The boy’s legs were long and skinny like popsicle sticks shooting out from under the bed. (I was reminded of Dorthy’s red-slippered witch in a more permanent rest as a consequence of bad weather.) I don’t know why he chose to sleep on the carpet under the bed without a blanket, without pajamas, without clothes to speak of unless you consider the grundie undies, as we like to call them, clothes—it must have been cold. I suppose he wanted to commiserate with the cat who vacationed on the floor in a corner by the wall, no doubt to escape the crowd of two boys that lived in the room. But the cat was no ascetic and the carpet was rough—he found his way pretty quickly to the boy’s deserted bed and snuggled in with the pillows and down quilt and slept quite well.
Grandpa thought he was offering the boys a lesson, an opportunity, a gift if the boys could only jump through an easy hoop, a hoop only inches from the ground and large enough to ride a bike through. And as he saw it, he was placing the hoop directly in front of the boys’ intended target so it was simply a matter of pedaling a few paces. But what he didn’t get was that opportunity is a nesting ground for anxiety, that a door opened is a big slab of oak ready to slam into your face, and one can hang themselves on a hoop—certainly, it’s been done, somewhere, somehow, by someone.
He hadn’t finished speaking, but I could see the panic, the welling of the eyes, and then the oldest pushed away from the table, excused himself, disappeared. The middle boy said, OK, and the youngest jumped up and down. A hundred dollars! he screamed—he’s recently developed a high-octive squeal that he let rip at full volume.
The deal seemed easy, a gimme: if you can save $80 by April 15, I’ll give you $100 for Lego Fest. Grandpa’d just passed them each a bankable $10 so they were on their way. But the older generation seems immune to the acidic properties of money—the way it singes skin, melts clothes and leaves a sour taste in the mouth that only massive amounts of sugar or a new toy can neutralize. And after the deal, Grandpa and Grandma left and the boys were bored, and there was all the money to think about along with what they had in their wallets, did he really expect them to save?
Can we go to Target? They asked, saying they wanted to price things out, check out the scene. I had a feeling where this was going, but I had some household items to pick up and we had nothing else going on.
I can’t do it, the oldest said as we got in the car.
Of course you can, you’ve done it before.
No. I can’t. . . . I felt like I was driving an addict to his fix.
They poured into the store, effervescent, all that was and could be was golden, amnion love, and they raced over a rainbow in joyous boydom to the toy and electronic departments. And they were happy.
But the nature of light is temporal, changing, waves subject to the movement of stars and planets and the switch on the side of the lamp. And the elastic moment stretched into a thin gray line of an hour and each box of Lego toys became a temptation, a taunt, a reminder of the finite nature of $10 and that a boy could not buy everything even if he borrowed several weeks worth of allowance. And there was the snarling promise of Grandpa’s gift, barbed wire around the glistening boxes demanding they back off and hold that burning cash until a later day. But what cruel heart would ask a boy to carry fire? Who would pay for the blistering hand of a child? And can a boy be expected to walk away from a Bounty Hunter Assault Gunship?
So they skies darkened and they wrestled demons in the isle of Target, and I’d say the demons won. There were some tears, some back and forth, some wheeling and dealing and the promise of a lifetime of good behavior and accomplished chores, because Saving Money can not sit on the scale of judgement across from Immediate Gratification. No sane person would pit apples against oranges.
They clutched their boxes at checkout, begged weakly for gum, then bounced to the car to rip open their treasures. They’d each found the key to delight.
And when they reach the deadline for saving and they’re broke, and they don’t get the bonus because they shouldn’t, I like to believe then, a lesson learned. But probably they’ll file the memory of Grandpa’s proposal in the box of the unimaginable, next to dragons, unicorns and being grown-up.
I found the television remote in Jakob’s drawer with his football padding, and Theo directed me to the place where I had hidden his iPod, but I still, for the life of me, I can’t remember where I hid the chocolate. I’ve searched the usual places, the bags and baskets and drawers and cupboards and bowls, in closets, on top of the refrigerator, behind furniture. . . . It’s possible they already found and dispensed of it, I’ve seen evidence, a gold wrapper with a chocolate colored label dropped carelessly on the floor, as if to taunt me. I don’t trust them with chocolate or technology anymore than I’d trust the dog to keep an eye a roast. I’ve seen the candy wrappers stuffed in their closets, under beds, and never-before-seen brands hitchhiking home in their lunchboxes. There’s too much laundry to go through their pockets, so I fish wrappers out of the lint tray of the dryer along with the deflated dust bunnies. When I catch the boys with a fistful of sugar leaking across the counter and kitchen floor they’re selective hearing can’t hear “stop!”
