Mother comes back one evening and she starts up at supper about feng shui, how our house isn’t organized for a happy life, how the front door should never line up with the back door like ours does – never. One of her colleagues in Parks and Recreation told her that.
They’re all dipshits down there, I said.
And the boy said, talking with his mouth full like he always does, That’s why you’re not supposed to have a crucifix in the bedroom. Is a cross the same as a crucifix? he says.
I could see the meat with the ketchup on it in his mouth. No, I said. A crucifix is a cross with the body on it.
A cross is OK then, he said. And a crucifix is OK as long as the eyes aren’t open. You don’t want that in the bedroom.
Usually nobody said anything at supper but sometimes it would go all haywire like this. A saguaro has to be seventy-five years old before it puts out an arm. I went into the backyard for a cigarette. I’ve got a couple of grapefruit trees that don’t look so good back there, a velvet mesquite and two saguaros. All of this was here when I bought the place in 1972. The saguaros still don’t have arms on them yet. A saguaro has to be seventy-five years old before it puts out an arm.
Another night, I come out of my shop in the garage for supper and he appears without a hair on his head. Not on his arms either.
Jesus, I say. What have you done now?
This is how you foil the drug testers, he says.
You aren’t ingesting drugs, are you, I say.
Nah, he says. It’s just unconstitutional to take a sample from a man’s head, from a hair. I’m protesting the unconstitutionality of it.
As a little kid when he wanted to curse but didn’t dare or probably didn’t even know how, he’d say Babies! It was pretty damn cute. Oh, babies! he’d say. I don’t know where he got that from.
Did he respect his mother? I’d say yes. I mean, he didn’t pay much attention to her.
I fixed clocks in the garage for a while but then I stopped serving the public who were never, ever satisfied. So it’s just a personal hobby, taking apart clocks and watches and putting them back together again. There was a Frenchman centuries ago, a watchmaker, who created a life-sized mechanical duck. It could move its head, flap its wings, even eat from a bowl of grain. Then it could even shit out the compacted grain. It was all gears and springs. Over four hundred parts moved each wing. They call things like that automatons.
The boy says, Can you learn about ducks by studying mechanical ducks?
Of course not, I say. No wonder his teachers don’t like him, I think.
It is not a dumb question, he says, given where we are today, studying Real people are complex. A real situation can’t be broken down into abstractions. all these computer systems and simulations and making all these performance assessments which are no more than abstractions we try to apply to the real world. Real people are complex. A real situation can’t be broken down into abstractions. I don’t support nuclear power because there’s no place to bury nuclear waste, he says. Nuclear power cannot be separated from nuclear waste.
I thought, this boy just needs to get laid, but I just said, Why are you worrying about nuclear waste, you should just go out and get a job and keep it, make some money for yourself. But I don’t have a job and haven’t for years so my words ring somewhat hollow. Mother has a job which is sufficient for us. There’s a preacher says a family of four can live handsomely on fifty thousand dollars a year before taxes and if they make more they should give that amount away to others. And we’re just a family of three. Do they still call people like us a nuclear family?
We went to New York City once. To this day I don’t know why she insisted on it. Why don’t we go to the Grand Canyon? I said, but she wanted to do something different. We’d seen the Grand Canyon. She wanted to go to that restaurant, Windows on the World, was it? And she wanted to take in some musical theatre. That’s exactly how she put it, I want to take in some musical theatre. She’s had a job for years with P&R, working with heavy machinery, loppers and saws and stuff, and first thing at LaGuardia she falls on the moving walkway and sprains her ankle. It’s all she can do to hobble from bed to bathroom in the crummy little hotel room we have. So I’m supposed to be showing the boy New York City. He was around nine. We had just emerged from a subway, the boy and I, totally disoriented, and this Mexican guy passes by and grunts at me and lifts his chin at this woman standing beside us waiting for the light to change and she’s blind with dark glasses and a cane, clearly blind, and the guy is saying, Do your duty, man, I’m going the other way.
The blind don’t grab on to you like you’d think or clutch your hand. She just put her finger on my jacket with the lightest touch. There’s a big grate here, I said, thinking the last thing we needed was for her to get her stick snapped off in one of the holes in the grate. We cross the street and she angles herself to cross another one and I say, Do you want us to stay with you for this one as well, and she says, And we’re just a family of three. Do they still call people like us a nuclear family? Thank you very much but only if you’re going in this direction of course. She had the lightest, nicest, most refined voice. It was surprising. And then the boy bawls out, We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we’re going! And she says, still in that lovely voice, Oh, now you’re beginning to frighten me. Well, I was furious at him, very, very furious. We ushered the lady across the street and then I dragged him back down into the subway and we went back uptown to the hotel and we stayed there for two days. I was the only one who went out and that was just for crackers and Coke. The boy kept saying, I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry. That was what he’d do. He’d do something, give somebody he shouldn’t some lip and then back right down. We didn’t see anything of New York City and that was the last time we left Arizona.
