Alice ‘n’ Lobsterland
– Nonfiction by Daniel Warriner –
What I remember. My grandmother passed away due to complications from quadruple bypass surgery while Alice in Wonderland was being aired on TV. December 10, 1985. Dark, drizzly, and a degree or two above freezing. I was eleven and it was nearly bedtime for both my younger brothers.
We were in a second-floor bedroom, which served for a time as our living room while the first floor was being stripped of wallpaper and painted. My mom was there, too, when she wasn’t tidying up around the house, taking her mind off the call that had yet to come with news about her mother-in-law.
I’m not sure when the surgery began, or how our parents had prepared us for whatever eventualities they felt were in the cards, but I doubt the operation had been scheduled for the evening, and the surgeons probably hadn’t anticipated it taking so long. In any case, it was apparent something had gone wrong, and the tension in our bedroom-living room—of not knowing, but of somehow knowing—was so palpable, so pressurizing and comfortless, I can still evoke a sense of it as I write this decades later.
Outside the room, to the left, was a brass-knobbed, four-panel wood door, behind which a U-shaped staircase led to our attic—essentially a dim depository for misfit furniture, 70s/80s issues of National Geographic, spent board games, and a jumble of other odds and ends awaiting their inevitable disposal. But sloughing off junk wasn’t the only reason to open that door; our ivory cream phone was behind it mounted to the stairwell wall.
Only six months after the mayors of Montreal and Toronto had made the nation’s first-ever cellphone call, most of us were still using rotary dials, our mobility limited to however far we could stretch out a coil cord connecting a phone’s handset to its base. And when my father’s call did come, my mother would receive the news on those frigid attic stairs.
I have a distinct image of her standing there that night, and of the phone’s springy cord dangling despairingly, neither of which I actually saw.
Few other images of those moments survive . . . A lopsided rabbit-ear antenna. An overstuffed cushion. A 12-channel dial on a TV, over by the door. The door is closed. Its dull knob is scarred. Each seems aware that the phone remains silent, and that its calm portends something dreadful. The doorknobs bristle with anxiety. The phone is absurdly self-reproachful. I see and feel them even now, no matter how trivial they were, how immaterial in light of the struggle for my grandmother’s life at the hospital. They’re ingrained for reasons I can’t begin to understand. And just as mysteriously most other pieces of the memory have crumbled away. I can’t recall, for instance, the shape of the light fixture, the color or feel of my pajamas, or whether or not the window blinds were closed, or if these were curtains in fact and not blinds, or where I was sitting (probably on a sofa but I can’t say for sure).
Memories of childhood events, particularly painful ones, which can be deeply bewildering for the young mind, are prone to reconstruction, and over the years take on a surreal or dreamlike artificiality. And as time whittles them away, the imagination is more often called upon to fill in the gaps.
In Midnight’s Children (1981), Salman Rushdie writes, “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality . . .”
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), suggested that understanding truth completely “would lead to our own destruction” and that the strength of a person’s spirit could be “measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”
Of course these notions apply to childhood memories as well, and to children themselves, whose blossoming but delicate spirits are in the early stages of developing a world understanding, at an age when fantasy and intuition intertwine freely and seamlessly.
Which is why I have doubts as to whether my family’s TV even had rabbit ears (despite the antennae being inseparable from the memory). Could such a thing have been planted there to dilute, sweeten, or distort? Is it in this way my spirit accepts the experience and I am able to recollect it? If so, I must question the accuracy of the memory on the whole. I must wonder if my grandmother truly passed away during the opening scene of the second half of the 1985 made-for-TV version of Alice in Wonderland. I tell myself it must have happened, the chronology rings true and always has; the experience, mixed with Alice’s, is seared within.
If I’d watched the first half, the night before, I can’t recall. But I distinctly remember part two picking up with Alice confronting the Jabberwocky.
This monster—toothy, winged, fiery-eyed, with oily flesh and tusk-shaped spikes along its back—had the temperament of a Spielberg raptor, without the maneuverability that CGI made possible years later. Naturally, the encounter terrifies poor Alice, but—initially unbeknownst to her—the Jabberwocky is a manifestation of her fear of growing up.