Technology is even more complicated—they’re better at justifying. They have to finish a level, check one more thing, find a review, or they just started because some brother wouldn’t let them play and it’s not fair if they don’t, and by the way, that Alien trailer their watching is homework. I’ve read the studies, listened to the reports, and the teachers and doctors keep saying—set limits. And I’ve tried. But electronics fit in their pockets and they sneak them to bed, or spend an extraordinary amount of time in the bathroom. The timer on the stove is just a reminder that they need to search for something educational on youtube, a music video for their technology class. They’d spend all day gaming if I let them, stare at a microscopic screen and shoot airplanes and robots or blow up cobras with honey badgers, all the while stuffing their mouths with melted chocolate they’ve pressed into the pockets of their jeans. They’d implant a game on their brain, the lids of the their eyes, transform themselves into computer code and become Harry’s magic wand fighting Death Eaters and Snatchers if they could. And the birds they can best identify are Angry.
And so they confuse me with their justifications and arguments of fairness, I can’t keep track of who played what when while making meals and driving to karate, and if I leave them to run an errand, they don’t need to veg, they’ve already done their time. Besides, there are arguments to be made for going outside, breathing fresh air, using their legs. So I unplug the computer appendages and stuff them into a closet, a gym bag, or into one of their drawers—they never open their drawers. The hiding spot is fluid, always changing, I’ve got to keep a step ahead, but there’ve been so many I can’t be expected to remember, and the boys are so very good at seeking. And so when I say they can play or watch or search, they dig a remote from between the cushions of the couch while a search in an upstairs closet. And so it goes, and I still can’t find my chocolate, but the wrappers have been appearing in drawers and baskets, and right there on the kitchen floor.
The program was simple: four classes on the bleachers played simple songs laid over soaring multicultural electronic background music. A fourth grader’s story acted as a quirky, butterfly-themed adhesive, tying otherwise disparate songs together by naming them in a narrative. A few students stood up and played in front of the group, but there were no stars and no one stood out. No on stood out, that is, except my boy. In the sea of groomed and earnest faces, my boy stood out like a kid with a leather bomber jacket over his head for half the program—probably because he had a leather bomber jacket over his head for half the program.
I had no warning that he was going to go gonzo on this night. I sat on the isle snapping photos, his brother snapped photos, and I smiled along with the other proud parents. And then there was the ascending hand that rose and remained like someone else’s appendage plastered to his face. OK, I took a breath, a little wiggly. . . . A boy behind him had a similar renegade hand and mine turned around for a better view, and there was the jostling and joking and a losing of control. And then the jacket—a small brown mountain rising out of the kid-sea, partial coverage and his face peaked out, and then the jacket continued its glacial sweep over the top of head and OK. Who can imagine the mind of a ten-year-old? And I waited and the electronic music soared and the recorders played Hot-Cross-Buns and the mountain quaked but didn’t fall and he sat, immobile, and my son erect on the bleachers, a leather-bound phallus, and I waited. And in the scheme of things, so he hid under his coat at a concert. . . . but there’s the why? The what?
The show continued and I sat back and went through the six stages of a mother’s anger. Eventually, I stood and walked behind the crowd and his teacher smiled that knowing smile, the shrugging smile, and put her hand on my shoulder. I don’t know, . . . and she said we’d talk. And such are the joys of motherhood, recorders and boys, beneath coats.
I know how to kill the Blob, he said.
Oh. I said.
We waited for the five-year-old to crawl into the van, pick at a book on the floor, then step on the book to look at another.
There’s this stuff that you can make walls out of. It’s really strong. A bomb can’t break it.
Theo picked at his torn flip flop as he talked.
Let’s go, I said and Viggo grunted, then turned to look at me. I pushed his foot further into the van.
You put it in a room with the walls and you bomb it, Theo said and crawled in behind his brother.
That would probably work, I agreed.
I wonder why the electrical line didn’t work. You’d think that would work….
Theo went on to deconstruct the characteristics of the blob, in a vague way, as one might deconstruct the characteristics of aliens or dragons or green unicorns with light sabers jutting from their foreheads. And he is an expert on aliens and dragons and blobs.
You can’t shoot a blob, Viggo said as we pulled out of the parking lot.
No, you can’t, Theo agreed. It’s like a gel…. Now a’ days we have this special gel, it’s called, X something. It’s really cold. You could kill the blob with that. It’s afraid of the cold.
