Sanitaria hated her name with a passion. Her father was a garbage man who described himself as a sanitation engineer. Why he named his only daughter after his career was anybody’s guess.
Sanitaria’s guess? “He’s crazy!”
She called herself Sani and described everything about her childhood as crazy. She had five crazy brothers, two crazy parents, a crazy home, crazy car, crazy cat, crazy church. Yes, they handled snakes. As soon as she turned eighteen Sani ran. She longed for a saner world.
I met Sanitaria Costello at college. She sat behind me in Modern Novel class and we found that we had similar interests. We both loved Ann Rice and Spanish rice. We had a good laugh over that one. Truth is, I hate Spanish rice, but I wanted her to think we had more in common. How often does one have to suffer through Spanish rice anyway?
Sani had a squeaky voice. Every other week she dyed her hair a different shade: green, purple, hot pink. I never knew her true hair color. She often wore knee-high leather boots and always dresses. That’s what attracted me to her. She was different from the other girls on campus. They called her crazy.
I called her sane, and that’s what attracted Sani Costello to me.
Sani told me that her goal in life was to be as sane as possible. She was failing miserably according to everybody else. I loved her for it. Why? Because I longed for a life less ordinary.
Whereas Sanitaria had an original name, my own name was … is Michael Brown. It’s not even the most common name, but somewhere up there in the top ten or twenty most common names. Everyone’s known a Mikey Brown sometime in their life, unless they live in China or something. We went to a Presbyterian church. My dad was an office manager and my mother an English teacher. I had a sister. That’s it. And a sleepy beagle named Sleepy.
Sanitaria was driven around in a heathermist (metallic purple, I learned) station wagon while growing up. I was carted around in a silver Honda Civic. Sani made a hydro powered toothbrush for the science fair. I made an electric circuit. I was studying to be an accountant. She was studying to be a marine biologist. She was much more interesting than me and I gravitated towards her strangeness, as she gravitated towards my normality.
We began dating. At first, Sani was as exciting as I expected. We went to a college dance and she wore the most outrageous dress, complete with painted cellophane and multi-colored bows, but she became very self-conscious. “Why are they staring?” she asked.
I told her why. My mistake. Sani had been home schooled and her play dates were with kids in weirder families than her own. I would have thought it some kind of a cult, yet they weren’t organized in any way. Most of the members of her snake-handling church were relatively young. I guess you don’t survive to old age in such a congregation.
I tried to figure out how Sani knew her family was strange in the first place. Perhaps she learned from television. Perhaps she learned when she was out in the world, or at least the world down the mountain from where she grew up. That’s how she described her home, as the mountain.
For our second date, I took my girl to a movie. She wore normal clothes, blue jeans and a pink blouse. She seemed uncomfortable in them, as if they were a new experience for her. She would pick at her seat and straighten the shoulders as her face scrunched and widened.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Of course, Mikey. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” We watched a romantic comedy. In it, two guardian angels watch over an accident-prone man and woman who meet and fall in love. The angels hate each other at first but fall in love by the end of the movie. She hated it. She yelled out, “Angels are man and woman?” during one quiet kissing scene, then promptly shut up and kept silent after drawing stares. We had a nice little theological discussion about angels over ice cream after the movie. We talked over ice cream. The angels weren’t over the ice cream.
Over the months we dated, Sani became more comfortable in ordinary clothes. She looked good in them as she would look good in anything, but I missed the crazy get ups she used to wear. We went out to eat at ordinary restaurants, attended festivals in the spring, and had long discussions about our pasts and futures. Yet Sani talked mostly about when she would be out in the world and less about her family’s mountain. Even when I asked, she broached the subject.
Then, after we had dated for six months, I bought her a ring. It seemed a compulsive, crazy thing to do but I saw it at a pawn shop and immediately thought of her. I knew I loved Sani and wanted the best for her, so I bought it and surprised her with the ring one day as we walked in the park. I got down on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?”
She immediately said yes.
For three months we lived in engaged bliss sharing all our time together, studying, visiting, staring into each other’s eyes, not much planning a wedding yet though. We figured that time would come. We didn’t even set a date yet.
“Fall?” I asked.
“Seems right,” she said.
