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Something Happened 21
"You're like that too."
"You're a father."
"It isn't easy."
"You don't know how to be a father."
"I try to be. I always tried my best. I try now. I used to play with you every night as soon as I came home from work," I rush on earnestly, the words pouring from me in a torrent of virtuous reminiscence as I seize the chance to explain to her once and for all and exonerate myself forever from whatever blame and neglect she charges me with. "I even played baseball with you with a plastic bat and ball when you were a little girl and didn't know it was a boy's game, and taught you how to swim. I'm the one who taught you. I asked you to put your face down in the water and float and promised that nothing bad would happen to you if you trusted me and did. You believed me then and weren't afraid. And that's how I taught you. Every day as soon as I came home from work, you were just a little baby then and we lived in the city, I would take my hat off, I wore a hat then, one of those funny fedoras with brims that people still wear, and put my head down near you and let you grab my hair. You used to love to do that. Maybe because I had a lot more hair then, ha, ha. You were just a tiny little girl then and couldn't even stand or walk. I would kiss Mommy on the cheek when I walked in and go right in to see you every day as soon as I came home. I would bend my head down and you would grab my hair with both your little hands and pull, and you would laugh and bounce and scream and kick your legs with such wild excitement that we were always afraid you were going to bounce right off the bed or kick your way right out of the crib. Ha, ha. You would giggle like crazy. And Mommy would watch and laugh too. We used to do that every day as soon as I got home from work. And later when you were older," I go on rabidly in obsessive recollection, "after you had your tonsils out and came back from the hospital, I used to have to tell you a story every night before you went to sleep, or you wouldn't go to sleep. You insisted. It was your right, ha, ha, to have a story from me. Every night, and it usually had to be the same story. You didn't like new ones. First it was Cinderella and then it was Peter Pan too after you saw Peter Pan on television. I used to have to act Peter Pan out for you. You would make me. I bet I nearly broke my legs every night jumping from the couch to the floor when I pretended to fly for you. Ha, ha. Then there was Peter and the Wolf, and Siegfried--I once read you the whole story of Siegfried, and you were so soft-hearted then that you even began to cry in sympathy for that dumb blockhead Siegfried, so I never read it to you again--and that one about the rabbit and the tar baby, and for a while I tried telling you The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, but you didn't like that one at all because the little boy got eaten up at the end, I think, so we went back to Peter Pan and Cinderella. And in Cinderella, whenever I came to the part where the prince asks Cinderella to marry him, you would interrupt and answer: 'Sure, prince! Don't you remember? Mommy does. 'Sure, prince!' you would cry, ha, ha, and we would both laugh. And Mommy would stand in the doorway and listen, and she would laugh too. When I was out of town, I would try to get to a telephone in the evening before you went to sleep and tell you the story long distance. And I had to tell you the stories in exactly the same way every time. You would make me, ha, ha. If I changed a line or ever tried to leave something out just to speed things up, you would correct me right away very severely and make me do it exactly the way you wanted me to. Oh, you were so strict and determined. Like a stern little princess. Ha, ha. You knew all the stories by heart, and you didn't want me to change a word. Every night. Ha, ha. Don't you remember?"
But she doesn't believe me.
And I don't care.
My little boy is having difficulties
My little boy is having a difficult time of it in school this year, in gym, in math, and in classes stressing public speaking. And just about everywhere else, it seems. (At home with me. With my wife. My daughter. My boy seems to be having a difficult time of it in school every year now when the new term starts, but each year seems to grow worse. He is, I'm afraid, starting to "let me down.") He hates gym and public speaking. He used to like gym. (He never liked public speaking.) Now he dreads gym, with its incessant regimen of exercises that he cannot perform well: chinning, pushups, rope climbing, and tumbling. He abhors rope climbing, chinning, and pushups and is stricken almost speechless (you can almost see that bulbous, leaden lump jamming his throat) by this reluctance even to talk about them (as though merely to mention his hatred of these ridiculous gymnastic demonstrations would be to violate some clandestine taboo surrounding them and to be sentenced to perform them awkwardly and feebly, with everyone watching, still one more time). My boy hates Forgione, the squat, barrel-chested, simian gym teacher with forests of black, wiry hair curling out all over him everywhere, even through the weave of his white T-shirt, except on his head, who can break me in two with his bare hands if he ever decided he wanted to, and who tries to be helpful and encouraging to my frightened little boy in his blunt, domineering, primitive way and only succeeds in frightening him further.
