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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 29


  "Are you imitating me again? Don't think you can get away with that forever."

  "We're in public, aren't we? I don't want you to do anything that will make people stop and listen."

  "I'm not doing anything at all but listening to you."

  "You're standing."

  "So are you."

  "With your hands on your hips, just like an actor on television. Let's walk. Let's walk, I said."

  "Now you're like an actor on television, shaking your finger at me."

  "You're embarrassing me," he charges.

  "No, I'm not."

  "But you're going to," he predicts, "aren't you?"

  "Why should I embarrass you?"

  "Are you going to yell at me?"

  "Am I yelling at you?"

  "Are you going to be mad?"

  "Am I mad?"

  "You are embarrassing me," he accuses triumphantly. "You're being sarcastic."

  "Big shot!" I tell him sarcastically. "You don't even know what embarrass means."

  "Yes, I do. And I know what sarcastic means. It means when you're doing something I don't want you to do."

  "I'm not doing anything you don't want me to do. I'm not doing anything at all but standing here, so how can I be embarrassing you?"

  "You're asking me questions, aren't you? Why do you keep asking me questions?"

  "Why don't you answer them?"

  "I'm going to tell Mommy," he threatens. "I'm going to tell Mommy you drank whiskey."

  "She won't believe you. She'll know it's a lie."

  "How come?"

  "Your nose will grow."

  "How come?"

  "A person's nose grows when he tells a lie."

  "Then your nose is growing," he counters. "Because that's a lie."

  "Then why would my nose be growing if it's a lie?"

  "I'm going to sock you one, Daddy," he squeals in frustration, as he feels himself outsmarted.

  "Why are you twisting around so much? Stand still."

  "I think I'm nervous," he guesses.

  "Do you have to pee? Then why are you picking at your pecker?"

  "I don't like that."

  (He stops picking at his pecker. I'm sorry I said it.)

  "She'll smell my breath," I resume, to change that subject. "She won't smell whiskey, and that's how she'll know you're lying."

  "I'm going to kick you," he says. "I think I'm going to kick you in the shins."

  "Why?" I ask in surprise.

  "Because," he says. "Because whenever I kick you in the shins or sock you one you begin wrestling with me and we laugh a lot, so I think I'll do it to make you laugh a lot."

  "I'll kick your ass."

  "I'm going to tell Mommy you said a dirty word to me."

  "So what? I say dirty words to her."

  "She doesn't like it. She'll fight with you."

  "We don't fight."

  "You fight a lot. She'll smack you."

  "She doesn't smack me."

  "She cries."

  "No, she doesn't."

  "Sometimes she does."

  "You talk too much. And notice too much. Sometimes you get them all mixed up."

  "I wish I knew somebody who could beat you up," he tells me, kidding.

  "Why?"

  "I'm going to call a cop."

  "Why?"

  "To smack you."

  "He's not allowed to."

  "You smack me."

  "I'm allowed to. And I don't smack you."

  "You used to."

  "I did not. In your whole life I bet I never smacked you once."

  "Once you did. When I was little. I remember."

  "If I did, I'm sorry. But I don't think I did. I don't smack you now. Do I?"

  "You're going to. Aren't you?"

  "For what?"

  "You know."

  "I'm not."

  "You promise?"

  "I promise."

  "You promise you won't smack me?"

  "I promise."

  "You really promise you won't smack me?"

  "I promise. I won't smack you. Don't you believe me?"

  "I believe you," he says.

  And wham--he kicks me in the shin!

