Two days ago, when I started procrastinating over writing this post, it seemed like everywhere I turned I was hearing about the United States’ debt ceiling, and whether Congress would raise it or subject the country to a lot of letters from collection agents. For weeks now I’ve been picturing the Representatives and Senators walking around stooped, the ceiling of the Capitol Building pressing down on them like that Floor 7 ½ in Being John Malkovich.
I do not know any stories about the debt ceiling. But I do know a story about a ceiling.
When I was around ten years old, slime was a popular toy. Not the kind of slime you find on week-old turkey cold cuts, or the kind that rained on anyone who said “I don’t know” on You Can’t Do That On Television, but the kind that was pliable and sticky for maximum destruction.
The slime would stick to any solid matter it touched. One morning my mother came downstairs to see me cutting clumps of my own hair out after a particularly educational experiement with the slime’s adhesiveness. Another time the slime led to a hasty farewell to our family’s cherished VCR. But the most memorable experience was how my brother discovered the slime’s aerial properties.
My brother and I took an annual trip to Florida to see our paternal grandparents. They lived near Fort Lauderdale in a senior community that had a swimming pool and a lot of women named Rose. Of course we loved our grandparents and savored every game of Po-Ke-No and story about the Great Depression. But the best thing about spending a week with grandma and grandpa was that we went out for ice cream every night.
In that year of the slime, my brother brought a specimen onto the plane. Had he done that today I am sure the full body scans would have detected the item, and my eight-year-old brother would have been interrogated for hours in a small room. But in those days the only thing the airlines cared about was that we not kick the seat in front of us.
My grandparents’ house, like most houses in Florida, had a ceiling. I never noticed it that much until my brother tossed his smuggled slime up in the air hard, so it stuck to the pebbled white ceiling. We could not reach it, even after stacking the hassocks atop one another, and our 78-year-old grandfather had to get up on a ladder and pry the slime off. He was not pleased, and asked that my brother not do again.
Not two hours later, the slime was again stuck on the ceiling. My brother was fully engaged in brinksmanship. Again our grandfather had get on the ladder, again he had to pry the slime off his white ceiling that now had two greenish stains, and again he scolded my brother.
“If you throw that slime on the ceiling again,” he said, “we’re not taking you out for ice cream for the rest of the week.” From his face we knew this threat was serious. My brother loved ice cream even more than mischief, and to even hint that the nightly ritual could be compromised was like threatening to remove one his limbs.
So he was good for the rest of our time there. Mostly good. He still splashed the wrinkled octagenarians at the community pool with his cannonballs in defiance of the large sign that said, “No Cannonballs.” And he still gave my grandmother a near-coronary by getting a little too friendly with the neighborhood lizards. But the green slime from Long Island remained in its clear plastic egg, and we got our ice cream every night during that vacation.
Finally the time came to take our leave of our grandparents, and fly home to the land of snow and homework. We packed our suitcases, stuffed our still-damp bathing suits into plastic bags from Publix, strategically placed the porcelain ashtrays with palm trees on them that we’d gotten as souvenirs, even though no one we knew smoked. And in the deepening afternoon, as we were about to get in the car for the airport, my brother took out his plastic egg of green slime, removed the contents, and tossed the slime up onto the ceiling, where it stuck as faithfully as ever. And my brother shot my poor old grandfather a look that said, “What do I have to lose now?”
I just read that a tentative deal to raise the debt ceiling has been reached among the great compromisers on Capitol Hill, who say they can save $4 trillion by switching to paperless sex scandals. Clearly there is some connection between that deal and my story about my brother throwing the slime on my grandparents’ ceiling: the gaming, the line between real and empty threats, the intergenerational battles. And someone is wearing a smirk that says, “What do I have to lose now?”