I go into the bird-food store for suet. I’ve got some suet feeders I made. The cheaper stuff you buy in the big-box places and the hardware stores isn’t rendered and can spoil. Most people don’t know this. They’re the same ones still putting that red dye shit in the hummingbird feeders. Every time I go in there someone’s saying . . . What you got that will keep the doves away . . . I don’t want the doves . . . how can I get rid of the doves . . . And the clerk is fussing around trying to sell them some contraption made from recycled materials for fifty bucks that only birds who feed upside down can get at. So I say, one customer to another, A taser. Try a taser. And they look at me sort of interested until I finally say, I’m kidding.
He found a dog out by the Raytheon plant and brought her home. She looked like a puppy but who knows. Her teeth weren’t particularly white. He called her Vega.
What the hell does that mean, I say. How did you come up with that?
It’s Arabic, he says.
You’re just asking for trouble, aren’t you, I say. Why would you give a dog an Arab’s name? It doesn’t even sound Arabic, it sounds Spanish. What’s it in Spanish?
Open plain, he says.
That is some stupid name for a dog, I say. Open plain. I called her Amy which didn’t seem to confuse her. He stopped caring for her after a few weeks anyway and I fed her and trained her a bit. I had the time, not working. And you’ve got to have time, God knows, with the training exercises. Sit . . . sit . . . good girl . . . stay . . . no! . . . sit . . . stay . . . stay . . . good girl . . . OK! Twenty minutes, twice a day.
We got all the way up to Day Fifteen, which is pretty much the end of it. That’s when you get them to sit and stay and you disappear and say hello to an imaginary person at the door and you come back and then disappear again and talk to people who aren’t there. That was amusing to me because no one ever came to our door, which was the way I preferred it. Sometimes the boy would have a friend over but not often. Kids, they’re in a different lane. Slow. They move slow, they talk slow. Everything slows down.
The boy says, What’s the point of training that dog so? She’s not even good-looking.
It’s true, Amy wouldn’t turn any heads. And I say to him, What do you know about good-looking? Clean up that goddamned acne, boy, I wanted to say, for I can be petty with him at times, but I didn’t.
A man doesn’t have to be good-looking, he says, he’s just got to have presence, he’s just got to be in command.
Absolutely, I say. You’re really in command at all the fast-food joints you keep getting fired from. He’d been fired from one for eating salad back in the kitchen with his fingers, right out of one of those bowls big as an engine block. His fingers.
It’d have been the same if I used a fork, he said.
Then the next place he’d told the manager she was sitting on her brains.
I like Amy, he said. I was the one who found her, remember.
Backing right down like he always did.
Sometimes Mother wants to make something special for dinner, like a soup. She asks me to go to Safeway and get a can of coconut milk and some cilantro. I can’t imagine a worse-sounding soup but if she’s willing to make dinner, I’ll eat it. The boy kept saying, I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry. That was what he’d do. I’m not about to make dinner. So Amy and I drive over to the Safeway. The Brownies are out front at a little table selling cookies. They’ve always got somebody out front selling something, original oil paintings sometimes. Sometimes even politicians set up shop there. So I bought a box of cookies. You’d have to be some sort of wicked not to buy cookies from a little Brownie when confronted. Of course I can’t find the damn coconut milk and I’m wandering around until some kid says, Can I help you, sir? and then ushers me smugly to the proper shelf. I’m going through the checkout and the checker says, Do you need any help out with this, sir?
Do you need any help out with this, sir, do you need any help out with this, sir, I mutter all the way back to the truck.
They’re all automatons.
He took a poetry class at the community college. That’s lovely, I say. It’s quite beyond lovely, I say, sarcastic.
We’re studying Rimbaud, he says. He was French, too, like your watchmaker, the one who made the duck. Isn’t that interesting?
Why is that interesting, I say.
Listen to this, listen, he says. He opens up this little paperback book and he’s highlighted these lines in blue Magic Marker.
He says: For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths.
That ain’t even grammatical, I say.
For I is someone else, he says sombrely. If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
Now that’s the translation, he says. But for class I’m going to translate the translation.
Somebody should translate you, I say.
No one’s going to be able to translate me, he says.
He said some old woman came in to tutor them sometimes and she smelled like laundry.
Laundry, I said. Clean laundry, I hope.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said.
You shouldn’t need tutoring now, should you? You’re in college, community college, you’ve been years going there.
