Recently, I finished reading a mystery novel in which the killer turned out to be the amateur detective’s mother. I was not at all happy about this turn of events, and since Ivan had given me the book to read, I complained directly to him.
“Ivan,” I said indignantly, “the murderer turned out to be the mother!”
“That’s right,” he agreed.
“It is never supposed to be the mother,” I objected. “What if the murderer were my mother? I would hate that! I wonder if I should call her and tell her that I don’t want her doing any murdering? Just mention it, you know.”
“Good idea,” he said. “Head her off.”
But in the end I didn’t do it. I don’t think my mother is particularly disposed to murder, but in case she is, the last thing that would act as an effective deterrent is for me to call and suggest that she stay away from senseless slaughter and a life of crime. It would be like the proverbial red flag to the bull.
Actually, it is too late to deter Mom from a life of crime. She has already dabbled in any number of forms of crime. Not capital crimes. More your crimes of opportunity and convenience. Crimes that smooth out the rough edges of life. Crimes, for example, that allow you to not have to make a special trip to the doctor’s office in downtown São Paulo. Once, when a nurse phoned to ask Mom to come in for a particular test, Mom told her, “Actually, I’m a registered nurse. Can’t I just do that test at home?” “Oh, of course, since you are a registered nurse yourself,” the nurse agreed. Given that I never heard of any complaints that Mom’s test did not follow medical procedures or yield intelligible medical results, it is possible that the impersonation of medical personnel is not all that rare an event at this particular doctor’s office. But I assume that it is still illegal.
Mom had a lot of reasons for loving São Paulo, but a big part of the reason that she thrived there was because of what she saw as Brazilians’ carefree attitude towards matters of legality. “Smuggling, bribery, trading on the black market, and hiring other people to impersonate you so that you can pass the driving test,” Mom told me with great satisfaction, “are a way of life in Brazil.” In moving to Brazil, she felt that she finally had found her niche. Life in the U. S. is less efficient; unless you are rich, you cannot deal with pesky obstacles simply by asking, “What’s the trick?” — the “jeitinho” — and then negotiating your way out of things. In the U. S., the rules are supposed to be followed; they’re not seen as the first move in a complex dance of negotiation. For most Americans, anyway. Mom doesn’t see it that way. As she sees it, “America is a country filled with rules waiting to be broken.” That is a direct quote.
Deprived of cultural and political support, Mom has been forced to create her own culture of illegality. Fortunately, this has not been difficult. As she recently explained, “Obviously, I break all those small rules that have no meaning to me.” In saying that such rules have no meaning to her, she is not saying that they were not meant to apply to her, only that they apply to her falsely because she does not like them. If she resents a rule, she tells me, she breaks it. It’s kind of a moral thing.
I know that there is a lot more information out there about Mom’s propensity towards illegality, but, despite concerted efforts, I have not been able to put my finger on any more data. In my journalistic zeal to collect material for this newsletter, I wrote to Dad and asked him for details about Mom’s illegalities, but he never wrote back. Mom did, however — pages’ and pages’ worth — and while I am tempted to say that perhaps she was reading his mail illegally, it’s actually not all that likely. Not that she would have anything against stealing his mail; it’s just that it’s much more likely that Dad showed her the letter and said, “Here, Marian. Write to Audrey and tell her everything illegal you’ve ever done. That should keep you busy for a week or two.”
As documentation, the letter Mom sent me with details of her criminal career left a lot to be desired — though in its own right, as a kind of surreal entrée into Mom’s thought processes, it was pretty interesting. The kinds of details Mom dredged up were things like “one time I hitched a ride when I wasn’t supposed to” and “I didn’t pay full fare on the bus when I was thirteen.” “Also, I took a shortcut across a field with the general’s daughter in Michigan.” Well, I mean to say, you can’t get a newsletter out of that kind of thing. On the other hand, the letter provided interesting evidence of just how categorical a thinker Mom is. Everything in the letter was carefully labeled in terms of its precise, supposed degree of legality: “ate dinner out and then had another dinner at home immediately afterwards (not illegal),” “argued with the Mormon church about that business in the cave (not illegal but got me in a lot of trouble),” “flooded the porches of people who annoyed me (illegal).” I’m not sure where Mom got her legal information, but I suspect it was from Grandpa, who was liable to make up illegalities when it suited his purposes. It probably suited his purposes quite often in trying to raise two teenagers — though his efforts to curb Mom were to little avail, since if Mom resented the rules, she did not question the legality of the rules; she merely broke them.
Frankly, my sense is that Mom’s grasp of the legal and illegal is tenuous at best. Her supposedly documentary letter ended on a note of resentment, exploding into accusations of an illegality I’d never even heard of. In large capital letters, she wrote, “WHAT DO YOU CARE ABOUT ANY OF THIS, ANYWAY? YOU NEVER EVEN WROTE ABOUT HOW WHEN YOU WERE TWO I DROPPED YOU IN THE RIVER AND WHEN I DOVE IN TO GET YOU, YOU WERE SITTING ON THE BOTTOM. WHAT’S THE MATTER? DON’T YOU FLOAT?” I had no trouble picking up on the outrage in this intemperate ending to the supposed documentary of her illegal career; it’s just that I’m still trying to figure out what was so illegal about not floating. Maybe it’s one of those natural law things, like gravity: “It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law.”
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org/audrey.html