I was end-of-the-day tired and this was our last trip out—to pick up big brother from football practice—and there was an athleticism to the conversation, leaping imagination, twisting meanings, running sentences and a relentless beating of ideas that was exhausting, hard to follow. I attempted to refocus.
Look at the prairie dogs. I pointed to three standing on a mound of dirt in a passing field. We lived near a prairie dog metropolis, a congestion of dirt mounds with dirt dogs perched like Weeble soldiers on their large posteriors, a scattering on high alert ready to let loose a rhythmic squealing the moment a humanoid stepped into their dusty territory. The rest of the dog mob darted back and forth or chewed on weeds, fat, with stubby tails that flicked and jerked. We laughed at the lone rabbit who imagined he was a prairie dog, or wished, or thought he stood a better chance against the coyotes, hawks and eagles if he could blend into the noisy crowd.
This is good, I told myself. We’re riffing. And they’re contained. They could be attempting to extract venom from a nonvenomous bull snake, find exotic spiders, ride their bikes down stairs, or just trek through the house with swampy feet and hands coated in muck, all of which had become recent hobbies.
I sank into my seat thinking I’d relax. And to relax is to drift, open, abandon. It’s a billowing of air, and iron—like water. Elbows rested on clouds and my thoughts became sky. Above the mountains—a tangerine sea. This and breathing, and sure some exhaust in my lungs, a stale smell from the inside of the van. And always, a question.
Mom. Am I old enough to see The Blob? An easy question and then a voice is a cage. And even imprisoned by seatbelts, no one can quell Their imagination.
Which one? I asked and I became brittle and dry like sand and I could crumble with a soft kick.
Which one did you see? Theo asked and I made a note to self that he would have to scrub his hands when we returned home.
I don’t know. The one where the blob came out of a faucet. . . . You saw the first one. With Steve McQueen.
Could I see the first one?
If it’s early in the day, Theo told his brother and I looked watched another prairie dog township pass by outside the window.
I wonder where the blob lives. . . . There was longing in his voice. Maybe he too was watching the rodents.
I don’t know when grocery shopping began to feel like a humiliation. My overflowing cart is a scarlet letter marking excess and indulgence; moral failure. I lunge for the pretzels as they tumble from the heap, hold with one hand a rotisserie chicken and the customers around me watch patiently with bundles of kale, bags of almonds and shimmery bottles of olive oil lining the bottom of their carts, they are all too dignified to comment. In front of me a woman unloads her bulk: lentils, black beans, basmati rice—I can tell by the size of the grain—and granola. I stop behind her like a dump truck behind a Fiat and start pouring loafs of bread onto the conveyer belt. She moves on and the belt fills and my groceries, a growing eddy at the end of the check stand, and the baggers congregate and I’m still unpacking—and still the cart seems full.
Stocking up, the checker says knowingly. Or, this should keep you…. There’s a variation of this sentiment every time, and something in their smiles, reassuring, as if they’ll keep my secret—I’m going home to gorge on steel cut oats and carrots. I’ll suck down that bottle of canola oil on the way to the car.
But this won’t keep me, I don’t say—that bag of twenty-four tangerines will be gone by the end of day tomorrow. The watermelon they’ll waste in a sitting.
Instead I smile. Three boys, I say, and it’s a relief to say, as if that explains, I’m not a hoarder. I have the same disbelief in all these gallons of milk, sixteen a month when people are starving, when there’s famine in Africa. And every time I cross the kitchen someone’s swinging a jug and white-ringed glasses litter the counter—can you reuse the same one? And they can’t hear my plea for their guzzling. It’s liquid gold, porcelain bone builder and they grow like weeds, the hunger of weeds, insidious strangling weed roots, sometimes they choke me with their thirst. And the opening and closing of the fridge door, the pantry door, are a dull rhythm in my day. Wrappers and empty boxes litter the shelves like tiny carcasses, and I find the frail skeletons of apples on nightstands in the morning. Three boys are insatiable, hungry ghosts and I can’t fill them.
This will be gone in a week, I mumble.
Late start days at school mean more time for more breakfasts and by food we define our day. And when did food become an afterthought, a greasy burger to gnaw on in the backseat of the car while playing a video game on the way to a gun show? Within the cart lies the skin of my boys; in a box of pasta, their dreams.
I feel some vindication at the grocery store when I pull out my employee discount card, 25% off because of Darrin’s job, and my total descends to reasonable. And the checker hands it back and we’re not so different. My indulgence explained, and we were always family.