She’s one of those do-gooders. I told her about Rimbaud and she said he was the first modernist.
What the hell’s that mean?
The beginning of the way we are? He was a savage dreamer, Rimbaud.
And he delivers that smirk.
Daddy, he says, you don’t think I can do anything. I’m not going to engage you on that one, I say. You’ll make your mark or you won’t.
What you’re wanting to do is stop time and that’s dangerous, he says.
I don’t want to stop time, I say. Time don’t stop because I’m working on a broken watch.
But he looks at me as though he thinks it does.
I see things in parts, too, he says.
Don’t you need to be wearing a cleaner shirt?
Do you think I do?
That one’s filthy. I’ve been looking at it for days.
Are you thinking other stuff when you think that?
Godallmighty, I say. Just go put on a fresh T-shirt.
When I think something it rethinks it for me, he says.
We’ve got to be tolerant, Mother says to me. You’re not a tolerant man and that hurts, that shows.
Tolerant, I say. I don’t know when I got into the habit of repeating a single word. Just picking it out of her conversation.
He might be neuroatypical, that’s what Tom says.
They all annoy the hell out of me over at P&R but Tom takes the cake. He’s so fat that I don’t know how he can tie his goddamn shoes.
Tom says neurodiversity might be more crucial for the human race than biodiversity.
I say Tom’s handling too much weedkiller. He’s not a friend of the earth, I say. Which reminds me of something the boy lobbed at us the other night about Albert Einstein’s last words. He’s staring off to the side of us as we’re sitting in what he loves to refer to emphatically as the living room and he says, Albert Einstein’s last words were: Is the
I say, I doubt that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, he says. It’s so. I think of what I’m going to have for last words sometimes.
Let’s hear ’em, I say.
It’s not going to be a question.
I can’t imagine your last words being a question, I say.
He looks up at me quick and decides to be pleased. Usually he won’t look at a person direct. He says eye contact is counterproductive to comprehension and communication. He’s got any number of ways to justify himself, that’s for sure.
Mother continues to go on about Tom and Jimmy and Christina and their Usually he won’t look at a person direct. He says eye contact is counterproductive to comprehension and communication. theories about the boy whom they’ve never met but think they know from her going on and on about him, I guess. She’s got quite a little socializing network going on for her down at the park. She had a chance to work over at Sweetwater, the built marsh they’ve got out by the sewer treatment plant. She would have made more money but she said she’d be lonely with new people. She didn’t want to leave her friends. She don’t like change.
Neurotypical, I say. Kindly tell me what the hell TomTom is talking about. I call him that because two normal-sized men could fit in his bulk.
Neuro-a-typical, she says.
Oh, goodness, pardon me, I say. And why exactly are you discussing our family with those dipshits? Our family is no concern of theirs. TomTom’s living with one of those little women that look like a man, isn’t he? Let him worry about the atypicality of that.
She’s sweet, Mother says. And anyway Tom wasn’t saying anything bad about him. He was just trying to make me feel better. I told my friends about them not letting him back in those classes he was taking.
I don’t want you talking to them about the boy, I say. And I want to remind you, you’re the one who wanted one, not me. Just one, you said. One and done.
You’re the low-hanging fruit, he says to me and Mother. She just purses her lips and pushes her fork around a serving of store-bought pie.
And I suppose you’re not, I say. You’re the high-hanging fruit.
You’ve just got to find him hilarious sometimes.
They’ve used up what’s easy like you. They’ve just used you up. But now they’re going to have to deal with the likes of me. And there’s no formula.
The likes of you, I say.
He stands up so fast he knocks his glass of milk off the table. But then he catches it. It was flying laterally for an instant and damn if he didn’t catch it. But then he storms out of the house and Mother tears up. Then the phone rings and it’s one of those robo-calls you can’t shut off until they’ve said their piece.
It was around eleven in the morning. A beautiful desert day. You forget how pretty the sky can still be. Mother was over at the park fixing a sprinkler system for the fortieth time. I think they break them deliberate so they’ll have something to do. I’m in my shop thinking like I frequently do that the third cup of coffee tastes funny when all hell breaks loose. People banging on the door and screaming and shouting and I even hear a helicopter overhead. And I say, Stay, Amy, stay, and walk out of the garage and there’s law officers out there screaming, sumabitch, sumabitch and the Congresswoman and sumabitch again, even the women, all of them in uniform and with guns, and I think whatever I was thinking a minute ago is the last peaceful thought I will ever have. Though sometimes now I try to pretend he’s still in the house, in his room with the door closed. I pretend he’s still living with us and eating with us and getting by with us. But of course he’s not and he isn’t.
No, we were never afraid of him. Afraid of Jared? ■