Then the school year drew to a close and we soon realized that the host of our romance, Springfield University, would be kicking us out for the summer term, as neither of us had classes until the fall. I called home to make final arrangements and Mom assured me that my room was as I had left it and Mr. Hooper, my boss at the hardware store, had asked about my summer plans. Suddenly I was accosted with a sick feeling of the ordinary. With a quick idea, I asked Mom if I could spend my summer with Sanitaria.
“Has she invited you?” Mom asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“You know we don’t approve of cohabitation.” Her Presbyterian roots were showing.
“Sani’s family has a separate room ready for me,” I lied again.
“You’re an adult, dear. You may do as you wish. But we’ll miss you.”
“It’s not for the entire summer, Ma, just a few weeks.”
“You do as you see fit, dear.”
Mom had a way of turning things around to make me feel rotten about it. She may or may not have meant it that way. I never was sure. This time I didn’t feel rotten, until I talked with Sani in the car.
“Why?” She asked.
“I would like to meet your family,” I answered.
“But why not invite me to meet your family? Why invite yourself to meet mine?”
I hadn’t thought of that. I guess I’m pretty poor at being impetuous. I should have thought it out first.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you don’t talk much about them. I want to meet them.”
“They’re crazy. What’s more to know?”
I pulled into a parking lot and shut off the engine so I could look her straight in the eye. “I want to know what made you so wonderful,” I said. “Something your parents did made you the woman who attracted me, and now has captured me.”
Sani answered with a smirk. “You are a hopeless romantic, Mikey. I don’t think you’ll find what you think made me … uh … wonderful, but I guess no harm can be done. My folks always keep an open door for everyone.”
“Does that mean that I can come?”
“Do I have to make it more obvious?”
She didn’t. I had weaseled my way into a visit. But the visit had to wait a week. The campus guaranteed me that I would not be in the same dorm room the following semester but they wouldn’t tell me which room I would be moving into, so I had to load all of my college belongings into my car and drop them off at home before I could go to Sani’s mountain. Naturally I couldn’t just stop in, drop off my things, and leave. I had to stay a week and Mom had all kinds of questions to ask about my fiancée.
“Why couldn’t she have come here to visit?” Mom asked.
“Um, she asked to, but I … um.”
Mom gave me one of those looks of disapproval she was the master of, but she let it drop. “How is this … Sani girl?”
“She’s wonderful, Ma. Quite original but she wants to be normal.”
“Whatever do you mean, Mikey?”
“I don’t know. She seems to be attracted to my normality and I’m attracted to her difference.”
“Now you’re really confusing me.” Mom shook her head. “I’m not so sure we’re that normal, dear.”
“Of course we are, Ma.”
“Dear, what is normal?”
“Well, you’re a teacher. Dad’s an office manager. We’re kind of boring, really.”
Mom gave me another disapproving look. “Mikey, to an African tribesman or an eskimo, we would seem strange. If someone from Shakespeare’s time could see our lives, they would think we were crazy. We spend most of our time staring at a box in the living room. Our food is filled with added chemicals to keep it fresh. Much of our produce comes from other countries so we can eat the same foods year round. We pay health insurance companies monthly premiums so that we can keep doctors living in mansions and medicine costs high. We pay homeowners associations money so that they can tell us how to keep our homes. Who really is normal and who is strange, Mikey?”
I had never heard Mom talk like that before. I determined she might like my fiancée after all. Mom went back to her ironing and said no more.
A week later I was on my way to Sanitaria’s mountain following specific directions she had given me over the phone. I tried to enter her address on Google Maps but Google couldn’t find it, so I had to rely solely on her. I took the interstate to Exit 136, took Route 52 to Bloomsberg, then drove out of Bloomsberg on Hot Springs Road. Just past the crumbling edifice of a condemned inn, I took an unmarked, gravel road.
Sani had warned me to borrow my Dad’s 4X4, now I saw why. A hundred or so yards in, and the gravel road ascended straight up a hillside for a quarter mile before going down into dense forest, rounding some turns, then beginning a series of switchbacks, going higher and higher in pine woods. Dad’s Jeep complained but kept climbing.