  I leap a mile into the air, howling with surprise, and I know I must look funny as hell to him as I go hopping around in outrage, stroking and fanning my stinging leg. He does not laugh immediately: he frowns instead, wondering, I guess, if he has perhaps gone too far and is now in trouble, until he sees and hears me guffaw and understands that I am neither hurt nor displeased. Then his own face opens radiantly in a sunburst of relief and he begins laughing in exultation. I exaggerate all my own comic motions in order to keep him laughing and then to trap him with a sneak attack. He is doubled over in quaking merriment, clutching his belly and gulping and sighing helplessly, and all at once I am upon him: I huri myself at him while he is bent over laughing, and we fall to the ground wrestling. It is not much of a match. At the beginning, I tickle his ribs to keep him giggling and gasping for air and render him defenseless. We grapple awhile until I grow winded, and then I turn limp to allow him to pin me. I am out of breath, and the match is his if he wants it. But he isn't satisfied. He grows cocky and careless: he wishes to savor his victory; and instead of pinning me, he elects to experiment in torturing me with some useless armlocks and toeholds. My breath is back, I decide to teach him a lesson (another lesson. The subject of this lesson, I suppose, is that one should strike while the iron is hot. The truly disgusting thing about all these platitudinous lessons for getting ahead is that sooner or later they all turn out to be true). So, while my boy is fiddling tranquilly with my fingers, my toes, and my foot, not certain really what to do with any of them, I bunch my muscles treacherously, fill my lungs for the effort, and, in one brief and explosive heave, flip him up and over and around down into the sand. He whoops in fearful, thrilled excitement at my new determination, and he kicks and twists and elbows wildly with joy, a lithe, laughing, healthy little animal trying energetically to fight and wiggle free as I swarm down upon him. (Now I cannot let him win; if I do, he'll know it's only because I did let him, and then he'll know that he has lost.) It is no contest at all now that I have my wind back and am going about it in earnest. I employ my greater bulk (much of it solid flab, ha, ha) to force him down into place. It is relatively easy for me to grasp both his wrists in one of my hands, to immobilize his legs beneath the pressing weight of my own and end his kicking. In just a few more seconds it is over; and he gives up. I have him nailed to the ground in a regulation pin. We stare at each other smiling, our faces inches apart.

  "I win," he jokes.

  "Then let me up," I joke back.

  "Only if you surrender," he says.

  "I surrender," I reply.

  "Then I'll let you up," he says.

  I let him go and we rise slowly, breathing hard and feeling close to each other.

  "You know, Daddy," he starts right in with pious gravity, trying to divert me, assuming an owlish and censorious expression as austerely as a judge, "I really did win, because you threw sand in my eyes and tickled me and that's not allowed."

  "I did not," I retort fliply.

  "Did you tickle me? You liar."

  "That's allowed. You can tickle."

  "You don't laugh."

  "You don't know how to tickle."

  "That's why it's not fair."

  "It is fair. And furthermore," I continue, "I didn't throw sand."

  "I can say you did."

  "And did you know, by the way, that it's a lovely day today because the sun is shining and the bay is calm and blue, and there are nine or seven planets--"

  "Nine."

  "--of which Mercury is the closest to the sun and ..."

  "Pluto."

  "... Pluto is the farthest?"

  "Did you hear about the homosexual astronauts?" he asks.

  "Yes. They went to Uranus. And if, as they say, there are seven days in each week and fifty-two weeks in e
ach year, how come there are three hundred and sixty-five days in the year instead of three hundred and sixty-four?"

  He pauses to calculate. "How come?" he queries. "I never thought about that."

  "I don't know. I never thought about it either."

  "Is that what you want to talk about now?" he asks disconsolately.

  "No. But if you want to stall, I'll stall along with you. You're not fooling me."

  "I'm going to tell Mommy," he threatens again. "I'm going to tell Mommy you threw sand in my eyes."

  "I'm going to tell her," I rejoin.

  "Are you?" His manner turns solemn.

  "What?"

  "Going to tell her?"

  "What?"

  "You know."

  "What?"

  "What I did."

  "Did you do something?" I inquire with airy candor.

  "You know."

  "I can't remember."

  "What I gave away."

  "Did you give something away?"

  "Daddy, you know I gave a nickel away."

  "When? You give a lot of nickels away."

  "Just before. When you were right here."

  "Why?"

  "You won't know."

  "Tell me why. How do you know?"

  "You'll get angry and start yelling or begin to tease me or make fun of me."

  "I won't. I promise."

  "I wanted to," he states simply.

  "That's no answer."

  "I knew you'd say that."

  "I knew you'd say that."

  "I said you wouldn't understand."

  "He didn't ask you for it," I argue. "He couldn't believe his eyes when you gave it to him. I don't think you even know him that long. I'll bet you don't even like him that much. Do you?"