"He doesn't have a good competitive spirit," Forgione asserts to me complainingly. "He lacks a true will to win."
"I don't have one either, Mr. Forgione," I reply to him tamely, in an effort to get on his good side. "Maybe he gets it from me."
"That can't be true, Mr. Slocum," Forgione says. "Everybody's got a competitive spirit."
"Then why doesn't he?"
"That's what I mean," says Forgione.
My boy can turn frozen and look mucous green with trepidation some mornings when he knows he will have to go to gym later that day, or deliver some kind of oral report in one of his classes, and he will disclose to us that he doesn't feel well and thinks he might want to vomit. His chest feels empty, he says, and sometimes his arms and legs feel drained of all substance as well (if I understand correctly what he is trying to say. He feels he might fall if he tries to stand, simply sag and fold inward and sink to the floor like someone deflated and without skeleton). He does not like to have to make oral reports in class.
("It is good training for him," the school says. I know from my own small experience at addressing groups that it is no training at all.) Sometimes, he has hinted, he will not do as well as he is able to on written reports in order to escape being called upon to read what he has written aloud from the front of the classroom as an example to others of what is superior. (He lacks the true will to win.) He never likes to be called upon in class unless he is positive he has the right answer. (He almost never, his teachers tell us, raises his hand to volunteer a reply.) He is a gifted, hard-working student; he is inhibited; he is a quick, intuitive learner. He is afraid to be wrong. He always seems to know much more about everything than he is disposed to reveal. (He thinks a lot. I can't always make him out.) He fathoms privately, his clear face grave and remote. He worries. (Or seems to. Sometimes when I ask him what he looks so worried about, he glances up at me with a flicker of astonishment and replies that he isn't worrying. I don't know if he is lying to me or not I worry a lot that he may be worrying.) It is impossible for us to tell anymore whether he likes school or not (he used to like school. Or seemed to) although he generally manages to adapt to the different people and procedures of each new school year and then begins enjoying himself immensely. It takes a while; and he girds himself for the effort. He is distant with people he doesn't like; he grows close swiftly with schoolmates he does. (He is guileful enough by instinct, it seems, to get on friendly and respectful terms with tough guys and bullies.) He makes many friends. (He has started to keep things from me, and I don't like it. I ask questions. I try to pry details loose from him. He tries to hold on to them. I don't want him to. I want him to confide in me.) Once he does make friends in school and sees himself adapting capably to whatever new systems of authority and social codes prevail, everything tends (or has tended till now. Knock wood. Ha, ha) sooner or later to turn out fine: he does well; he survives; and he celebrates the miracle of his survival with boisterous, optimistic horseplay and industry unless something, even one th
ing of some meaning to him, goes wrong for him drastically (this year so far it is gym and Forgione, with those pushups, tumbling, and chinning, and that vertical rope climbing to the high ceiling of the gymnasium with its theoretical danger of growing scared and dizzy and falling, or freezing in panic halfway up, or down, although nobody I've ever heard of has. Some kids his age, he tells me, can already go almost halfway up without using their feet. Like monkeys. He, like me, never will be able to--he can't get more than a single hoist above the resting knot at the bottom of the thick, bristling rope--but I won't ever want to climb ropes again, and he does. And public speaking. This year, the school has decided to emphasize public speaking in the early grades. Why? They don't explain. Are they related, public speaking and physical agility? I am reminded of those mysterious, musty dreams of danger I have--I think everybody must have them--in which I am unable to move any muscles and unable to speak or scream or even to utter that single word I want to, Help, unable to make any noises at all except the ones that force themselves upward through my throat to wake my wife and then fill me with a delicious sense of gladness when I understand that she is calling my name and shaking my shoulder to awaken me. I guess I must really hate her at times. Often I will pretend to be asleep for a few moments after I realize I am not and continue my unintelligible moaning just so that she will have to continue trying to awaken me. I like the concern in her voice. My wife feels responsible for my bad dreams; I am pleased