An owl appears from a painting, with a warning. If Alice doesn’t overcome that fear, she will never leave Looking Glass Land and presumably the Jabberwocky will go on terrorizing her for all eternity.
I may well be embellishing here, but that’s what remains of the scene in my head. And I can’t tell you how Alice fares in her ordeal; my father’s call came before her whole story unfolded, and we were shuffled off to bed, and I’ve only ever read excerpts from Carroll’s Alice books. At a guess I’d say she overcomes her fear and takes on adulthood with a stiff upper lip, forever after untethered from that bizarre world of experimental drugs and blathering animals.
My mother’s voice from the attic stairs comes as indistinct murmurs. My gut makes sense of emotive tones, of shock, of confusion, of sympathy. My grandmother is gone.
What no one else knows is that I am to blame.
About a month earlier, or so I think, I’d come face to face with my own Jabberwocky in a dream. I’d never dreamt in black and white, and dreams since then always come back to me in color, so it’s strange everything was a drab shade of gray. I’d expect an uncolored dream to dissolve faster over time, and yet I vividly remember the details, and can play out each scene from start to finish.
At first there’s a pale, pockmarked moon, resembling the iconic orb in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune, minus the face but with the same theatrical sentience. It’s partly hidden behind three gloomy clouds, like soiled, stretched-out cotton balls, all the same length, and identical in shape, as if charcoaled in the exact same manner, or impressed with the same woodblock.
The first cloud extends over the moon’s top-right rim, the second over its left side, at nine o’clock, and the third, at bottom right, sits parallel to the one on top. This arrangement is fixed, and time fails to alter, add to, or take anything from the picture.
Like the drawn-out atmospheric footage of early 20th century sci-fi flicks, the next static “shot” lingers on a view of a sharply arced horizon—a luminous boundary between starless-black outer space and the moon itself. I’m ankle deep in ashen grit, aware that circumnavigating the moon is doable within minutes at a dead sprint so long as my feet don’t get stuck in its surface of bleak granules.
Next I see two neat rows of craggy boulders, and one row extends from right in front of me all the way to the horizon, which is roughly thirty of these massive rocks away, with the same number of steps between each. My eyes follow both rows and they appear to converge as they recede into the distance, lending to a sense of cartoonish scale and composition.
Then I see the ringer.
At age eleven my image of devils has been inspired by the 1978 animated special The Devil and Daniel Mouse, and Chernabog from the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia. The Looney Tunes character Tasmanian Devil is, um, a devil also. Plus demons usually have horns and raging-red skin. So how is it that in my dream, to my left, and facing the other row, stands a demon of an altogether different breed? It glares down at me with a smug crustacean grin, and at once I have no question this is a lobster demon. As if such archfiends crop up in pop culture all the time—as commonly as ghosts and fairies. Or as if they’re widely known among biologists, as crustacean daemoniac in the binomial nomenclature, or among academic scholars as grotesque allegorical figures that make regular appearances in the sacred writings of all major religions.
Panoplied with an impenetrable carapace, and pincer and crusher claws, the lobster demon fans out its tail and raises a colossal steel mallet. Then, with my right hand, I am clutching a ball-peen hammer.
“Youuu ready for this?” the lobster demon sputters blithely, but I know what’s about to transpire, and whether I’m ready or not doesn’t matter to the beast, nor to fate’s strings, on which the outcome has already been firmly tied. And with this nightmarish prescience all I can do is submit to my impending defeat.
“The winner keeps your grandmother,” the demon declares, sending me into a cold sweat. It chucks up a villainous mwahahahaha and doubles back from its maniacal cackling as sections of its shell clack merrily together. Then it booms, “On our marks . . . get set . . .” and we’re off.
Now I see me, like I’m watching myself in an old 8mm film, but there’s no sound, so I can’t hear the lobster demon bashing each boulder to bits. I can’t hear the one I’m hammering at either. I’m barely chipping the thing. It’s impossible, no matter how desperately I want to save my grandmother, to smash through this rock, much less the row, all the way over the horizon and around and back to where I started.
The lobster demon shrinks into the distance before disappearing from view altogether. My stomach turns as the dream ends. I have lost the race. The guilt is gut-wrenching. Gasping, I sit up in bed and vow never to speak a word about the atrocity in which I’ve partaken.
Fast forward to 2013.
