Michael Kimball makes of autobiography a compound fiction in which the confusions of youth underscore the caprice of human systems. As entertaining as it is intelligent as it is irreverent, Kimball’s prose is that rare creature that devours while being devoured.
Learning to spell was difficult for me. Even after I realized that certain sounds went with certain letters, I didn’t understand why my name was spelled the way that it was spelled. I couldn’t figure out why Michael had to be spelled with those seven letters. I couldn’t figure out why the letter m had to sound like em or why the letter i could sound like a long-eye or a short-ih. I didn’t understand why the em-sound couldn’t be the letter e or the letter r or some other letter that I didn’t even know about yet. I didn’t understand why Michael couldn’t be spelled with seven other letters or ten other letters and still sound like the same name. I didn’t understand that almost everybody who used English had come to some kind of agreement long before I was born. Even after I knew that, I didn’t understand how that could have happened. The idea of nearly everybody agreeing seemed really complicated.
My difficulty with spelling was compounded by the fact that my elementary school teachers often mispronounced my name at the beginning of the year. The first time that Mrs. Fisher said my name, she said it the girl way, Michelle. That was in kindergarten and the idea that the letters in my name could be pronounced in different ways was shocking to my five-year-old self. It was a kind of confirmation that what I suspected about spelling was true.
What I didn’t expect was that the other boys in the class would actually think that I was a girl because of how the teacher said my name. Plus, it probably didn’t help that I was really skinny and had long curly hair. Apparently, all of this was confusing for everybody.
The other boys started taunting me at recess. There would be a group of them and one of me. They would chase me and I would run. I was pretty fast, but I usually got cornered near the monkey bars or the swings, and then I would have to fight them. I don’t know why Mrs. Fisher never stopped any of this. The only thing that saved me was that the other boys had some weird sense of fairness. I only had to fight them one at a time and only until Mrs. Fisher rang the bell to let us know that recess was over. The other thing that would stop the fight was if I hurt the other boy badly enough that he hit the playground three times with his hand, meaning that he was tapping out. The extent of the beating that I took never stopped the fight, but even then I had a lot of endurance.
This went on for weeks until the time I was fighting Brian Omura and I backed him toward the swing set with a wild series of roundhouse punches, none of which connected. Everybody was laughing at my inability to hit Brian Omura until I backed him in front of the swing that had Megan Boyle on it. One of the other boys yelled out, but I don’t think Brian Omura heard him with all the playground noise. When Megan Boyle kicked her feet to make the swing go higher, she kicked Brian Omura in the back and knocked him down hard on the playground. There wasn’t any blood, but he didn’t get up.
Mrs. Fisher sent one of the girls inside to get the school nurse and somebody must have called an ambulance. We could all hear the siren as the ambulance got closer to the school and that made it all seem worse than it was. The paramedics took Brian Omura away, but he came back to school the next day.
After that, nobody called me a girl. None of the other boys wanted to fight me after that either. Plus, I didn’t get in trouble.
The same thing happened with my name the next school year. On the first day of first grade, Mrs. Brandt called out, Michelle Kimball. I didn’t say anything, but the other kids started laughing. One of the other boys said that I had turned into a girl over the summer and the other kids started laughing harder.
I didn’t want to have to fight the other boys at recess again so I stood up, climbed up on my desk, and pulled my pants down. I did a full turn around the top of my desk with my pants around my ankles so that everybody could see.
Mrs. Brandt said, Michael Kimball?
I said, Here.
Around This Time,
I started to wonder if I was the only person in the world. I didn’t know if anybody else was real. It seemed possible to me that the people around me could be pretending to be my mother and my father, my brother and my sister, my teacher and my classmates, the neighbors, the people driving past our house.
I wondered if my life was somehow an elaborate trick that was being played on me—to see what I would do, to see if I could figure it out, to see if I could get away. How else could I explain getting beaten up most days on the way home from school or that the other boys sometimes thought that I was a girl? How else could I explain all the yelling and the arguments or the time that my father almost strangled my mother and I jumped up and tried to pull one of my father’s arms away with both of my arms, but I was still so small and so light that I just hung up there off the ground, off his one arm? How else could I explain the time that my mother asked me to hide the package of hamburger on the inside of my winter coat because we didn’t have enough money to pay for it? I don’t think that I knew how wrong it was until I felt how cold the package of meat was.
What didn’t make sense was the fact that I didn’t know who was doing all of this to me or why. I didn’t understand how they could have organized all of it. I wondered if maybe my father was some kind of night monster because of how mean he became after it got dark outside. I wondered if my mother was some kind of zombie because of the way that she made the whole world slow. I thought that my first grade teacher might be a robot because of the way she spoke in a monotone and repeated herself. I thought that the man who drove the school bus might be a Martian because his skin was often green. The two lunch ladies seemed as if they could have been some kind of tall lizard with their hairnets and their aprons and their scaly-looking skin. I wondered if the doctor who my mother took me to for shots could have been an evil wizard who injected me with controlling potions. I wondered if the mailman might be the one running everything and what he did was deliver everybody’s directions for what they were supposed to do or say to me every day.
I knew that I was a normal human being because I recognized these possibilities, but I didn’t know if anybody else thought these things that I did, and I was afraid because it made so much sense. I was afraid to ask other people if they were real people, but eventually I couldn’t stand not knowing anymore so I asked my friend Steve about it. I figured that he was the least likely person to lie to me, but he ran home crying. I didn’t know what him being so scared meant. Maybe that was part of the elaborate trick. Maybe he was pretending to be afraid so that I would think it couldn’t be true. All of this made the trees seem sinister—especially the limbs, the arms, especially if it was windy. I was so lonely.
Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody and Us. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, the 510 Readings, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.
Conor Lamb is a photographer currently based in the Midwest. He is relocating to the East Coast shortly.