My foster father Claude had a cousin that walked and talked in his sleep, and did all sorts of other funny things – especially if he’d been sick. I never met him, but I heard so much about him I think I would’ve known him in a crowded hotel (come to think of it, I KNOW I’d know him in a crowded hotel – he’d be the one hanging out the upstairs window). Claude described him often, in fond, head-shaking terms. I’ll call him Clarence, in case any of his relatives are reading this.
As a boy, Clarence was clumsy, uncoordinated, and gangly – all arms and legs. He was usually pasty white from being sick a lot, which made his freckles quite prominent. His pale blue eyes squinted in the light, behind black horn-rimmed glasses, and his wispy-fine, straight hair stuck out at odd angles all over his head, waving wildly with any passing breeze. Clarence’s reddish-brown eyebrows curved in a way that always made him look surprised. His hair was only slightly darker than dirty dishwater, with just a hint of red, and smelled very much like dishwater. And pee. He wet the bed, y’see, right up until he was about 11 or 12. He also, on occasion, had other accidents in his breeches. His older sister Charlotte had to take care of him at school, because he was always forgetting his books and his lunch and where he lived. A bookish, quiet girl, Charlotte was a little taller than Clarence but just as skinny, with straight dark hair and dark blue eyes, and a perpetually embarrassed expression.
When Clarence got excited he’d repeat certain words or phrases in his peculiar, high-pitched singsong whine. Imagine trying to cry and sing at the same time, with your nose pinched shut. That’s the sound. They attended a one-room school in the country when Clarence was six years old. One day Clarence had one of his accidents in his pants, and the entire room was decidedly anxious for him to go home. Right away. It wasn’t really his fault; they’d had beans for lunch, and Clarence always got the runs when he ate beans. But being poor, beans were a staple … and Clarence loved beans.
Back to the story. Clarence had filled his pants, and his embarrassed sister began shoving him towards the school door, making their getaway. Clarence got a bit put out with her, and jerked away from her grasp. He yelled in his best sing-song whine, “Stop a-pushin‘! You’ll make me speeyall it you’ll make me speeyall it.” He did spill it.
Clarence absolutely LOVED anything sweet. If you told him it was sweet, he’d gobble it – usually without even chewing! One day his dad (Claude’s uncle) was eating sauerkraut and crackers, and asked him, “Hey Clarence, want some sauerkraut?” Clarence immediately responded, “Yes, yes! Is it sweet?”
Clarence liked to read. He imagined himself in the stories, especially stories about pirates and cowboys and truck drivers (his interests varied, depending on the tales his grandpa, a retired truck driver who lived with them, had been spinning). But Clarence often had trouble distinguishing between reality and story, so his family kept a close eye on him when he’d been reading. You see, he tended to doze off in the middle of his book, and that could be bad. As I said before, Clarence had always been a sickly child – and when he was sick, he often walked in his sleep. His family kept a particularly close watch if he dozed off during the day in the summertime. It was funny, but when Clarence went to bed at night, he stayed in bed – it was only when he took a nap in the daytime that trouble brewed.
Another peculiarity of Clarence: he hated being hot. Summers were hard on the boy, and not much better when he became a man.
Once, when he was about ten, Clarence had been reading his favorite book on a Sunday afternoon. The family and some friends sat outside in the cool shade of the huge old oak tree by the side of the house. Everyone was having such a wonderful time visiting and drinking lemonade and eating homemade ice cream, that they all forgot about Clarence … until he appeared around the side of the house dressed only in his tidy whities and carrying his socks. His mother jumped immediately to her feet and took him gently by the arm, guiding him out of sight of the others to the side porch. She knew not to awaken him or he’d be scared and not remember why or how he got where he was. She asked him where he was headed, and he said, “I’m a-goin’ to the store an’ git me some new shoes.” She took him into the house and told him the store was closed, and he should lie back down and wait until it opened. He was quite happy to wait for his shoes.
Another afternoon, Clarence got hot and sweaty, and went upstairs to take a nap. Claude got worried about him, and went looking for Clarence after an hour or so. He REALLY got worried when he checked Clarence’s room and didn’t find him. Clarence’s clothes were all lying on the bed, every last stitch of what he’d been wearing. After a moment of panic, Claude noticed the window sill looked a bit odd – there were hands on it! He went over and looked down, and there was Clarence. He was hanging out the second-story window by his hands, stark naked, sound asleep. Claude asked very quietly, “Clarence, what are you doing?” Clarence smiled and cocked his head to one side, hair smacking at the flies as they buzzed around him in the breeze, and said in his singsong whine, “I’m a-coolin’.” It took Claude and another family member about 15 or 20 minutes to get him safely back inside the window, dressed, and back into bed – without waking him.
Well, that’s our Clarence in his growing-up years. He grew into a fine young man, Claude said. His hair never quite calmed down (those were the days before spiked hair became a fad), so he kept it cut very short. His eyes didn’t get any better either, but he got glasses that didn’t make him look like a half-blind owl. And he put on some weight too, enough that his arms and legs looked like arms and legs, instead of random twigs stuck wildly onto a weeping willow branch. Clarence also married and had several healthy, robust, extremely intelligent children. They all remembered their lunches and their books and where they lived. Not one of those kids walked in their sleep, not one had to have Aunt Charlotte escort them out of school with full breeches, and not one single offspring ever hung out the upstairs window a-coolin’. I think they missed out.