We moved to Bethel, Connecticut, a former hat factory town an hour’s drive north of New York City. There, in a musty laboratory converted from a black market farm, my father, who invented the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins, designed and built instruments that did everything from telling whether apples were rotten without breaking their skin, to measuring the thickness of shoe soles, to matching the colors of false and real teeth.
Among my father’s inventions is the name Selgin, a reshuffling of his original surname, “Senegaglia”—one no one could pronounce, let alone spell. Not long ago I heard from one of his former wives that he’d been very proud of the name, of being able to say to people, “Like Elgin, the watch—but with an ‘S.’“
Our house was set in a hill with its back to the woods. As a boy my favorite thing to do was climb up to the top of the hill, where you could see the whole town, including four abandoned hat factories. I’d take a deep breath and then, as fast as I could, run down the hill, leaping over fallen trees and rocks, amazed that I could do this thing so close to flying.
Since he learned English as a boy in London, my father spoke with a semi-British accent that I’ve inherited. He had an IQ in the 150’s (which I did not inherit), and joined a club for geniuses called Mensa. At one of their picnics, my brother and I watched two geniuses argue over whether a can of baked beans placed unopened on the barbeque grill would explode. The argument ended when the can exploded, sending scalding beans flying into spectator’s eyes, clothing and hair. “Idiots,” said my father.
I’d give my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Decker, drawings of the Empire State Building and the Queen Mary inspired by trips to New York with my father. With its lights burning the Empire State Building looked like a Christmas tree, and the ocean liners, with their cherry funnels and vanilla superstructures, were like giant banana splits in their berths. Mrs. Decker thanked me with kisses on the cheek and I became an artist.
One day my father was soldering a circuit, having a hard time getting the solder to stick, the fumes from his soldering gun rising like a cobra under the influence of a snake charmer. His thunderous expletives shook all the screw drawers in his laboratory. I waited for the storm to subside before stepping closer. As I did Papa said, “Peter, my boy, it’s a good thing you want to be an artist. With people you can hope to have some influence on their emotions. With machines you kick and swear but nothing happens.”
My mother is a cross between Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, with piercingly pale Gypsy eyes. My schoolboy friends were drawn by her good looks and highly caloric cooking—her spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna with béchamel sauce—and by that thick accent as pungent as a Genoa salami. She says “air” instead of “hair” (and vice-versa) and “I no give a goop” when she means, “I don’t give a damn.” You try correcting her; I’ve given up.
As children George and I harmonized, literally, singing Beatle’s songs in the back of the school bus. As time went on harmony collapsed into rivalry, and we were famed for our Spartacus-like brawls. Now we are best friends. Everything I know I learned from George, my twin, who is as artistically inclined as I (why he became an economist no one really knows). George lives with his scruffy little dog in his carefully cluttered Victorian house, where, on the kitchen table, he assembles bicycles worth millions of dollars for himself alone.
Like my father I too am an inventor, though I invent completely impractical things out of words and paint, and that only work on paper.
PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, several books for children, and three books on the craft of fiction writing, the most recent of which, Your First Page: first pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them, was published in 2017 by Serving House Books. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. Of it the Library Journal’s reviewer wrote, “It is a book destined to become a modern American classic.” His stories and essays have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Slate, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Best American Essays 2009, and Best American Travel Writing 2014. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir was published by the University of Iowa Press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His novel, The Water Master, won the 2012 William Faulkner William Wisdom Prize, and his essay, “The Kuhreihen Melody,” won the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and the Dana Award for the Essay. Another essay, “My New York: A Romance in Eight Parts,” has been chosen by guest editor Paul Theroux for inclusion in Best American Travel Writing 2014. Selgin’s paintings and illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Gourmet, and other publications. Selgin is also an award-winning playwright. His full-length play, A God in the House, based on Dr. Kevorkian and his suicide device, was a Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference Winner. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.