AT DINNER, BRANDON — my son, your nephew — tells us how, on the kickball diamond today, he was called a pussy by Arthur, the decidedly overweight bully (as all second-grade bullies tend to be, complete with requisite learning disability). Since September, Arthur has developed an unfortunate interest in Brandon.
“Oh,” you say, “was this good ol’ fatso-dumb-butt again?” And then, ignoring my look, which perhaps you do not see, being distracted by the roar of your nephew’s laughter, you say, “Big blubber-tire-waist-double-chin-dumb-head,” and so on, until all the seriousness, the absolute gravity of a seven-year-old being called a pussy on the playground has gone poof, and Brandon has been worked into such a state of kinetic energy that there is no talking to him about the power of language and our commitment as humans to be the best we can be, even (and perhaps especially) in the face of adversity.
No, instead he journeys to bed giggling and snorting and whispering, “Piggy-mouth-stuffing-dumb-butt.”
Here in this household, lest you forget, we call kids like Arthur pudgy, big-boned, and a bit behind the curve.
When Brandon can’t sleep, he trots down the hall in his pajamas and over to you, sitting in the recliner watching Sports Center for the third time, and, without getting too close, he leans his lithe little body in and asks you to come read to him. (Remember, since he can’t recall the last time he saw you, when he was six weeks old, he really just met you last week.)
And you say no. Even though I could tell you exactly what was about to happen on the screen, that Mario Lemieux was about to score three against the Capitals, and hats were going to rain down on the ice, and some fan at the Fleet Center was about to lose out on ten thousand dollars by failing to put a ball through the hoop from half court.
So Brandon pouts. And you say — I can see it coming — “Don’t be a pussy.”
And he runs to his room, and when I try to enter, he slams the door on my pinkie. I call you a hopeless loser and then, in my crossness, I tell you that you do not, under any circumstances, call a seven-year-old boy a pussy.
“Arthur did,” you say, and I say, my pinkie throbbing, “Screw Arthur.”
You laugh and give me your big-brother, superior-than-thou look, and you put your beer down directly on my end table and swagger down the hall as if, without any knowledge of the intricacies of parenting, without ever having read a word of Dr. Spock, without even any training in how to soothe a wounded heart, you are going to make it all better.
I run water in the kettle and think about one thing that I know for a fact: that people like you — people who lack filters in the brain to catch all the things we just do not say — should not be in the vicinity of young children. My son might grow up with a big dent in his psyche, a crippled self-esteem, an inability to form attachments, a paralyzing fear of crowds and speaking in public.
But there, above the kettle’s whistling and a plane overhead, I hear Brandon say “Uncle Roddy” in that way kids have of saying your name and pulling you close. Somehow my Brandon has found it in his heart to forgive you, and this gives me peace of mind. At least maybe he comprehends sticks, stones, and the power of forgiveness.
You read him Chapter 4 of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and through the door, which is not quite closed, I hear you tell him that it is not a bad thing to be called a pussy, really; that actually, if you have ever seen a big cat, you know how ferocious they can be, how strong. You tell him the joke is on Arthur, who is too dumb to understand the meaning of words.
This is what we parents call “taking the screws from the bike to fix the wagon.”
Next I hear him asking you in his sweet, high-pitched, inquisitive voice: “Uncle Roddy, what is that thing on your neck?” He is referring, I am sure, to that giant, adolescent hickey you’ve been sporting since the night before last, when you went to visit that “old friend.”
“Aw, it’s nothing,” you say.
“Come on, Uncle Roddy. Tell me where you got it.” The blankets rustle, and Brandon whispers, “Wanna see my scar?” And he, I am sure, pulls his pajamas up to his knee and shows you the scar on his calf, from when he was three and flew off the merry-go-round at McDonald’s trying to be a superhero.
“OK,” you tell him. “I’ll tell you about my scar. This is the scar I received while fighting the evil Miss Lane.”
