That night I went downstairs to see my grandmother, who had laid out pound cake, my favorite. She was sitting in her recliner, knitting an afghan.
"Grandma, what do you know about the epiphany machine?"
I was expecting her to stop knitting and look up at me with fury, but she didn't even slow her rhythm. My father had obviously warned her. She was silent for a moment, filling the room with the sound of her plastic needles hitting each other.
"The epiphany machine is why I no longer have a daughter and why you no longer have a mother. It is for people who are lonely, gullible, and numb."
"Numb is when you can't feel anything. People who can't feel anything do weird things to get their feeling back. They spend money they don't have on a fox fur coat. They want the coat to make them feel warm and elegant, they want the coat to make them feel like a real somebody. Then the coat doesn't make them feel anything. So they let some stranger put a needle in them, hoping 'that' will make them feel something. Then they can't feel the needle. That's when they decide they don't care about anything. They don't care if the
sight of their tattoo makes their mother sick to her stomach. They don't care if they leave their mother, their husband, their son. They don't care about anything because they can't feel anything. Do you understand?"
I didn't say anything.
"Okay. If your tongue were numb, you couldn't taste pound cake. So there would be no point in me giving you pound cake. You can either be a pound cake boy or an epiphany machine boy. Which is it going to be?"
"I'm a pound cake boy," I said.
I ate pound cake every night for months afterward and never once asked about the epiphany machine. I even pretended that I didn't know that parents, terrified of AIDS, were telling their children to stay away from me, though of course I started hearing this every day at school. I pretended, too, that I had no idea that this was why we moved away from Queens to an affluent town in Westchester, in the hope that no one there would hear of our connection to the machine. It's even possible that I flattered myself about how good I was
getting at pretending not to know things, one important life skill at which I was most likely outpacing my peers.
When we arrived in Westchester, I was under strict orders never to say anything about the epiphany machine to anyone. I was supposed to tell anyone who asked that my mother had abandoned the family, and say that I didn't know anything more than that. This worked, and I was avoided because I was weird rather than because I was dangerous. It often occurred to me that I would have preferred the latter to the former, but for years I never said anything. I didn't want my father and grandmother to move us again. (There was not a chance anyone would discover the tattoo on my father, since he wore a suit on the Metro-North platform, a sport jacket to the grocery store, and stayed clear of pool parties.)
Throughout these same years I don't think I asked my father or grandmother a single question about the machine. I had decided not only that I knew what it was, which I didn't really, but that I knew what it meant, which I didn't at all. The machine was for people who were lonely, gullible, and numb, and believed in by people who stayed that way. My mother was one of those people. I said the words "the epiphany machine" only to my father or grandmother, and only when I wanted to please them by saying: "The only people who use the epiphany machine are lonely, gullible, and numb."
Those were the three words I used when I finally did mention the epiphany machine at school, on the playground in fourth grade. There were a few boys who liked to bother me about the fact that I didn't know where my mother was, chanting things like "Venter's mother is a slut," a word they knew despite likely having no more than the dimmest idea what sex was. Eventually I said: "My mom's not a slut, she's lonely, gullible, and numb." I felt superior when they didn't understand that the word "numb" wasn't just what novocaine made your mouth when you went to the dentist.
"It's a figurative use of the term," I said, having heard my father say "It's a figurative use of the term" once and deciding that it applied here. (To taxonomize myself, I was one of those smart children who wishes he were much smarter, and so compensates with a smug attitude toward other children and a toadying one toward adults. Honestly, I was probably bullied less than I deserved.)