under the moon – naked, of course – and waits for something to happen. Finally, a golden dot on the moon gets bigger and bigger and bigger – and closer and closer and closer. After a time, he realizes that a golden screwdriver is flying through the air, directly toward the guy, and he is powerless to escape. The giant golden screwdriver lands delicately on the golden screw, makes a few quick turns, and flies away, bringing the screw with it. The young man lays there for a long time (did I mention he was nude?) and marvels at what he has seen. Finally he yawns, stretches and stands up.
And his butt falls off.
I think my siblings and I have told different versions of this story to each other like nine million times. My dad – a former Boy Scout and camp counselor – had dozens of stories like this that he poisoned our young brains with during our impressionable childhoods, but this one was by far the most popular.
Because his butt falls off. C’mon, it’s funny!
Anyway, the other day, I went for a hike with three of my four siblings, my mom and dad, various sibling-in-laws and children, up to the top of Eagle Mountain, the highest peak in Minnesota. (Sidebar: at a whopping 2,301 feet, can Eagle Mountain really be called a mountain? Isn’t it more of a gentle hump? Does anyone know the rules of these things?)
It was a beautiful hike, the kids were mad gnarly and made it up and down without complaining, mostly, and a lovely time was had by all. As we went down, the group started to separate – my brother and his new bride out-pacing the lot of us, my eldest daughter and my husband striding behind, and I ended up with two seven year old boys – my son and his cousin, Charlie – and my ten year old daughter. Their pace started to lag, so they asked for stories.
I told them a scary one – about four kids and a haunted cabin (that was secretly a trap) and a pack of wolves that seemed sinister, but were actually only trying to help them (they were too late) and a very crabby and very old dragon who couldn’t decide if he should help the children or gobble them up (“I’ll decide after you unchain me,” the dragon said. Anyway, the story was so scary (the cabin was more like a spiderweb – it was designed to entice and entrap and entangle) that I kinda scared myself, so I asked the kids to tell the next story.
Charlie led the way.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a boy with a golden screw in his belly button.”
Oh! thought I. That story! Three generations telling that same dumb tale. A marvel!
“You’re telling it wrong,” Leo said.
“No, I’m not,” Charlie said.
“Yes you are. It goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a married couple who desperately wanted a child.”
“It’s the same story!” Charlie protested.
“It’s better with desperately,” Leo said.
“Fine,” Charlie said. “Once upon a time, there was a couple that wanted a baby.”
“Desperately,“ Leo said.
“People don’t have to desperately want things,” Charlie said.
“They do in stories,” Leo said. “That’s why they’re stories. Once upon a time there was a couple who desperately wanted a child. You see? It’s better.”
A clapped hand on a forehead.
A great, heaved sigh.
“Once upon a time,” Charlie said slowly. “There was a couple.”
“Who desperately wanted a child.” Charlie closed his eyes and clutched his hands to his heart. He not only said desperately he was desperately. He embodied the mother and father of the ill-fated boy desperately and desperately and desperately wanting him.
Because that is how stories work.
We make an agreement with the listener and an agreement with the story itself. The story is a living, self-replicating thing. It is ever so much like a virus: it inserts itself into our brains and our hearts and our cells and uses us to reproduce it, again and again and again. Even the dumb ones. Like the one about the golden screw in a guy’s belly button and his butt falling off.
“Say it again!” Leo crowed.
“They desperately wanted a child!” Charlie called out to the rocks and the trees and the darkening sky. He threw his arms as wide as the world and leaped onto a fallen log.
“I love this story,” Leo said.
“Me too,” said Charlie.
Cordelia, standing next to me, rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Am I the only one,” she asked, “in this entire family who isn’t completely weird?”
“Pretty much, babe,” I said. “Pretty much.”