she does, make no effort to exonerate her, and feel she really is to blame when I have one. I use them to punish her. I keep digressing to me. I keep digressing from me. I wish my wife had bigger tits. I wish my wife had smaller tits. I think I really do love my little boy, though, the way a father should. At least I feel I do), and then he is apt to come very close to falling completely to pieces, to crumpling like a frail, inanimate bundle of little boy's clothes or spilling out emotionally all over the room like a sack of broken chips of some kind--potato, poker, wooden--into a frenzy of melancholy anguish that is at once both petrifying and shattering (to us as well as to him. My wife and I go numb with terror at even the vaguest possibility of something wrong with either of our children. Thanks to Derek. My wife does not want my little boy to grow up to be a fag and worries sneakily that he will. I know she does, because I worry often about that same thing, but not as often as she does. I don't want my boy to be a fag. I have no reason yet to think he will. But I just don't want him to).
My little boy is only nine years old and not yet able to deal like an adult with certain kinds of opposition and frustrations (and we do not know yet what all those kinds are; it seems to us he often does not even want to try; warding things off becomes for him so futile and exhausting an endeavor as to be, at times, possibly just not worthwhile; he would almost sooner give up, stop struggling; it would be so much easier and more sensible, his regretful manner of tired resignation often implies, to simply stop striving, yield, and let the very worst of all those things he foresees overtake, violate, and destroy him, to succumb and once and for all be done. He used to be afraid of weird things rising from beneath his bed. Better to let them all rise up, he may feel now, than continue waiting constantly for it all to happen to him anyway no matter what precautions are taken, since sooner or later, inevitably, it must, and never feeling safe enough for long to cease listening for mortal disaster's relentless approach. It comes on footsteps that are almost audible. I think he may feel this way about himself, because I feel this same way about both of us).
(I know how it feels to have to feel this way.)
(It doesn't feel good.)
I know how it feels to have to begin speculating ominously weeks before each summer ends and the new school year begins about the innumerable ordeals massing ahead of him. (I know how it feels to be notified of an office meeting scheduled to take place and have no idea what it's going to be about. I know that I am already troubled grimly and sadly about whether or not I will be allowed to make even my three-minute speech at the company convention in Puerto Rico this year, let alone about what will become of me if I do have Kagle's job by then and have to take charge of the whole event. Will I be good? As good as I know my three-minute speech last year would have been if Green had let me give it? I think I hate that bastard Green too, but I'd rather not admit that to my wife. Why would I want to admit to anyone that I hate and fear the man I work for, yet continue to work for him? Why do I let myself agonize over what even at best would have been no more than an amusing three-minute speech? The sky is falling, tumbling down on all our heads, and I sit shedding tears over an unhealing scratch on a very tender vanity. At least my boy's problems are real. They occupy space. They dangle from the ceiling of a gymnasium and glower at him from the dark and evil face of a physical education teacher.) To his young and practical mind it seems so pointless to have to go through one school year making complicated adjustments to people, young, old, good, neutral, and bad, only to have the relationships all terminated when spring ends and summer comes (for him, and for me now too, the year begins in September and closes out in June. Summer marks time. Summer is for taking inventory, adding bank balances, and fucking around in); and then have to go through the same harrowing process in the fall of adapting to new relationships that he knows from the start will be dissolved as well the following spring (as methodically and insensibly as the changes in seasons themselves, and for no more beneficial purpose. The seasons do not change because we want them to), leaving him isolated once more outside some sheltering context (the home, obviously, has not been substantial enough) inside which he can orient himself securely with some conviction that it is going to last awhile and maintain meanings and directions that will not blur and alter suddenly without explanation. (Where is a frame of reference now for any of us that extends even the distance to the horizon, only eighteen miles away?) My boy puzzles over things like that.
