Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S01 EP04: The Cuckoo in the Cuckoo Clock
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Lots of people have asked me recently: What word or words would I use to describe myself? a writer? a southern writer? a humorist? a satirist? a social critic? Some who have read my bio and know I am a high school English teacher, have asked if I consider myself, first and foremost, a teacher.
Actually, when people call me a southern writer or a humorist or a satirist, I feel what they’re really doing is putting lipstick on who or what I am.
The word that best describes who or what I am is liar. Like a fish that swims all day long because it’s a fish, I tell stories all the time. That’s what I’ve done all my life. I make up stories – lies, some people might call them.
One of my earliest memories illustrates this proclivity of mine for telling stories instead of the truth.
I was no more than four, and I was fascinated with the cuckoo clock, which hung on the wall in our living room. I thought the little cuckoo that came out of its bird house up there in the clock was a real bird.
So, from time to time, I would ask my mother about it because I knew she would always tell me the truth — except for those times when she lied to me and I didn’t know better.
Anyway, when I asked her about the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock, she would tell me the truth, but she never thought to tell me the whole truth. For instance, when I asked how she fed the little bird up there, she would tell me she didn’t need to feed it, but she never thought to tell me the little thing was wooden.
On another occasion when I was pestering her about the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock, she explained that you could tell when the little bird was about to come out because the big hand on the clock would be pointing straight up at the XII.
Anyway, anyway, one day when my mother went outside to hang up the clothes on the line, she left me inside alone for about ten minutes, and I saw that the big hand was very, very close to pointing straight up at the XII. So, I dragged a chair from the kitchen table, set it under the clock, and climbed up on the chair to wait for the bird to come out so I could pet it.
The clock struck XII, and the bird stuck its head out. It was able to let out only one cuckoo before I pinched it. And that was it. One cuckoo. That was its swan song.
I un-pinched the thing, but it just stayed there, its mouth open, its neck sticking out from its little door. I tried to push it back inside, but it wouldn’t go back in. So, I climbed down from the chair, set it back under the kitchen table and went to my room to color in my coloring book.
Later that day, much, much later, it seemed, my mother realized she hadn’t heard the clock for some time, and she looked up and saw the poor little thing like I’d left it, frozen in a silent cuckoo, and she wondered out loud what had happened to her clock.
I was eating a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich at the time, and I figured she wanted to know if I had any ideas on the subject, so I told her what I knew.
“Mama,” I said, “I can tell you what happened! When you went outside to hang up the clothes on the clothesline, a little boy about my size came into our house. I never seen him before, and I told him he couldn’t just come in to our house like that. And he pushed me away and got one of the chairs from the kitchen table — not the one I’m sitting on, Mama, but that one right there — and he dragged it under the clock and he stood on the chair and waited until the little bird came out. And, when it did, he grabbed it and must have killed it, Mama, because the cuckoo bird in the cuckoo clock didn’t cuckoo anymore. And then, after he killed it, Mama, he put the chair back under the kitchen table and he ran outside before you came back in the house.”
It must have been a good lie because I didn’t get spanked or punished or anything for what the bad boy did.
That, I believe, was what started me off on my life of crime where I just naturally lie about things.
I’ve gotten quite good at it now — lying, that is, making up stories and telling them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should tell you I did see that bad boy one time after that. It wasn’t too long ago.
I was telling my English class a story, and I happened to look out the window, and there he was, the same little boy. He was running away.
He didn’t look any older or any bigger than when I first saw him.
I didn’t point him out to my students, however. I never even mentioned that I saw him out there.
I don’t think my students would have understood or believed me, for that matter.