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.
The teacher when I entered—she was a substitute—had a beleaguered look, like she’d crawled out of a lithium tent, or spent eighteen hours digging ditches or batting away spit-balls. And I got a few hits in my hour volunteering in the kindergarten class and on the playground. What the five-year-olds are best at is taking you down with their questions and comments. Innocence is a weapon and they use it mercilessly. What are those [veins]? They asked me. Are you from this country? Your teeth are big. They’re small hits, an imperceptible flaking away, a millennium of erosion in a seven-hour school day. The kindergartner virus attacks your most vulnerable organs, and leaves you lobotomized, grinning.
But I say this to you the Party of Popsicles: so you can trace a C, write your name in half-caps, count backwards from ten—that doesn’t make you omniscient. You think you slay dragons, live in a whales belly, dine with trolls and princesses, but your omnipotence is imagination, your omnipresence the magic motion of your feet—let’s face it, you never stop wiggling. You think I’m a naysaying ninny—I lack exuberance and your seat-dancing joie de vivre. But really, take a look at yourself, Jo (I’ll disguise your name) that green on your hand is not you metamorphosing into an alien—I see the marker and the lines on the paper where you were coloring before you drifted off into the land of Martian frog men. And Billy, you’ve been sequestered against the wall, not because you’re princely—though the pain you cause is royal—but because pulling Maggie’s hair and flashing papers in her face are not appropriate expressions of love. Yes, boys and girls, you think you’re funny, flashing your six-legged cat drawing or nose-less cat drawing or cat without ears drawing into your neighbors face because cat starts with C and you couldn’t think of cake. You point to my face and say my mole looks like a spider, but you are your own mess, picking your nose wiping glue stick along your arm.
We line up for recess and the sub darts over toward me, the first time she’s talked. I had nothing to write about on Friday, she says. They were well-behaved on Friday, and, who peed by table six! We stare at the puddle on the floor and she swings into action, Go to the office and get the custodian, she commands, then darts into gang of boys crowding around the cubbies. She pulls a boy from the mass and shoves some clothes into his arms. Go change.
I flee for the safety of the hallway.
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.
Breakfast and I hadn’t had enough coffee. Frozen waffles for the boys. I put down forks.
The boys are familiar with forks, and they’ve used spoons and butter knives in the past. So when Viggo asked, I was flippant. Uncaffeinated and I forgot five-year olds are literal– words are rocks.
Why does Jakob have a fork?
To pick his nose….
My default, it seems, is sarcasm. Absurdity is funny. But when you’re five, everything is possible, nothing’s absurd. Viggo picked up his own fork in confusion.
But then I get boogers in my waffles. Or waffle in my nose….
And then there’s the fact that he takes his booger picking seriously. It’s a stealth sport, one he does on the sly when Mom and Dad aren’t looking. But I see the prize when he mashes it between his fingers and studies the consistency.
Does your friend have a name? I’ll sometimes ask. And he gets embarrassed. Or mad.
And so it is, a fork is a tool like any other tool. For food for some, and yet it’s more versatile. And one person’s fork is another’s chopsticks. And so it is with language: a chair is a seat, usually with four legs and a back, sometimes arms. But not always. And some seats are chairs. A chair is a Crate and Barrel cushioned Chloe Chair, a folding metal chair, a stool, a yoga ball, a tree trunk, a rock. A chair is a seat. It’s a stool for climbing, the frame of a fort, a bed for the cat, a sleigh–and you can wrap the dog’s leash around a leg and he’s a reindeer. Words are water, string of sounds, a wrapping around, ribbons restraining ideas–and yet something leaks. The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao. What does “is” mean, Mr. Clinton?
And so a fork is for eating for picking a nose for combing hair for digging a hole. And yet somehow, a fork is not a chair.
He couldn’t answer because I forgot him at home.
Theo?! I snapped. It was the third time I’d asked and I don’t like being ignored.
Theo’s not here.