("How far is the horizon?"
"Eighteen miles at sea level," I answer rapidly. "Or only fourteen. I forget which."
"Why sea level?"
"I don't know. Maybe if you're up higher you can see farther.")
He puzzles over things like that well in advance (although not in these words, which are mine. He is only nine and lacks my vocabulary. Where was I when I was nine? Isolated among friends in elementary school too, where it was mandatory that I see a dentist twice a year to have my teeth fixed and have my head examined once or twice a year by a nurse right in the classroom, along with all the other kids, whites, Blacks, Jews, Italians, for nits, without any of us ever being told what nits were, although intonations signaled they were bad. That was a test I always passed. I don't know how I would have survived if I had ever failed. Once a girl peed in her seat in the classroom during a geography test and everyone knew it. I don't know how she survived. I don't think I could have ever survived if I had ever peed in my seat in the classroom during a geography test).
When my boy puzzles over things in advance, he tends to puzzle over things that perplex or torment him. (He almost never sees anything good in store for him. He has wishes; he never sees them coming true, even though he knows I promise and give him just about everything he asks for and everything else I think he wants and should have. When he does chance to think about something pleasant that is likely to happen to him, his reveries turn negative: he begins grieving it won't. He loses it before he even has it. He is like our salesmen, and me, wired by experience to expect, and long for, the worst--just to have it over with.) They pollute his summers for him. (The early part of each summer is marred for him by the need to acclimate himself to the surroundings of whatever beach or country house we Have decided to rent that year. He won't go away to camp, and neither will my daughter ever go again, although they don't enjoy being with us. We never know what to do with Derek. It is always so embarrassing to hide him; and equally embarrassing to disclose him. The latter part of the summer is ruined for him by the approaching fall. Sometimes, to my chagrin as well as his, the cares of early summe
r and late summer overlap, so that if one set subsides for a while, the other is present already, gnawing at his peace of mind. Sometimes he pisses me off, and I begin to worry about everything too, including the feelings of enmity toward him that start fermenting inside me. I'm afraid I am beginning to dislike him.) I know (and am annoyed) that weeks before the end of summer he begins fretting despondently about all the trials he knows are lying in wait for him: the schoolwork, the accomplishments expected of him in gym (he welcomes running and dodging games, at which he is swift, nimble, and foxy), the new teachers, the old teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the shop teacher, and the science teacher (he has always been leery of shop teachers and science teachers. Perhaps because they are men), the music teacher (will this one also require him to stand up in turn and sing solo a few notes in order to determine into which section of the chorus to classify him for those times when they have to perform at the weekly school assemblies?), the student monitors from grades higher than his own (boys bigger and stronger than himself with license to order him about, and older, taller girls with badges and arm bands of authority and with embryonic breasts starting to swell forward toward him mysteriously and threateningly. I remember how it was when I was small), and the boys and girls familiar to him from the preceding school year who will not be in his class again. He laments the loss of children he knows, boys and girls, even those he does not like, who move away into different communities or are transferred by their parents into private schools (more and more of us seem to be transferring our children into private schools, which are expensive and not much good, and then transferring them out again into other private schools that are not much better. We don't like the heads of these private schools. More and more things seem to be slipping into a state of dissolution, and soon there will be nothing left. No more newspapers, magazines, or department stores. No more movie houses. Just discount stores and drugs. More and more of us, I think--not just me--really don't care what happens to our children, as long as it doesn't happen to them too soon) or the one or two who drowned or got hit by cars during the summer (the incidence of accidents suffered each year by children we know corresponds with portentous accuracy to the incidence of accidents suffered by adults I know in the company. Martha in our department is going crazy), and those others who, as a consequence of inexorable and unfathomable processes in operation in offices downstairs (adults toiling assiduously with records of living children that are dead already on sheets and cards in folders and cabinets) have been separated from him (like our tonsils and our baby teeth) and scattered about into different classrooms. He hates changing from teachers who have been kind to him.