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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 27


  "Sometimes I can't tell."

  "Sure, you can. You keep telling me I yell all the time. No, I'm not angry. I want you to talk to me about the things you're thinking about, especially the things you can't figure out."

  "Do you? I will."

  "I do. Ask me anything."

  "Do you fuck Mommy," he asks. "You said I could," he pleads hastily, as he sees me gape at him in surprise.

  "Yes, you can," I answer. "Sometimes."

  "Why?"

  "It feels good, that's why. It's kind of fun. Do you know what it means?"

  He shakes his head unsurely. "Is it all right for me to ask you?"

  "It's all right to ask if I do. I think it would be better to ask someone else what it is. It would also be a little better if you used a different word."

  "I don't know a different word. Screw?"

  "That's almost the same. You can use the word you want. It's a little funny, though, to use it with me. Use it. I suppose it's good enough."

  "Are you angry with me?"

  "No. Why do you keep asking me that? Don't you know when I'm angry or not?"

  "Not all the time."

  "I thought I yelled so much."

  "Not all the time. Sometimes you don't talk at all. Or you talk to yourself."

  "I don't talk to myself."

  "You bite your nails and don't even listen to any of us."

  "Do I? What makes you think I'm angry when I'm like that?"

  "We're all afraid."

  "That doesn't mean I am. Sometimes I'm just feeling unhappy. Or concentrating. I can be unhappy too, can't I?"

  "Would Mommy be angry if I asked her?"

  "What?"

  "If you fuck her."

  "Only because of that word. Maybe not. Don't do it in front of anyone."

  "I better not."

  "You already asked me. I already told you. If you ask her too, it wouldn't be to find out, would it? It would just be to see if she gets angry."

  "Was it all right? To ask you?"

  "You already asked me that three times. I'm not angry. Do you want me to be angry?"

  "I thought you'd be. I bet other kids' fathers would be."

  "Maybe I ought to be. I'm better than other kids' fathers. Is that why you keep asking me? Are you trying to make me angry?"

  He shakes his head positively. "No. I don't like it when you're angry. I can tell. You're starting to get angry now, aren't you?"

  "I don't like it, either. And I'm not."

  "Emphasis?" he remembers.

  "Emphasis," I confirm.

  "I don't like Derek," he remarks without pause. He wears a troubled, injured look.

  "You're not supposed to say that," I instruct him mildly. "You're not supposed to feel that way, either."

  "Do you?"

  "You're not supposed to ask that."

  "You just told me I could ask you anything. That's another thing I always think about."

  "Yes. You can. It was okay for you to say what you did and ask me. And it was also okay for me to answer you the way I did. It was all right for both of us. Can you understand that? I hope that's not too confusing for you. I'm not trying to duck out on the question."

  "Am I supposed to say it or not? I don't know."

  "I don't know," I admit resignedly. "I'm not sure I like Derek, either, the situation I mean, the way he is, maybe even him too. I'm not sure. But we often have to live with things we don't like. Like my job. Me too. I don't know what to do about him yet. And nobody can help me."

  "He makes me uncomfortable."

  "He makes me uncomfortable."

  "I'm ashamed to bring friends here. I think they'll make jokes about me."

  "So are we. But we try not to be. We shouldn't be. And you should try not to be too. It's not our fault, it really isn't, so we pretend we aren't. Ashamed. What else?"

  "Money."

  "What about it?"

  "You want me to tell you what's on my mind, don't you?"

  "Yours too?"

  "Do we have any?"

  "What do you want?"

  "That's not why."

  "What is?"

  "You buy me everything."

  "So far."

  "Have we got too much?"

  "For what? We're not millionaires."

  "Have we got enough?"

  "For what?"

  "You make it hard," he charges. "You're kidding now. And I'm not."

  "To give away?" I kid some more, taunting.

  "You give money away," he rejoins in defense.

  "To cancer and things like that. Not to other people. Not to kids. I don't shovel it out to kids I hardly even know like it's too hot for me to hold on to."

  "Leukemia?" he asks.

  "I knew you'd ask that. Do you want me to?"

  He shrugs almost indifferently. "I would like it, I think. But don't take it away from cancer."

  "I knew you'd start worrying about leukemia the second I told you. I'm sorry I told you."

  "I'm not worrying about it. I don't even know what it is yet."

