The Wall of My Shame
It looked like a strange map of the world, drawn either by some pre-Magellan philosopher or bipolar cartographer. It was apocalyptic. No, it was post-apocalyptic.
Boogers aren’t magic. They’re bits of dried nasal mucus, and I, as a lad with no direction in this particular area, decided to make regular habit of excavating the more high-priority culprits from my nose. I’ve always felt singularly exempt from the shame of nose-picking as is viewed by most civilized persons. For some reason, and quite some time ago, I self-declared that I had a right to pick whatever I wanted to pick, and even though it was disgusting when others did it, I had a free pass, and you just can’t infringe on that.
This self-affirmation bespoke a certain natural shame I held concerning the private practice of nose-picking, and is probably the reason why I usually did it while no one was looking, or when I was in the bathroom, or, as this story reveals, lying in bed at night, imagining things.
My imagination runs on overload most of the time, well above the recommended limits, and as a result, my body finds ways to release my thoughts in different tics and quirks. Many times you can find me sitting absolutely still, save one of my legs which looks like it belongs to a possessed seamstress, bouncing up and down like a silent jackhammer. Other times you’ll see me drumming on my thighs, wearing thin places in my jeans that, if I’m lucky, will later become super-cool holes that bespeak of my rugged, no-rules, REI-approved life. If I’m not lucky, however, it will eventually sell me out, alerting inquisitive females to the paleness of my skin, the hairiness of my leg, and the exact color of that day’s underwear.
As a young boy, I’d lie in bed and ponder. Not while sleeping, for I hardly ever dream. I’ve always assumed that’s because my mind, knowing how much I daydream, affords me a little break each night. A full day of imagining can really wear a fellow out. Since bouncing one’s leg in bed generates unwanted heat, I resorted to nose-picking. I’d dig with a relentless effort, not satisfied to pull out the easy ones near the front. Those were for amateurs. I’d get way up in there, Shel Silverstein-style, prodding and wiggling at the knotty dangler just out of finger’s reach. Short bursts of air would sometimes dislodge the thing, causing it shoot out and stick onto my chest. I had many methods, all of them quite effective.
The real question was what to do with it. I knew that eating them was low-brow, a snack for lesser men. For a while I tried scraping them into the top sheet, but my mother’s ever-watchful eye put a quick end to that. She’d discover my habit while doing the family laundry. “Charlie! Are you wiping your BOOGERS in your bed sheets? Gross!” Mom would say this in a loud voice from down the hall, loud enough for my sister and father to hear it. I’d look up from my latest Calvin and Hobbes collection, looking quite guilty. My father would cock an eyebrow, always a sign that I was about to hear the most-used, all-purpose Pratt rebuke, which always arrived a split-second before I was ready to hear it:
So, I quit. No more boogers in sheets, got it. Later that same night, I was back at it, about to grind a big flaky one into my bedding when I paused. Find another way, I thought. With the booger secured to my index finger, I reached my arm down to the left side of my bed, down below the edge of my mattress, to the dark area between the bed and the wall. Normally I was afraid of this area, as it seemed to me to be the best place for a silent, hollow-fanged monster to hide, but now it took on new meaning and a new purpose: booger storage facility. I pressed the unwanted glob into the wall and slid my finger until it it was gone.
In the coming months, I wiped thousands of boogers onto that area of my bedroom wall, down there in the darkness, out of sight. No one ever saw it. It was like it wasn’t even there. Everglades is to mob as booger-wall is to Charlie. I was expected to make my own bed by that time, and being about as diligent at bed-making as I was at personal hygiene, I never noticed what was forming down there. It had become an innocuous habit. So, time passed, I stopped using the wall as my nasal depot, and forgot all about it.
A few more years passed. I’d grown up a bit more, developed a few more life skills, and had even learned how to talk to girls. I’d started using deodorant regularly and became intensely concerned with the shape and volume of my hair. I was in man-o-morphosis.
Sitting in the family den, while watching television and eating peanut butter crackers, I heard Mom’s voice from down the hall, coming from my room:
“Oh! Oh! EW!”
I glanced up, half-interested, figuring that she’d most likely seen a spider, a cockroach, or some other hirsute creature with multiple legs. That usually got her riled up. But I was wrong.
Things got specific.
This was said in a voice that was much less a question than a declaration. I was about to ask her what the problem was, but then thought better of it, knowing that I’d find out soon enough. I continued munching crackers, hoping she’d go away or lose interest.
Without addressing me, Mom speed-walked out of the house, through the dining room, the kitchen, and to the garage, a place she didn’t normally frequent. The garage was Dad’s area. I peered out the window, to make sure she wasn’t coming back with a hatchet or the band saw. Perhaps she was getting something to swat at whatever thing had caused such a reaction.
She huffed back in the house. I never had to see my mom’s face to know her mood. We could always tell exactly how she felt by listening to her move through the house, like little domestic audiologists running our own forensics labs. She came right for me. I noticed she was holding something. More specifically, she was holding two somethings. In one hand she gripped a small tack hammer. In the other, a small chisel.
She didn’t look proud.
“Charlie, I’m giving you this hammer and this chisel, and I want you to go back into your room - right now, please - and get all those BOOGERS off your wall!” I was stunned. The way she’d emphasized the word boogers made me want to cry. She added, in only the way that she can, “P.U.!” (It was the exact same way I’d felt the first time she brought a heavily skid-marked pair of my underwear to my attention in front of my sister.)
Holding the hammer and chisel (If I ever decide to start a communist state, these will be our national emblems, embroidered in a vibrant green into a puce flag), I pulled my bed back from the wall, something I hadn’t done in nearly a decade. On the ground were a few dust bunnies, an old GI Joe that I’d assumed had gone A.W.O.L., and a couple pieces of string. Nothing too terrifying, just your average stuff found behind a boy’s bed. But there, on the wall, was the real story.
It looked like a strange map of the world, drawn either by some pre-Magellan philosopher or bipolar cartographer. It was apocalyptic. No, it was post-apocalyptic. The grand mass of old boogers was completely dry, hardened, and spread out, obviously formed over a great length of time as its multi-colored hue would suggest. It seemed to have at one time been mostly green, but age and neglect had browned it like a foul batch of hash browns. Is with an old tree, I could tell where it had begun, down low, in the center, spreading out to its edges like a plague. I flashed back to my bedtime ritual, spelunking for nose gold and redistributing it, out of the way, out of mind, and out of sight. In the present, however, it was time to chisel. I began, with a sigh, chipping away at my shame.
Appendix: A dollop of shame must also be given to Kevin Bolger and Stephen Gilpin for their children’s book entitled Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, a harrowing tale involving Sirs Fartsalot, Bedwetter, and Knotaclew, in a plot hatched by evil Prince Harry to convince the noble knights that the dreaded Booger is loose in the kingdom. The story takes place in, you guessed it, the Kingdom of Armpit, “a small realm north of the Dominion of Elbow.”
This story came alive during the six months I was writing my first memoir, entitled Diary of an American Boy.