  "You're getting angry," he sulks. "I knew you would."

  "I'm not."

  "You're starting to yell, aren't you?"

  "I'm just raising my voice."

  "You see?"

  "You're faking," I charge, and give him a tickling poke in the ribs. "And I know you're faking, so stop faking and trying to pretend you can fool me. Answer."

  He grins sheepishly, exposed and pleased. "I don't know. I don't know if I like him or not. I only met him yesterday."

  "See? I'm smart. Then why? You know what I mean. Why did you give your money to him?"

  "You'll think I'm crazy."

  "Maybe you are."

  "Then I won't tell you."

  "I know you aren't."

  "Do I have to?"

  "Yes. No. You want to. I can see you do. So you have to. Come on."

  "I wanted to give him something," he explains very softly. "And that was all I had."

  "Why did you want to give him something?"

  "I don't know."

  He tells me this so plainly, truthfully, innocently as to make it seem the most plausible and obvious reason imaginable. And I do understand. His frankness is touching, and I feel like reaching out to embrace him right there on the spot and rewarding him with dollar bills. I want to kiss him (but I think he will be embarrassed if I do, because we are out in public). I want to tousle his hair lightly. (I do.) Tenderly, I say to him: "That's still no answer."

  "How come?" he inquires with interest.

  "It doesn't tell why."

  "It's why."

  "It doesn't tell why you wanted to give him something. Why did you want to give him something?"

  "I think I know. You sure keep after me, don't you?"

  "Why did you want to give him something?"

  "Do I have to tell?"

  "No. Not if you don't want to."

  "I was happy," he states with a shrug, squinting uncomfortably in the sunlight, looking a little pained and self-conscious.

  "Yeah?"

  "And whenever I feel happy," he continues, "I like to give something away. Is that all right?"

  "Sure." (I feel again that I want to kiss him.)

  "It's okay?" He can hardly trust his good fortune.

  "And I'm glad you were happy. Why were you happy?"

  "Now it gets a little crazy."

  "Go ahead. You're not crazy."

  "Because I knew I was going to give it away." He pauses a moment to giggle nervously. "To tease you," he admits. "Then when I knew I was happy about that, I wanted to give the nickel away because I was happy about wanting to give the nickel away. Is it okay?"

  "You're making me laugh."

  "You're not mad?"

  "Can't you see that you're making me laugh? How can I be mad?"

  "Then I'll tell you something else," he squeals with ebullient gaiety. "Sometimes I feel like laughing for no reason at all. Then I feel like laughing just because I know I feel like laughing. You're smiling!" he cries suddenly, pointing a finger at my face, and begins shrieking with laughter. "Why are you smiling?"

  "Because you're funny!" I shout back at him. "It's funny, that's why. You're funny, that's why."

  "Are you gonna tell Mommy I gave money away?"

  "Are you? You can't tell her either if I don't. Otherwise I'll get in trouble."

  "You can tell her," he decides.

  "Then you can tell her too."

  "Was it all right?"

  "Sure," I comfort him. "It was all right. In fact, it was better than all right. It was very nice. And I'm glad you talked to me. You don't always talk to me." I rest the palm of my hand lightly on the back of his head as we start walking again and head toward the boardwalk. My hand feels unnatural there, as though I am stretching a small elbow and arm muscle into an unaccustomed position. I move my hand to his shoulder; I feel a strain there too. (I am not used to holding my boy, I realize. I am not used to holding my daughter either.) "But suppose--" I want to prepare him and shield him against everything injurious in the world, and I cannot stop myself.

  He pulls away from me with an impatient lurch of his shoulders, frowning. "Daddy, I knew you were going to say that!"

  "And I knew you were going to say that," I laugh in reply, but my heartiness is false. "What else am I going to say?"

  "I want it for myself later or tomorrow? Then I'll get it back from him. But suppose--"

  "Yeah?"

  "--he doesn't have it or won't give it to you?"

  "He won't."

  "Then I'll get another nickel. From who?"

  "I won't give it to you."

  "From you. I won't give it to you."