  "Don't you ever worry about things you don't know about?"

  "Like what?"

  "Why should I tell you if you don't know about them?"

  "Now I'll worry about them. Now I'll worry about things to worry about," he adds, with another gloomy laugh.

  "That's what a lot of people do worry about."

  "You don't like me to give money away," he observes. "It makes you angry, doesn't it?"

  "Is that why you do it?"

  "I'm not gonna tell."

  "You're not gonna do it."

  "Yeah?"

  "I'll kick your ass," I warn him jocularly.

  I am happy we are talking together so freely. (I relish those moments when he seems to enjoy being with me.) He used to give money away (probably still does, or will start giving money away again when the warm weather comes and he finds himself outside the house a lot with other kids), pennies, nickels, and dimes (money that we gave him for himself, or that he took from us, although I don't believe he has started stealing coins from us yet or lighting matches. That will come with masturbation. That's the way it came with me. I stole coins from everyone in my family and set fire secretly to everything I could find in the medicine cabinet that I discovered would burn with a flame. I squeezed blackheads from my face and fiddled with cigarette lighters with enormous fires. And jerked off. We didn't want him to. I used to try to explicate for him with professional authority why it was improper for him to give presents that we gave to him away to somebody else, and that the money we gave to him was a present. It was talking to the wall. He would hear me out dutifully every time; but he would not grasp what I meant. His face was vacant, patient, and condescending. I did not know what I meant either, or why I even tried to make him stop. And continued to try. It was only pennies, nickels, and dimes, and yet I moved in on him with the same zealous dedication with which I used to attack the blackheads around my nose and squeeze from my skin tiny yellow filaments that could have been pus. I think I felt him ungrateful). I think he still does give money away, for I have noticed that he and his friends, like my daughter, who is not normally generous, and some of her closest friends, tend to give money and other things back and forth to each other without keeping record or demanding return. I hope he does (even though I've told him he shouldn't), for I would like him to be unselfish. So why did I harangue him? I would like him to grow up to be one of these young people I see so many of today who seem to want to be very good to each other. They even lend cars. We never lent cars. I wish I were one of them; I wish I had a second chance to be young and could be part of them. I wish I could be sure they are as happy and satisfied as I think they are. (My daughter isn't happy, and neither is my son, and maybe she will be, and so will my son. Maybe they still have a chance.) Every once in a while my gaze falls on a young boy and a young girl (she doesn't even have to be pretty) walking or sitting in public with their arms around each other trustingly and intimat
ely and I can almost fall down in pain with piercing envy and lust. No, not lust. Envy. Longing. Every once in a while I do find myself with a young girl something like that; but I think she thinks I'm "square," even though she may like me (and sleep with me) for a while. And I think she's right: I am square. I am even gauche. I even feel gauche when I'm making my pitch for some girl with my customary flip, suggestive (and predictable) (and trite) repartee, and I think less of myself for being that way even while I am that way and see myself succeeding. I don't enjoy adultery, really. I'm not even sure I enjoy getting laid. Sometimes it's okay. Other times it's only coming. Is there supposed to be more? There used to be. There used to be much more heat. My wife and I used to upbraid him fiercely each time we learned, through crafty and persistent interrogation, that he had given money away again. Sometimes it would not even be to a kid he liked much or knew particularly well, but to one he had just met that summer who simply happened to be with him on the boardwalk or street and seemed to want it more. Sometimes that was the only reason he gave us for doing it. He gives cookies away too, and candy, and lets other children play with his toys, even when new. For some reason, it still galls me (my wife reacts similarly--a mood of jealousy and rejection is what I feel) when we see him permit some other kid to play with some new present we have just given him. (We feel it is still ours, rather than his.) I used to try to observe him closely to detect if there were patterns, to see if there were any categories of personality or experience into which the different kids he gave his pennies and nickels and dimes to--I'm not sure if he ever gave away as much as a dime--could be made to fit. I didn't find any. He knew we studied him and discussed him. I told him he was imagining it. Sometimes he was imagining it when I said so; other times he was not. I still watch him. (If my boy ever does get the feeling he was spied upon, mulled over, and talked about when he was young, he would not be entirely wrong. It will not be entirely a delusion.) I feel so foolish and so ashamed for the way I acted (and perhaps will act again). No more than a penny, nickel, or dime was ever involved. But what furors we raised, my adult wife and I; how outraged and scandalized we were that this five-or six-or seven-year-old child of ours had given away a penny, nickel, or dime he had gotten from us or somebody else and did not want for himself. We didn't yell at him. We did worse; we patronized, belittled. We were never really angry with him, never deliberately very mean. But we pretended to be (which must have baffled him even more), and we would raise our voices (not yelling, but for emphasis), and cock our eyes at him in ridicule, amusement, and disbelief. We would cackle and smirk and make jovial, wry wisecracks as we closed in and down upon him in heartless, patronizing argument (while my daughter, who was covetous of the greater consideration she felt he received, would regard us reproachfully from a corner in which she had chosen to hide, too young and still too reserved herself then to object vituperatively the way she frequently does now) that he must not, ought not, simply should not give his money away.