“Superman’s girlfriend?” Brandon asks, and you tell him, no, Lois’s distant cousin. “Cool,” he says. “What happened?”
And this is what you tell him: That the reason you have not been around the last six and a half years is because you were on a secret mission for the Royal Hedgehogs. That you had a fake identity (Mr. Matt Adore) and were not allowed any contact with family members, especially promising young nephews, because of the imminent danger it would pose to their lives. But, you assure him, you did manage to sneak back into Hadley a few times to check on him.
“Like when?” he wants to know.
“Like your baptism,” you tell him. “I was the altar boy. And like your fourth birthday party.”
“Who were you then?” he wants to know.
“The clown,” you say, and Brandon pauses, knowing full well that he has never had a clown at any of his birthday parties. And you say, “It wasn’t your birthday party. It would be too easy for them to track me down and kill me there. It was your friend’s birthday party.”
“Miles Atwater had his party at Loco Taco,” Brandon tells you.
And you think a moment and then say, “Yeah, that was it. That’s the one. I was there. I was the clown with the big sombrero. And the mustache.”
“I don’t remember,” Brandon says, disappointed in his substandard ability to recall such crucial bits and pieces of his tiny life.
“I didn’t want you to see me,” you say. “It could have gotten you in trouble.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” he tells you.
Then you tell him that sometimes you leave him Christmas presents, but that you mix them right in with you-know-who’s. You tell him that bike was from you.
When I enter to remind you both that it is way past Brandon’s bedtime, he turns away from me. “Leave us alone, Mommy. We’re talking,” he says, and he looks at you with that same air of smug boy-importance that you used to carry so well. “Mommy,” he tells me, “I heard what you said. Uncle Roddy is not a loser.”
I go to bed thinking, as I step into my pajama pants: Well, that’s OK. Family is family. Brandon needs a male influence. You are my brother, my flesh and blood. A boy should know his uncle.
Remember, after Brandon was born, those first few days when I would hold him tightly with both hands, how he would wriggle his torso and tense the muscles in his face, as if he understood the necessity, the fear behind my white-knuckle grip? Remember how you cupped his bottom in your palm and let his head nestle against your side? You walked through the house like this, holding him one-handed, both of you bare-chested in the heat, Brandon’s feet turned inward, toes tickling each other in a show of unmitigated trust and delight. He would sleep like this, as if in the crook of a tree branch, the bough of a certain nursery rhyme.
I remember what you whispered to me one evening when I was so exhausted I was crying into my shirt sleeve and you, still in your work uniform with oil and transmission fluid on the shoulder, were walking Brandon to sleep. You said: “This is awesome.”
Eventually you became yourself again, became bored, became involved with the woman from the laundromat, the one with all the colored bras and the wristwatch with the face that changed colors depending on her mood. One day the watch turned purple — for “adventuresome, risk-taking, spontaneous” — and off the two of you went. I saw her back at the laundromat a few weeks later, her watch a different color. She told me the last she had seen of you was at a bus stop in Cleveland. She was at once wistful and angry, and I remember touching her shoulder and telling her, “He’s a good person, really. Underneath it all, his heart is the size of a truck.”
I remember going home, picking Brandon up, and trying unsuccessfully to imitate your nonchalant way of carrying him. I remember feeling jealous of you for being good at things you have no need to be good at, for not needing to be good at anything.
He should have the chance to know his uncle, even if his uncle is you.
But I wonder, as I climb into bed, was it really that bad when we didn’t know where you were for months at a time? Because you’d occasionally send those postcards, the free ones from the check-in counters at seaside motels, so we knew you were alive, and maybe that was all we needed.
I sleep fitfully until Brandon climbs into my bed in the morning. On Wednesdays we get up early and make pancakes. He has become quite good with the spatula and at measuring out the milk.
AFTER I GET HOME from work and start dinner, Brandon tells us that he has a special school project, and that the best projects will be displayed on the bulletin board outside Ms. McGinnity’s classroom. As usual, he plans for his to be among them.