When I felt I couldn’t climb much higher, the road crested the mountain and passed through an open, wrought iron gate into a junkyard more exotic than any I had ever seen. Of course, I’m no junkyard aficionado, but this one was primo excellente. I was surrounded by valuable trinkets and original forgotten junk. The statue of a golden angel towered on the right as the grey stone eyes of a gargoyle demon glared from my left. A tandem bike and an old fashioned high-seated bicycle sat against a pile of washboards. A long blue slide sat against an old model T. I followed it with my eyes up and up to where it started at the roof of what looked like an airplane hangar. Then I noticed a network of interconnected buildings hiding behind the junk.
Dress dummies and mannequins were piled ahead and tools with farm implements from a century ago made up another pile. I saw an Edsel and a DeLorean car sharing space with what looked like a small rocket capsule and a life-size brontosaurus replica.
I parked by an old telephone booth and shut off the engine. A lanky boy with stringy blond hair walked up to my car door and rapped at the window. I motioned for him to move and opened my door. “Are you Mikey?” he asked.
“That’s me,” I answered as I stood up and rubbed my cramped legs.
“I’m Ayatollah,” he said.
“Ayatollah?” I asked.
“Yes. Like that guy in Iran.”
I just stared at him. Who in their right mind would name their boy, Ayatollah? I shook my head and went to shake his hand, but his hand broke into a series of fist bumps, finger flutters and thumb thingies that I couldn’t counter. “Is that some sort of secret handshake?” I asked.
“What, Sani never taught you the Costello wave?”
“Where is Sanitaria, anyway?” I asked.
“She went into town for supplies. Come on, I’ll show you around. We just finished the Mega Supra Stupendiferous Water Slide to End All Water Slides, or MSSWSEWS, or Miswoos.”
“Uh … Okay. I’ve got to see that.” I leaned against a suit of Japanese armor, not the most comfortable position.
“Don’t worry, you will. You have to try it out.” Ayatollah couldn’t contain his excitement. First, I have to teach you the handshake. Come on.” He held out his hand again, then slowly led me through the complicated shake. “You shake, flutter, throw out the thumbs and wrestle, then bump, then flutter with these …”
I lost track somewhere around the eighth flutter. Ayatollah gave up and motioned for us to move. “Sani wants to show you around herself. She’d probably get real mad if I did. She won’t be too long.”
“Why didn’t I pass her on the way up the mountain?” I asked.
“You came up the back way.” Ayatollah answered. “She went out the front.”
“That was the back way?” I pointed behind me.
My host smiled. “Yep. You missed the Garden of Beers.”
“Never mind. You’ll see it soon enough. Follow me.”
I’ll call him Aya from now on. It’s much too painful to keep writing his real name. Aya led me through valleys of salvaged treasures, around a corner and through a man-size pipe, out the other side and up some metal steps. We came up onto the tar paper roof of one of the interconnected sheds. At the far side of the roof a shorter boy of around fifteen stood holding a garden hose. Water splashed out into the top of a large pipe.
“Howdy, Brouhaha!” Aya yelled. “How goes the Miswoos?”
“It’s totally cool!” Brouhaha called excitedly back. “You gotta try it!”
“I intend to. This here’s Sani’s Mikey.”
The boy named Brouhaha grinned. “You’re in for a real treat, Mikey.”
I managed a smile back, unsure if I wanted to accept any treats.
“Sorry to have to say goodbye like this, Mikey, but I’m ‘a goin’ down!” Aya ran to the slide and leaped in headfirst. I quick-stepped over to where Brouhaha stood grinning with his hose, but all I could see was the dark entrance to the slide. It didn’t look too steep in there.
“How long do you have to stand there holding that hose?” I asked Brouhaha.
“Until somebody comes to relieve me.”
“I can relieve you.”
“Just go down the danged slide,” he ordered, still grinning.
I took one last look, then lowered myself into the slide and let go. The going was slow at first, and I reflected how that little hose was just enough to make for a comfortable sliiiiii…… then the bottom dropped out, and the pipe opened to the outside, where I caught the view of trees and cliffsides swooping passed at breakneck speeds, but I was the one going fast, not them, with water shooting up my nose and bruises forming as the connected halfpipes banked and turned repeatedly.
