The Ghost of Scowling Past


MY FATHER SEEMS equal parts befuddled and amused that I’m kind of normal now, because apparently I was a total dickhead as a kid. “You scowled a lot,” he said to me last weekend when he visited. From family pictures, I gather I also had eccentric sartorial impulses—sporting my older sister’s black felt riding helmet, my mom’s tennis wristbands, and a pair of turquoise shorts, I’d scowl at the camera. In preschool, despite my boisterous apparel, I loathed the “Hokey Pokey.” All that chipper bullshit about putting your left foot in and then taking it back. Fuck no.

With regard to “Happy And You Know It,” I was not especially happy and I knew it. So I sat that one out, too.

Later, in fourth grade, my teacher wanted us to sit in a circle every morning and say why we were having trouble being there. All year, I endured that agonizingly cheesy routine in silence.

My mother died early that year, in October. When I came to school after being absent a week, we went around the room saying why we were having trouble being there. It came to me and I shrugged, looking at the floor. I shook my head. The teacher said I was having trouble being there because my mother had died. I nodded, still staring at the carpet.

Another vivid memory from fourth grade was when I stood on a table singing “Tutti Frutti” to a girl I had a crush on. So I wasn’t withdrawn or shy. I just didn’t want to hold hands and talk about my feelings. For god’s sake, I didn’t want to put my right foot in and then shake it all around.

All of this is to say that I don’t think I ever believed in Santa. I remember thinking about it very early in my life and knowing, with total certainty, that it was unthinkable that some fat guy in a ridiculous crimson getup would be zipping around the globe with hundreds of thousands of metric tons of toys in a bag, breaking into all these millions of homes and doling out presents…and then he’d be done before the sun came up? No.

Likewise, the whole God thing just never really took with me. Word has it I was baptized, but that was more or less it for me and organized religion. Even disorganized, actually. That was it.

But I wish I could believe in a god. I really do. Because I want to believe that when I die I’ll get a chance to meet my mom again. We’d have a lot to talk about. I’ve had quite a few friends and family die, actually, and I’d really like to see them all again.

More than anything, I want to believe in a benevolent God, and a heaven, but I can’t. I’ve tried very hard to believe. I don’t like the idea of me dying, either. I’m terrified of death. But the notion of an all-knowing god seems about as likely to me as that fat guy in the red suit cruising around the world in a sleigh pulled by supersonic flying reindeer. It’d be great, but winning the lottery would also be great, and I’m still not going to buy a ticket.

Anyway, I have kids now. Two daughters—one’s a baby and one’s two-years-old. And I love them a lot, so I don’t want them to be like me. And I’m planning on duping them into believing in Santa, first, and then I’m going to con them into believing in God. Gonna take them to church and everything. I’ll learn the Bible so I can explain it to them like it was just another fact. This guy named Jesus cured this leper one day, I’ll say, just on a whim. That’s the kind of guy he was.

I’ll do the thing I do best: I’ll tell a story. It’ll be the nicest thing I’ve ever done for anyone. And they’ll never even know I did it.


About Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford's debut novel A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism won a 2012 Washington State Book Award, and his second novel The Dismal Science, out in 2014 from Tin House Books, was a New York Times editor's choice. His work has appeared in Boston Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Southern Review, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, and elsewhere. He's currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's MFA program, and he's the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle's writing center.
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