“What’s the project?” I ask. I am draining spaghetti, and steam pours up into my face, fogging my glasses.
“To interview the person you admire most,” Brandon says.
“Who will you pick?” I ask, sure that he will choose his grandfather, the war veteran, or maybe his Sunday-school teacher with the prosthetic leg.
“I choose Uncle Roddy,” he says, beaming innocently. “Uncle Roddy fought off the Royal Hedgehogs.”
“No,” you correct him, “I fought for the Royal Hedgehogs. We fought Miss Lane and the Evil Weevils.” You continue tossing pennies into an ashtray.
“Wow,” he says, his eyes like big black olives. “They sound mean.”
“How about Grandpa?” I say. “Why don’t you want to interview Grandpa? He was in the war, you know.”
Brandon shrugs. “So were lots of people.”
He interviews you. He is a serious boy, so he prepares well, with his steno pad and his little green pencil clenched in his hand, bearing down too hard, tearing right through the page as he writes down his questions. He directs you to sit in the recliner. He asks you if you would like a glass of ice water. Then he turns to me and says, “Please go away, Mommy. This is private.”
“Oh,” I say. “Where would you like me to go?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe you could go to your room.”
I decide to make the most of my exile and sort through my clothes. Standing inside my closet, I picture Brandon as all business, perched on the couch with that coffee-table book on JFK serving as his desk.
When I am done sorting, I find my sewing kit and hand-sew buttons on all of the blouses that are missing them. I do this sitting on my bed with the radio on, listening to some conservative talk-show host ramble on about the sorry state of things. Occasionally, from my quarantine, I hear fits of hearty male laughter.
It is like when I was a teenager, hunched over algebra homework at my desk while you and your buddies goofed off down the hall, throwing footballs, smoking cigarettes, swearing, ramming each other into walls.
One of those buddies was Rudy. Remember Rudy, how his cropped hair always stood on end and his shoulder blades protruded from his back? I remember he said to you, about me, “Let me take her out. Let me take her to the movies, or to the field, or to my mother’s basement,” and how giddy he was at the thought of it, and how you said, “No way, no fucking way.” I heard it all from the other side of the wall, and I was so mad at you, because who were you, anyhow? Just my older brother who knew nothing about me.
I went out with Rudy once, to his mother’s basement, where we played ping-pong and drank beer and listened to his father’s old 45s on a red portable record player that had belonged to Rudy when he was a kid. It was covered with cowboy stickers. I walked home around midnight, drunk, grabbing at leaves from the trees. You found out where I had been and you immediately tracked Rudy down and gave him a black eye, which I didn’t understand until later, when I found out how badly he’d treated other girls. You never believed me that all we did was play ping-pong, and your actions came to stand for something in my mind: some connection between us, however fragile.
THIS IS WHAT it is like for a single mother: There are sandwiches to make and baths to give and that lingering question of Will my son need braces, and, if so, how will I pay for them? There are permission slips to sign and laundry and sweeping to do. There are beds to make, and there are the days when I find, tucked into the bottom of the sheets, dirty socks or, once, half a bologna sandwich with the crusts cut off. There are days when I go to work and stand in the lingerie department sorting underwear and wonder if I should just climb aboard the nearest train. And in the middle of all this, the telephone rings, and it is Ms. McGinnity asking me, politely but firmly, to come in for a meeting.
In Ms. McGinnity’s classroom I sit in a diminutive chair with my diminutive parenting skills and face this woman who, with her condescending air, seems old enough to be my mother.
“This,” she says, “is what your son handed in for his interview project.” And she hands me a sheet of wide-ruled paper with my son’s distinctive seven-year-old print. It reads like this:
- How old is Uncle Roddy? 28
- Who does he work for? The royal hedgehogs, a secret people that you can see when you drink. They talk to him through the TV.