I caught a glimpse ahead of something that sent my heart sinking down into my feet. The halfpipe became a full-pipe, above-ground tunnel again, just in time to do a loop de loop. Yes, a water slide that did a loop de loop. I held my breath, held my eyes, and soon experienced the unthinkable as my poor battered body hit the roof, turned a few somersaults, and soon came shooting out of the pipe again, still whole. I opened my eyes just in time to realize that the half pipe had disappeared. I was hurtling through the air over bare ground, heading straight for a mountain pond. I said a quick prayer that it was a deep one. I splashed down hard and sank, and soon came sputtering up to the surface.
Someone grabbed me by the arms, laughing, as I surfaced. He let out a loud whoop then ordered, “Calm down there, Sport. Calm down. You must be Mikey.”
“Yeeup, that’s him,” came Aya’s familiar voice. “Better move, Mikey. Bruey’ll be down soon.”
“Yeeeeeeeehaaaaaaa!” Came Brouhaha, flying through the air and headed directly at me. I dived and swam as hard as I could, surfacing a few safe feet away but I still received the full force of his splash. An older man swam nearby. I guessed he was the senior Costello, Sari’s dad. “Welcome to Costello Mountain, Mikey. Hope your time here is good,” he called.
“So far … Wow,” I called back. “You built that slide thingy?”
“We’re always building something around here,” called a younger boy, probably ten, with long blond hair like his dad, although his dad’s hair was buzzed.
“That’s Cowpie, my youngest,” Mr. Costello called. “My name’s Tom. Boring, I know. I didn’t want that for my kids.”
“Yeah, but Ayatollah?” I couldn’t help voicing my disapproval.
Brouhaha surfaced a few feet away. “What’s wrong with Ayatollah?” he asked, as if he could hear me underwater.
“It’s an Iranian dictatorial religious guy!” I yelled, unsure of what the ayatollah really was.
“It’s also the name of my son, who’s a real cool kid and a pleasure to have around,” Tom answered, and smiled. “Back when Aya was born, the word ‘Ayatollah’ was pretty dirty in the grand old U S of A. I had to change that, because Ayatollah is only a word, and no word should hold such a negative vibe, anywhere.”
“So he named me Ayatollah, and now that word means a pretty cool dude, right?” yelled Aya, before he swam to the nearby shore.
There was logic to the craziness. I swam ashore with the rest of them, then thought to ask, “So, if Brouhaha came down the slide, then who held the hose?”
As if in answer, a loud scream filled the air, and a woman in a purple and yellow bikini came hurtling from the open pipe, her pale arms flapping and clawing at the air until her body splashed hard into water.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s my other daughter, Zimbabwe,” came Tom’s answer.
“Zimbabwe? But she’s not even black!”
“Why would she be black? She’s my daughter, and I’m not black.”
“Why would you name your daughter after an African country?”
“It’s a cool word.”
That seemed to answer the question. It’s a cool word. All three of his present sons nodded agreement. Zimbabwe surfaced and began swimming for the shore.
“No,” Tom ordered me to stop. “Before you ask who was holding the hose, then witness Dalmatian hurtling through the air, then ask again before Egg Fu Yung comes out splashing into the lake, there’s your answer.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Six. Four boys, two girls.”
“Sani said you had five boys.”
“Then why did you ask? Tom Junior changed his name and moved out. Now there’s four.
I glared at Tom Senior. “He’s still alive. He’s still your son.”
“Then I stand corrected. Sorry. Five boys.”
“Tom Junior? What was his original name?”
All the Costello family looked at each other, then turned to me, and said together, “Five.”
“No wonder he changed his name. wasn’t he a little young to move out?”
A loud yell came from the pipe, and the bullet called Dalmatian came shooting out.
“Young?” Tom looked confused. “Five is my oldest.”
I refused to address it, but he addressed it for me. “We knew we’d have five, so that’s what we named him. Why wait for five before giving him the name? Who wants to go without a name for twelve years?”
Logic, who needs it?
Egg Fu Yung would exit the pipe next, and I had to ask the inevitable question.
“You know, a garden hose can be left hanging over the edge of a waterslide without anyone holding it,” came the answer.