It wasn’t that I was hiding, crouched on the floor in the closet door sewing a substitute for a snap onto a blouse, but I didn’t want him to see. I could hear him, banging up the stairs, and I hoped he’d turn away. But he shuffled toward me, huffing, snorting, talking to the clay cat I knew he held in his hand and he was assigning me tasks—shape the clay into a different cat, and after that, a cat that was different from the different one, all different from the original cat I’d shaped earlier in the day. And I wondered, what were the instructions I’d missed as he began his climb out of ear range, the anatomical clay cat alien cat I was to build in his mind, snake-tailed feline with antennae whiskers he’d hold me feet to fire when I forgot.
I aligned the neckline of the blouse and stitched in white where the back of the snap had fallen away. In place of a snap I figured I’d just stitch the blouse shut—as long as I could fit it over my head—I have no seamstress gene, and the thread was a stretch, I just wanted done.
He was breathing over my sewing box and I instinctively hunched my shoulders, preparation for the inevitable onslaught. These things start innocently then snowball, and they harangue and I find myself driving to the craft store as if the buildup has been a blackout, and we stroll down isles of foam balls and paints and dyes and models and they argue about dragons and the color of aliens. And then bags of materials, ingredients for our magic, and in a volcanic flurry we’re home building paper mache mummies complete with coffins, Viking helmets, or planets. We’ve made paper from paper—blending, straining, drying—not the most efficient use of rain forest trees—no tree is safe when the craft bug whittles its way into our house. We’ve molded whale skeletons from cardboard, a thin skin of paper, of course. And let’s not forget the human body—outlined, and detailed, the digestive system in roles of red and blue construction paper— we built one every day (for a year), each time as if the first, sloppy gods omitting bones, the neck, and then we’d abandon our creations under pizza boxes in the recycling bin.
Poets and painters glorify the childish imagination, the flights of fancy, the enthusiasm and whimsy, but probably they have not watched their children march through the kitchen with a window screen, extoling its virtues as a fabric for a frog-catching suit. They have not blown through gallons of vinegar, pounds of baking soda, in rockets, volcanoes, rocket-volcanoes, occasionally with red dye. They’ve not picked up water balloon shrapnel from the lawn, scraped frosting from the floor, freed the dog from the shackles of Santa’s sleigh, and defended their bed sheets from the steely hands of super heroes in need of a new cape, or craft, or canapé. I’ve nothing against crafts, it’s just that I’ve watched Jell-O maps melt into gray gunk with gummy bears splattered like road kill across the surface. I’ve cleaned pumpkin paint from the walls and we’ve already used up our lifetime allotment of pipe cleaners. “Dream it and you can achieve it,” the saying goes. “The sky’s the limit.” And of course, the sky is the limit. That rocket that flies as high as an airplane, if I could I wouldn’t build it because the sky’s the limit—it’s called a missile and it could land us in prison. And yes, you can dream and demand and we can build a pirate ship from scrap metal and broken lumber in the back yard, but it won’t look like a ship and it won’t float.
And today I wasn’t in the mood for pirate ships or rockets. I continued sewing and he stopped to watch.
Can I sew something, he said?
I just want to finish this, I said, without looking up and I knew it was too late.
He bent down and started picking through the needles, lifting spools of thread.
Please don’t touch, I said. If you drop a needle on the floor, it could go through someone’s foot.
I’m going to sew a shirt!
Where’s you’re cat? I asked.
He lifted a ball of blue clay then grabbed the pincushion. I adjusted the collar on the blouse.
I know how to do it!
I put down my project to remove the needles from his hand.
A napkin, I said. You can practice on a napkin. Run downstairs and get one.
And so, things being the way they are, we found ourselves on the couch, and I was sewing, not my blouse, and he was extoling.
We can sew the pocket on my jeans, he said, as I stitched the napkin into a pocket.
I’m not sure it will pass dress code.
What’s dress code, he asked playing with his clay, as if he hadn’t been indoctrinated into his school’s odd clothing counsel.
I’m going to make it into a cat, he said about the clay. Zeus.
And after a while, he was gone. And I was on the couch, sewing a napkin into a pocket. And he stopped by to inspect. And later he made the pocket into a puppet. And the clay, eventually, again, became a cat, which he placed on the shelf beside his bed while he slept. And that evening, the puppet napkin became a towel. And someone swiped the puppet napkin towel across the counter to pick up jelly and crumbs and some drippings of milk.
And eventually I finished my stitching.
How do you do this? He asked.
He was lying on his back on a skateboard, pushing off from the cement with his feet.
Well, I said. You lie on your back on a skateboard and push off from the cement with your feet.
No. He said. How do you do this?
You do exactly what you’re doing. I could tell I was missing something.