- What does Uncle Roddy do? Lies low. Rescues girls in distress. Carries a weapon, the blaster. It is long and thick and top-class and shoots like a gun. Only girls can see it.
- What is the coolest thing he has done? One time he rescued two girls at once.
- Who does he fight? Miss Lane and the evil weevils. They sometimes pretend to be cops. It is hard to tell them apart.
- Where does Uncle Roddy live? With us now because he is on royal hedgehog super long vacation for being a superhero and saving so many girls.
- Why do I admire him? He is a superhero and he still plays with me.
- Will I be like Uncle Roddy someday? Yes, he thinks I have the power to be a royal hedgehog superboy.
“So,” Ms. McGinnity says, “doesn’t it seem rather. . . ?” And instead of finishing her question, she extends her palm toward me.
“Yes,” I say, teeth clenched, anxious to bust out of there and wring your neck. “Yes, it does.”
Ms. McGinnity sees the anger blaze across my face and says, with that exasperating air of condescension, “Ms. Devlin, I don’t think anger is the way to handle this delicate situation.”
“I will handle it in the way I consider best,” I say. My grip on my handbag is fierce.
“I don’t think that’s in Brandon’s best interest,” she says. “Brandon shouldn’t be punished over this. Brandon is a sensitive, inquisitive, intelligent boy. Frankly, I am concerned about his home life, his exposure to such mature information.”
“I am concerned, too,” I say, but Ms. McGinnity doesn’t believe me. And I know how these teachers talk behind the closed door of the teachers’ lounge. And I know how upset Brandon is going to be that his project did not make it onto the bulletin board. I look at this bulletin board on my way out, and there they are, all the people the other children admire most: grandparents, brothers, sisters, fathers, and, yes, even mothers.
When I get home, Brandon is hanging on your back while you run laps around the coffee table. “Down the hall!” he commands, and you carry him down the hall. “In the bathroom!” he yells, and I hear the toilet flush and Brandon exclaim, “Take that, Evil Weevil!” You bound out of the bathroom. “Into the bedroom!” he yells, and, in my bedroom, I hear you climb on my bed and then both of you jumping, the bed creaking and groaning under your weight.
“Get out here now, both of you!” I scream, and it is deafeningly quiet for a moment, but then I hear whispering and giggling. And then you both start jumping again, and I can hear Brandon gasping and wheezing with glee.
“So help me God!” I yell, and finally you both come and stand before me in the kitchen. The entire time I am lecturing Brandon about the appropriate time and place for jumping, you are jabbing him in the ribs.
“And you!” I say to you. “Do you have a brain? Any brain? How old are you?”
Brandon tells me you are twenty-eight.
“No, he’s not,” I say. “He’s thirty-three.”
Brandon looks up at you, questioning, and you lean down and whisper something in his ear, and Brandon nods his head and smiles and says, “Sure, Ma. Thirty-three.”
“ ‘Mommy,’ ” I say. “You call me ‘Mommy.’ Not ‘Ma.’ I do not answer to ‘Ma.’ Not in this house.”
“I’m sorry. Guess what, Mommy?” he says.
And he tells me, his face bright and rosy: “Ms. McGinnity says my project was the best one in the class, but we can’t put it on the bulletin board because we don’t want to rat out Uncle Roddy.”
“Good,” I say, and I place my hand on the top of his head.
And you, standing there with your hands stuffed in the pockets of your jeans, say: “This McGinnity. How old you think she is?”
“Twenty-five,” says Brandon definitively. (In his mind, any adult younger than a grandparent is twenty-five.)
I see the gears clicking in that small skull of yours, thinking of all those women in the world who need saving.
WE MAKE IT THROUGH two days without any major events or trips to the hospital. I am happy about this and still entertain the idea that even if old dogs can’t learn new tricks, they can at least be taught not to chew on shoes or pee on the carpet. Brandon walks with a bounce in his step, as if balance has been restored in the house. I watch him through the kitchen window as he tries to throw a baseball through an old tire, and I smile at the classic gender role you are fulfilling — even if, at the moment, you are in front of the television, where you always seem to be.