I was at a stoplight and I turned around. Jakob spoke from the back of the van, a shadowy place with piles of books and gum wrappers. He was playing a game on his itouch.
Where’s Theo? I asked. The game beeped. Jakob looked up.
Theo’s not here.
Where’s Theo? asked Viggo behind me. We all looked around the van–there was no place to hide.
Theo’s not here! Jakob laughed. You forgot Theo!
I was in the middle lane and I thought to pull over, but I had to pull forward.
You forgot Theo! Jakob repeated, a bit too delighted.
Where’s Theo! This from Viggo.
I forgot him. I turned into a side street and turned around.
I hadn’t noticed the lack of one because I’d been preoccupied with Batman when we left the house. Batman had turned up missing and I was under pressure to conjure up a replacement–Viggo sniffed in the seat behind me, and when I stopped and looked at an intersection, his eyes were red.
And yet, of course, I felt a flush of parental guilt and wondered where Theo could have gone. In my defense, I had seen him walk out the front door–socked and shod and backpack over his shoulder—and there, the backpack on the floor beside me propped up like an exoskeleton…. And I had walked through the house turning off lights before leaving–no sign.
The morning had been as mornings go. Breakfast, some play. Today they’d thought to exercise the bearded dragon–activating a bug-sized robot just beyond reach so the dragon would “give chase.” It was one of the rare moments when the dragon moved, rotating its head and flicking its tongue. And there’d been wrestling and trampoline jumping and some admiring of the cats amidst the of greasing of hair and brushing of teeth. All this while Dad negotiated a rental car–a drive to work with a load of guests car so his could go into repair. He’d grown tired of the bungee cord door lock, effective on the straight and narrow, but the burst of air when the door whipped open on right turns was, it seems, inconvenient and cold.
$130. For a day? That’s too much! I heard, then called–get on your socks!
And so it was, they filed out, shoving and laughing and crying for Batman. I turned as they boarded the van and dashed back to the house–a pocket full of chocolate from my secret stash, and then, the lights.
Now I drove up and again, into the house, Theo at the door, contrite. He’d been, Dad said, on the trampoline.
Now back to the van. I watched as he buckled his belt.
Theo? I asked the question I’d been asking before, as we drove away. Have you seen Batman?
Today the five-year-old discovered he was a Batmanless boy.
“Why won’t you get me a Batman toy today! Why won’t you get me a Batman toy today! Why won’t you get me a Batman toy today!” he cried on the drive to school.
Like Camus’ Sisyphus, condemned to eternity in hell, heaving a stone up a mountain, Viggo was once clueless of his condition. Life, wrangling with his brothers, relocating cats, molding clay snakes, slaying dragons and vanishing into digital media land, was, if not happy, at least somewhat fulfilling. But consciousness came in full-color when I plopped a Fisher-Price catalogue on the counter amidst a pile of mail-ads. Aliens and cars and superhero’s exploded from the pages, and there, in their midst, a squat, round Dark Knight.
Holy bat-cape! Batconsiousness lit his batless-brain and he was batwashed! A mere batride away at the batstore was batopia, a black-winged, bat-gadget, adrenaline, echolocating bliss. And he, capeless, wingless, and batmobileless…. the realization cut his brain. Trampoline jumping, bike riding, hockey playing, chocolate grabbing were immense stones he pushed through his days, absurd and useless pastimes. Batmasks and batmobiles were the purpose, the meaning. To have and hold the Noble Bat Knight would be to abandon the hope of having–because of course he would have and would no longer need hope–and thus, he would achieve batfreedom!
“Theo’s is the only one with a Batman!” he cried. Theo smirked.
“You can play with it.” I said. Theo opened his mouth as if to object, but was slow to the draw.
“NO! I don’t want that one. I want my own!”
I shook my head and Viggo continued his negotiations, “Why won’t you get me a Batman toy today!”
I dropped the big brothers off at school and there was silence in the back of the van.
“Mom,” he said as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Mom. Mom. Mom….” His voice became sugar. “Can I play with Theo’s DS?”