  "Why?"

  (Why not, indeed? Who knows? We didn't. Although we took it for granted we did.) We were unfailingly good-natured and convivial as we took pains to convey to him (it was our responsibility as parents to do so, we made plain), repeatedly, that we loved him as much as ever anyway and were not punishing him by criticizing him and were not really mad; but we did rebuke him diligently in cordial, tolerant tones (ganging up on him, two of us at a time) as we tried to educate him, and we did try, emphatically, tenaciously, maniacally, to elucidate patiently for him why what he was doing was not wise or correct.

  And the problem was that we could not explain. (We had no explanation that made sense even to us. It is difficult to be persuasive when the only answer to his Why? is a lame and dogmatic Because. We were worse to him, I feel now, than Forgione has ever been, more cruel and demoralizing than any teacher. I am overwhelmed with remorse. And yet, I know instinctively that I will do it again if he does it again and I catch him, or at least I will feel the urge to. I hope I restrain myself. I know I feel that what he does is wrong. I don't know why it is wrong. I don't know why I feel it is.) I know we were unable to present to him a single truthful and convincing reason why he ought not to give his pennies, nickels, and dimes away to other children if he wanted to. We actually put him on notice that, not to punish him, but only to teach him a lesson, we were going to punish him by teaching him a lesson. We would withhold money for stipulated periods of time: we would not give him any the next time he wanted some; or instead of money for ice cream, soda, or candy, we would give him the ice cream, soda, candy itself, because we did not feel he could be trusted with money; or tell him, so magisterially, that he would have the money to buy his own now if he had not gone and given it away as we warned him not to.

  ("See? We told you.")

  It crossed my mind whimsically to demand also that he always eat it all up himself right before our eyes (rather than run the risk he might give someone a bite from his Popsicle or candy bar), but I never went quite that far. (I am all heart, ha, ha.) He was so uncomfortable through all these discussions and inquisitions (he didn't know what to do or where or how to look; no matter how much we joshed and chuckled to put him at ease, he was never at ease. His doubtful smile was always forced and wavering as he strained to joke back cordially with us and asked questions and gave answers to ours in a profound and abortive effort to understand just what in the world it was we had grown so determined to teach him, and why) I suppose he really wanted to give up and cry: when I look back now and recall his delicate, furrowed expression, his lowered, obliging voice, it seems evident (now) that he had come awfully close to tears, but he would not (because we did not want him to) let them flow: he masked it well (but I know him better now): he flashed his doubtful smile often at us instead, from one to the other of us, as we harangued and excoriated him affably and he groped undecidedly, with knitted brow, to catch on to and hold what we felt we had explained so fluently.

  "Suppose you want the penny later, or tomorrow?" I would point out by way of benevolent illustration.

  "Then I'll get another one," he would answer.

  "Where?"

  "Here."

  "From who?"

  "From you."

  "I won't give you one."

  He squinted. "How come?" he asked in puzzlement.

  "Because I won't," I said, with a conclusive gloat.

  "How come?"

  I shrugged.

  "Then I'll get it from Mommy."

  "Will you?"

  "I won't give you one either."

  "How come?" He draws back a bit and gazes at my wife.

  "You just gave one away before, didn't you? That's how little you thought of it."

  He sees us watching him in silence, waiting for his next attempt.

  "From the boy I gave it to," he says. "I'll get it from him."

  "He won't have it."

  "He won't give it to you."

  "He'll spend it by then. That's why he wanted it."