Zimbabwe climbed out of the water and I noticed that she was just as alluring as her older sister, only her hair was done up in a way that would make Princess Leia inquire for her hairdresser. It was braided and reattached to her head at the ends, with both sides sticking out in loops. If I had two basketballs, I could throw them through the hoops on both sides of her head.
“How do you do that?” I asked and pointed.
She smiled, “Oh, you mean my hair hoops?”
“Hair starch. I invented it myself,” she ran lazy fingers around the edges of her hoops. “I’m trying to get some corporation to buy the patent, but don’t have any takers yet. It’ll be big, you’ll see.”
Dalmatian had taken longer to get to shore. I was afraid to ask but asked anyway. “Why is he named Dalmatian?”
“We had trouble finding a name for him,” Tom turned serious. “We pondered over it for over a year, then one day he found a Sharpie, and marked spots all over his face. The name stuck.”
“So what’s on his birth certificate?” I asked.
“We waited for that too.”
That was enough for me. Tom led us all over to a waiting pickup truck. It was the most normal thing I had seen on the mountain. The Costello kids all climbed in the back as their father motioned for me to sit in the suicide seat. He then drove us all back up the mountain. At first, we passed through forest, then the dirt road met up with a paved road, and after a few hairpin curves, we crested and entered a different gate.
Beyond the gate, piles of beer cans and bottles were arranged in elaborate designs, some in the shape of a castle, some as windmills, and others arranged and connected to form large sunflowers. This must have been the Garden of Beers, and I marveled at it.
“Yeeup, we have a lot of spare time up here on the mountain,” Tom answered my gawk. “We tend to get creative. I began this Garden of Beers ten years ago, when I first quit my job as a sanitation engineer and opened my little salvage yard up here. People come up the mountain to see the garden and end up buying some treasure from the yard. I’ve got quite a collection of castoffs up here.”
“So I see,” I said, as the piles surrounded us.
He stopped the car and the gang all came climbing out, including myself. Sani stepped out of a nearby house that looked very Victorian, with a worried look on her face.
“Mama said you went down the Miswoos,” she muttered.
“Heck, yeah!” I yelled, and slapped Aya’s moving hand.
“And you’re not running for the gate?” she gave a nervous smile.
“No. I’m itching for more.”
“You’ll get that, I’m sure.” Sani walked up and kissed me on the cheek. “I’m sorry, Mikey. I wish I had been here to save you from that. I had to pick up dinner. I couldn’t let them feed you what they were going to.”
“What was that?” I asked.
She led me into the house. “You know, all these buildings and sheds are connected into one big house. It goes on forever. There are secret passages out of the salvage yard too: slides and manual elevators, caves and pipes without water. They’ll give you a major weggie.”
“Sounds cool,” I said, wondering how to answer her.
“Yes, imagine growing up in such a world. I used to think it was cool myself, but by the time I became a teenager, I was a little sick of it. I never knew what new crazy thing I would wake up to. All these brothers buy into it … and my sister too. She still loves it, and she’s well into her teenage years. Jeez.”
Sani had led me up the stairs to her room, where we both sat down on a normal-looking couch, by a normal-looking bed, with normal pictures on the wall and plain grey carpeting. She rested her head on my shoulder. “Can’t I escape all this?” she whined.
“I guess so, but I would have loved your childhood.”
“As you love me,” her eyes smiled up at me.
“Yes, sure.” Although that’s not exactly what I meant. “Hey, Sani, honey, what exactly is ‘elephant meat?’”
“You don’t have to have it, Hon. I got us KFC.”
I didn’t have long to wait for dinner which I wished could wait. I had only just begun to explore that amazing network of sheds and house, finding a room filled with old VHS tapes, some of them very rare, and another piled high with Legos, some put together into dioramas of Disney movies and the solar system. Come to think of it, both the Disney diorama and the solar system included Pluto.
The not-yet-seen Mama Costello called us all into the dining room with a buzzer. The buzzing code of dots and dashes surrounded us via a network of speakers, calling us to eat. Sani rolled her eyes and said, “They came up with that buzzer system after Eggy was born. The more buzzes for the younger family member. Dad’s one, Mom’s two, Five’s three, I’m four, Aya’s five, Zim’s six, Bruey’s seven, Cow’s eight, and Eggy is, you guessed it, ten.”