  "I won't. I warn you."

  "You will," he replies to me directly, ending his imitation of us. "You always say that. You always say you won't. And then you always do. So why do you say that? Won't you?"

  "Yes," I concede in a long syllable of total surrender, succumbing pleasurably to his childlike charm and intelligence. "I'll give it to you. I'll even give it to you now before you want it."

  So what, his sage and ironic expression seems to say to me, am I making such a bogus fuss about? "I knew you would," he summarizes in triumph. He walks beside me with a lighter, more contented step.

  "I always will, I want you to know. Do you?" I watch him nod; I see his brow tightening a bit with recollection and perplexity. "We're pretty good pals now, ain't we?" I ask. "You and me?"

  "I used to be afraid of you."

  "I hope you're not, now."

  "Not as much."

  "You don't have to be. I won't ever hurt you. And I'll always give you everything you need. Don't you know that? I just yell a lot."

  After a moment more of deep reflection, he allows himself to bump against me softly with his shoulder as I often see him do with other boys I know he likes. (It is the friendliest answer he could have given me.) I bump him back the same way in response. He smiles to himself.

  "Daddy, I love you!" he exclaims with excitement, and throws his face against my hip to kiss me and hug me. "I hope you never die."

  (I hope so too.) I crook my arm around his shoulders and hug him in return. Very swiftly, before he can be embarrassed by it and stop me, I kiss the top of his head, b
rush my lips against his silken, light-brown hair. (I steal a kiss.) I love him too and hope that he never dies.

  I have the recurring fear that he will die before I do. I cannot let that happen. He is too dear to me. I know him now, and I know he is a much more valuable person to me than the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Defense, the Majority Leader and the Minority Whip. He is more important to me than the President of the United States of America. (I think more of my boy's life than I do of his.) I Pledge my Allegiance to him. (I never mention this heresy to anyone, of course.) I will never permit them to harm him.

  But what would I do to protect him? I think I know what I would do. Nothing.

  "Don't worry," I have promised him in earnest. "I will never let anything bad happen to you."

  He is afraid of the government, the army, the Pentagon, the police. (And so am I.)

  "I won't ever let them hurt you or take you away."

  And what is there, really, that I can do? Except nothing.

  So I do nothing.

  I can connive (that gives me time), as I connive now in my job at the company (connive to survive, keep alive till five), but that's about all. And time may soon run out.

  Who am I? I think I'm beginning to find out. I am a stick: I am a broken waterlogged branch floating with my own crowd in this one nation of ours, indivisible (unfortunately), under God, with liberty and justice for all who are speedy enough to seize them first and hog them away from the rest. Some melting pot. If all of us in this vast, fabulous land of ours could come together and take time to exchange a few words with our neighbors and fellow countrymen, those words would be Bastard! Wop! Nigger! Whitey! Kike! Spic! I don't like people who run things. I don't like Horace White, who is hard to take seriously (and yet I must).

  "If you ever write a book," he has said to me, and meant it, because such things are important to him, "I would like you to put my name in it."

  Horace White is a pale, insipid man of many small distinctions. He likes to see his name in the newspapers. He is an honorary deputy something or other of the City of New York (even though his legal residence is in Connecticut) and has an undistinguished bronze shield proclaiming that distinction affixed to the bumper of his automobile. The letters on the license plate of his automobile form his complete monogram (HOW); the numerals advance each year to give his age. (We think he lies about his age.) No one has ever been able to describe specifically what he does here in the company, except to be who he is, to have money, own stock, and be related in two collateral ways to one or more of the founders and directors. And I must toady to him. And I do.

  If I were poor, I believe I might want to overthrow the government by force. I'm very glad, however, that everyone poor isn't trying to overthrow the government, because I'm not poor. I don't know why every Negro maid doesn't steal from her white employer (but I'm glad our Negro maid doesn't, or at least has not let us find out she does). If I were Black and poor, I don't think I'd have any reason for obeying any law other than the risk of being caught. As it is, though, I'm glad colored people do obey the law (most of them, anyway), because I am afraid of Negroes and have moved away from them. I am afraid of cops. But I'm glad there are cops and wish there were more.