  "Do you think everyone's so generous?"

  "Or he won't give it to you. Not everyone is as generous as you are."

  "Or as rich."

  "Or as well off. We're not rich."

  "So you see? Do you?"

  "We won't give it to you."

  "You won't have one tomorrow."

  My boy is befuddled and gapes at us searchingly, still straining to smile and endeavoring to make some sense of the situation, twisting in confusion (and plucking rapidly, distractedly, at his penis) as he waits for a hint, seeks hopefully to detect some beam of light that will illuminate it as some kind of well-intentioned practical joke.

  ("Don't pull at your penis," I am tempted to reprimand him, but I don't.)

  "Do you have to go to the bathroom?" my wife does inquire peremptorily. He shakes his head with surprise, wondering why she has asked.

  He cannot figure out what has just happened to him. A tremor of uncertainty shivers through him as he turns, looking frozen, from one to the othe
r of us and finds himself deserted by both.

  "How come?" he asks plaintively, and now a note of misery and total resignation perforates his voice. (He is ready to capitulate if he has to.) "To," I summarize with lofty and deliberate relish, "teach you a lesson."

  What a prick I was.

  What a selfish, small, obtuse, and insensitive prick. I am glum with shame and repentance now when I remember those smug and tyrannical persecutions of my little boy (and will be sickened with shame and repentance afterward when I inflict them on him again. How can I stop myself?). For my own part (I plead guilty, your honor, but with an explanation, sir), I honestly believe I was motivated mainly by a protective and furious desire to safeguard him against being taken advantage of by other children (even by my daughter. I never could stand to see him taken advantage of. It was as though I myself were undergoing the helpless humiliation of being tricked, turned into a sucker. My own pride and ego would drip with wounded recognition. That's when I have been most enraged by him, when I wanted to smash and annihilate him, at those times when I felt, in a flaring outbreak of nearly unbridled bitterness, that he was allowing himself to be victimized and bullied by other children. So I bullied and victimized him, instead). I have loved and grieved for him almost from the day he was born, from the time I first noticed his lonesome, ingrained predilection for staring pensively out from his crib or playpen (my daughter was not that way, and neither was Derek, who seemed placid and normal at the beginning). And I loved him also for his naive candor and absence of hostility, pitied him (and gave him black marks sullenly) for his tender impulses and for his many nameless and immobilizing forebodings; he seemed lost and distant and passive to me in a way it seemed I had once been myself and still feel I am at times when my guard lets down and all my strength ebbs away; I have always wanted him immune to abuse and defeat. So I abused and defeated him instead with my unctuous homilies, my meddlesome intrusions on his behalf, with my nagging, endless admonitions and discourses. I never could bear to see him unhappy (and would find it difficult to pardon him whenever he was); so I made him unhappier still (purging myself of some of my own distress in the act of doing so), but always feeling smirched immediately afterwards. (I can never sustain satisfaction from humbling him, as I usually can do when I humble my daughter, and always do when I win fights with my wife. With my wife by now, I think it no longer matters very much either way to either one of us whether I make her happy or unhappy; the difference is not so great nor the effect lasting; by now, I think we have learned how to get through the rest of our lives with each other and are both already more than halfway there. Who would ever have believed long, long ago that I would live as long as I have? But my boy is still only just beginning.) What a blind, petty, domineering, and sanctimonious prick I truly was. He simply could not see, and we simply could not show him. And even while all of these disputes were going on (it was usually during the summer in the country or at the beach, where I rent a house and all of us go almost every year and none of us ever have a good time. None of us. but Derek. Who is able to take what simple pleasures he enjoys anywhere, even at home. Like Martha going crazy slowly in our office, hearing voices that bring a glow of pleasure to her face and playing games on country outings somewhere else as she gazes over the carriage of her typewriter at the blank green wall just a foot or two in front of her. I wonder how she will finally go under, how she will elect to do it, and whose responsibility this Martha our typist really is, Green, who hired her, or Personnel's, who screened and recommended her. She is not mine. At least in the summer, I can stay alone in the city more when the family is away and am free to have as much fun as I can find), my wife and I were charmed extremely by his peculiar generosity (if that's what it was) and beguiling good nature (we would smile at each other in fond and complacent self-approval and comment about him in fascination: "He's really something, isn't he?"