It’s evening. My wife, daughter, son and I are visiting my parents in Ontario. My brother and his family are there as well. His wife has come on her own, from Cape Cod, and somehow managed to fly commercial into Canada with a Styrofoam box of live lobsters. None of my animal-loving relatives are lining up to plop the groggy marine critters into pots of boiling water. But I’m raring to. Rabbits, squids, birds—probably not. The lobster, though, is not my friend, and without blinking I belly-flop each one in, body and soul, lifting and letting go with ceremonious zeal, relishing the sight of their shells turning a defiant, blistery red and the sound of their lives hissing out.
It’s time to eat, and I could say, Forget picks and crackers and get me the claw hammer—I’ll make fast work of you, you goddamned lobsters. But I think about the dream instead, which I’d kept to myself for twenty-eight years. Then out it goes, blow by blow.
My mother might have reminded us how much my grandmother enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or how she habitually read the dictionary, or how hard it must have been to raise seven children while Grandpa Vic worked innumerable blue-collar jobs. My father may have regaled us with an anecdote from his and his siblings’ unruly years, like how he blew up a torpedo—a railway detonator which explodes to signal for a train to stop—and the ear-splitting bang was likely the culprit behind his tinnitus. Whatever was said around the table, I’m sure my dream didn’t elicit an outpouring of sympathy, and I hadn’t hoped or expected it would; the eleven-year-old had grown up ages before, and the self-incrimination which had burdened the boy was long gone. Nothing deranging had come to pass as a result of the nightmare. It was a dream. A bad one. But just a dream.
I did gain something from recounting it, though. It prompted my parents to tell a story of their own.
After my father came home from the hospital, while he and my mother were half-asleep, my grandmother appeared at the foot of their bed. This wasn’t some wailing apparition, misshapen and tormented, or embittered by an untimely death, but a vision of comfort, a caring presence that meant goodbye, and that we’d be all right. My father and mother both saw her. But neither knew that at the time. The sighting wasn’t brought up the next morning, or that week. It wasn’t until many years later, in fact, that their selfsame story came to light. And while to this day they don’t believe in ghosts, they’ll agree the inexplicable in some way took form in their room—each account remarkably corroborated by its matching other half.
The mind conjures, and veracity becomes skewed. So much is certain. And that my grandmother died. I was watching Alice on TV. The door, of course, had a doorknob. The phone rang. I can feel it, without memory of ring pitch or duration. My grandmother’s name was also Alice. Alice Marion Warriner, born 1918. The lobster demon came to me before she passed, not after, as in after I watched the movie that night. Wasn’t that so? There was a crash, two days later—Arrow Air Flight 1285, all 256 passengers killed, near Gander Lake, Newfoundland. Was my grandmother’s wake that day? What was the song on the radio? The one my brothers sang in the back seat of our beige Plymouth Reliant . . . “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy. Did my father shush them, or holler at them to zip it? Did he change the channel? Is that what happened? Was the car really beige?
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
Alice reads this in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). The poem, she confesses, “seems very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand.” She adds, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”
My Jabberwocky beat me, but I killed the bastard, too, eventually. I grew up, like Alice, and in my teenage years it dawned on me that the outcome of our cruel competition had never been in my hands. I wasn’t responsible for my grandmother’s death, one way or the other. But the boy, bound for adulthood, had come to realize how powerless he was, in a world almost totally beyond his control.
Milan Kundera in Laughable Loves (1969) writes: “We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”
Maybe what unties that cloth is a readiness to take the glance, after our mind or spirit knows how, and also what it’s looking for, and can bear it. It could be the blindfold has untold layers, and the more time that goes by, the more one’s memory of an actual experience makes way for the abstract, for coalescence and humor, for dissolution and reinterpretation. All the same, as time sifts onward, our experiences and dreams remain ours alone, as do the memories in constant flux around them, truth and untruth bound together, there to draw meaning from, to embrace or bury, or simply to let fade away.
About the Author – Daniel Warriner
Daniel Warriner is the author of young adult novel Digger Doyle’s Book of Real Monsters (2019) as well as a number of English language learning books and articles for readers in Japan. He is from Niagara Falls, Canada, and lives with his wife, daughter, son and dog in Tokyo, where he works as an editor and writer.
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