No! He touched the skateboard near his head, adjusted his position. He floated along the patio on his back.
Can you see the board? He asked.
Yes. I said.
He scooted his body upward along the board.
Like they do in the fair.
What fair? I had no idea what he was talking about.
His sigh was heavy with his five omniscient years in the perplexing shadow of those who don’t understand, the rigid rule makers.
He pushed back and forth with his feet, an erratic boy cloud.
I like Problem Child, he said, referring to the 80’s movie he’d seen in bits and pieces.
Oh, I said.
The clown says, See the giraffe? And the other guy says, Do you see the fist? And he hits the clown in the face.
Oh, I repeated. He floated back to my feet.
After a while I asked him. What are you trying to do?
And it was his big brother, I should have known.
Jakob said he could crawl on his back.
You’re not going to find it, he said, though he had no idea what I was searching for.
I just need a minute. I didn’t look back.
Let her look, big brother defended.
Come on, Mom, said the first, irritated.
Wow, I said and looked, and he slapped a book against his leg. I attempted to silence him with my laser-gaze.
Mom! He urged and I turned away. I have no superpowers, so I thought it best to ignore.
And before me, a wall of covers, the colors like candy and I’m a sucker for design–a flying pig, the shadow of a horse, a wolf tracking across a stark snowscape, a woman in a sixteenth century Italian dress…I can’t take my raccoon eyes off all that’s shiny! How to know?
Borders was having its close-out sale and I thought we’d take advantage. And something about a bookstore—the blowing open, drifting, and ideas are oxygen. So many still with this ending, and I scanned the shelves. Cleopatra, enticing, but so too, Kissinger’s On China, and Mark Twain’s autobiography. And the fiction, books and writers I don’t know and who’s the genius amongst them. Who here is molten?
I wanted a portal with touchstone arches—a burrowing, billowing, ancient song. I wanted McCarthy, Kesey, Ondaatje, Berlin, Erickson, Dunn, but new. Magic. And please, I’m tired, bored, old. Modernity flattens my journey—Twitter, time, and I must shop for dinner. Entertain me!
I glanced up and the boys were leaning against the window, the oldest paging through a book on airplanes, the middle clenching a comic. (My baby was on a play date.) His look. . . .
Just a little more, I say, then flee into another row.
Mothering is a cowardly calling, an escaping, retreating, conceding surrender. And somehow this urge to draw a line. And today, my line a book. And what to the finding? A mood, an interest, an unearthing, recommendations, reviews. A scream from a shelf. And what of all that’s dull and trite?
I run my fingers across smooth spines, the bindings tight and I lift, breath in the pages, the smell of ink and glue. . . .
I search defiantly but can’t remember, can’t decide. And all these friends, their voices thin.
Finally I pick, it’s a statement, I suppose. I hope it’s magic.
Call it snobbery–I call it health insurance–but I avoid the fast food chains like the proverbial plague. Just mention Golden Arches, and I can feel my veins restrict. It’s not that I’m above inhaling a plate of fries, but more the philosophical stance against food-like substances, laboratory flavors and whole-sale support of factory farms. Obviously, in the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to avoid and the industrialization of food, and there are benefits to modernization–I paint in a full spectrum of colors and prefer a middle ground. But I also account for triglycerides.
And so, today, the boys caught me off guard. School was out and they come home famished–so I suggested an early dinner. Dad was in an airplane over Latin America and I was feeling lazy–let’s get it out of the way. I figured we go to one of our regular haunts, something that includes fresh lettuce on the menu, a place where a piece of chicken comes from a single bird (named Horatio?).
I didn’t expect to hear Burger King and my brain for a second seized. But I recovered and then, what the hell. They knew the way, Grandpa had taken them.
Inside, the air-conditioning blasted–colder than our 67 degree spring day, and we got the required kids meals, they filled paper cups with soda and I felt something lost….
Dinner and my oldest commented on the crown-shaped nuggets, a million birds, he said, already a cynic, and two chowed down. One reading, one quiet. Yes, my lettuce tasted oily. And then a plastic toy, Rango’s Rattlesnake Jake, talking in my ear about the wonders of Rattlesnake Jake, and me, trying to chew. And still the plastic-pink-tongued snake, exuberant and the green-shirted boy and snake joy toy joy oh my god stop talking! And still, sombrero Jake Snake black rattled bottom gun and Rango, all lizards, all lovely, all awesome and fun oh thank you for the ear snake. Wondrous toy snake can’t eat for the talking wonder.
And yes, the bell, for services well rendered. Viggo rang. And now Jake the Snake, forgotten.