“Yes, Dad has to be unpredictable.” She rolled her eyes again and led me to the dining room, where everyone was already seated.
Sani sat me down next to her with a bucket of chicken in front of us. In the center of the table sat a steaming casserole. Elephant meat? I went to grab a biscuit, but Sani motioned for me to stop.
“We pray first,” she said.
“They don’t release snakes, right?” I looked concerned.
Sani smiled. “No. We quit the snake handling after grandma died.”
Tom stood and everyone stood with him, then everyone joined hands and bowed their heads. I caught a good glimpse of Mama Costello. She wore a muscle shirt that showed off muscular arms, and she had a buzzed head of red hair, sort of like Annie Lennox, only softer. Tom’s prayer was short but sweet.
“Lord, we thank you for making us who and what we are, whatever who or what we are is. You created us, ordained us, and set this thing called life in motion. Please never allow us to think our way is any better than anyone else’s, or to forget who made us, and always bless us with the gift of originality, yet never judge those we deem unoriginal. Amen.”
And all the others around the table said, “Amen.”
All except Sanitaria.
We sat down and the heaping plates of food traveled around the table. I ignored the Colonel’s chicken and took spoonfuls and forkfuls from the bowls and trays that passed before me. Finally came the elephant meat. I took a grand heaping spoonful from that dish, then passed it on to Sani, who returned it to the center of the table without taking any.
“What exactly is it?” I asked, then took a bite.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Mom always claimed that she went ‘a huntin’ in the elephant woods behind the mountain, but I know there aren’t any elephants outside of zoos in North America. I always thought it was just ground beef and gravy.”
“What’s wrong with ground beef,” I asked.
“I don’t really know it’s ground beef.”
Almost in answer, Tom dinged his glass with his spoon and stood up. “In honor of our guest, Mikey Brown, I will now reveal the source of Sharon’s famous elephant meat.” He paused for effect as silence fell. “Once a year, every year, on this date or a day before June twentieth, the Summer Solstice, I go down the mountain and find me some road kill, preferably something recently run down. I bring it back up with me, we skin it and clean it well, check it for disease, because I will not allow danger to befall my family …”
I thought of the water slide, but kept my mouth shut.
“Then Sharon cooks it up and puts it in a casserole, end of story.”
He sat down.
Sani choked on her chicken. She stood up. “How could you?” She griped. “You fed us roadkill? That’s crazy!”
“Sani, why should that creature’s life go to waste? We should allow it to rot and go to some grocer to buy a cow or chicken pumped full of chemicals? … kept penned up twenty to a pen, waiting to die? Which is more humane? It’s just one step down from vegetarianism.” Aya put in his two cents.
“It’s roadkill!” She stood up and wiped the grease off her mouth with a napkin. “I can’t do this another summer. Come on, Mikey. You think your ma will have me?”
“I know my ma would have you,” I said. “But I’m staying.”
Sani glared down at me. “You’re what?”
“I’m staying. I love this place. This … roadkill is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know what your mom did to it.”
Sharon smiled wide across the table.
“I had the most fun in my life riding down that slide. The Garden of Beers is a wonder. I just can’t get enough of this place.”
“Alright Mikey!” Brouhaha punched my shoulder.
Sani kept glaring. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No kidding.” I smiled back.
“Well maybe your ma will have me anyway.”
Sani got up and left the room. The crew around the table motioned for me to follow her, but I stood my ground, or sat my seat, and finished eating what I learned later was crab racoon. By the time I finished desert and made my way to Sani’s room, she was well down the mountain.
I did spend the rest of that summer on Costello’s Mountain, and I had the time of my life. After Zimbabwe turned eighteen, in only another year, we began dating. I finished college but switched majors to oceanography, and Zim and I were married. We have two kids now, Three, and Unitopia. We’re waiting for our next two boys. Every year we return to Costello Mountain.
Sani stayed with my mom that summer. She switched majors to Accounting and now works for the IRS, married to a Joe Brown, who could pass as my younger brother. I suppose once a year she meets with Tom Junior and they laugh about their crazy family, but they never visit, at least not when we do.
I love my life.