Washing his hands at the sink before we eat, Brandon ecstatically tells you about how he went three for eighteen, and you whistle and give him a high-five and tell him how good that is, how you were never that good at his age. I dish out dinner with a smile on my face, and we sit down, the three of us, like family.
And Brandon, with potato puffs loaded on his fork, says, to you and not to me, “Today in the lunch line Arthur puked.” The two of you have a hearty laugh about Arthur’s digestive troubles, and then Brandon turns to me, that grin still plastered across his face, and says, “Hey, Ma, how’s it hanging?”
Would you like to explain to him what it is, in this particular idiom?
“Brandon,” I say, “don’t use that phrase in this house. It is vulgar.” And then I tell him, “You are not — under any circumstances — to become a hoodlum.”
My son asks you, “What’s a hoodlum?” and you tell him it’s a bad character.
Do you remember when we were young and Mom used to set our church clothes out every Saturday night, but somehow one Sunday morning your shoes had disappeared? And how you didn’t have to go to church because Mom wouldn’t let you go shoeless, even though you begged? And then you stood in the living room behind the sheers and poked your tongue out at me as we backed down the driveway in the old station wagon?
For some reason this story is on my mind, so I tell it to you after Brandon has left the table to wash his face and brush his perfect little teeth. (His dentist is awed by his gums.)
“We were some crazy kids,” you say, shaking your head and laughing.
“No,” I say, “you were crazy. I was far from it.” I say this jokingly. At this point, things are still jovial.
“I was fun,” you say. And you’ve got that look on your face. How to describe it? It’s this way you have of jutting out your chin and slanting your eyes and looking down at me. It makes me want to hurl sharp objects at your head.
“Fun has its limits,” I say.
“What’s wrong with putting a little fun into your shitty existence?”
“My existence is not shitty,” I say. “My existence was just fine before you entered it.”
“You should thank me,” you say.
“Your son needs me,” you say.
You lean back on two legs of the chair. I do not tell you that your chair is the one with the split down the middle and could go at any second. I hope that it will.
I tell you: “He has no need for you. In fact, he has negative need for you. He needs you to be far, far away.” And I remind you of the impact you have had thus far on Brandon. My voice is starting to wobble the way it does when I am being confrontational. “You lie to him. You are teaching him to lie, and to be mean and impolite. And even worse, you are perpetuating this awful superhero myth, giving my son the false idea that good always triumphs over evil, and that good comes in the form of men who put on their little tights and keep the world safe at night.”
“What’s wrong with that?” you want to know.
“It is not true. And it makes him take for granted the people in this world who actually do care about him and actually do keep him safe at night.”
“Oh,” you say. “I see. It’s all about you.”
“Fuck you,” I say. “It’s about a seven-year-old boy.”
To which you say: “Exactly. A seven-year-old boy who is able to sleep at night because he believes Superman — yes, Superman — is keeping his world safe.”
“You’re an asshole,” I tell you. “A freeloading loser.”
“Maybe I’ll leave, then,” you say.
I say nothing.
“I don’t see what’s so wrong with having a few laughs,” you say. “Otherwise your son’ll end up just like you.”
And you stand up and slam the chair under the table, and there it goes, cracking into two pieces, split clean down the middle. A piece falls each way. You leave me sitting at the kitchen table amid all the soiled dishes, wondering whether I do need to laugh more.
BRANDON NO LONGER ASKS me for help with his homework. He asks you. (You have not left, as threatened, and I, of course, have not forced you to go.) You are the one who quizzes Brandon on his spelling words and convinces him that the letter q is no longer always followed by u, per order of the president himself. You tell Brandon that a new species of dinosaur was just found in Antarctica, and then, when he points out that Antarctica is frozen, you tell him that Australia and Antarctica have decided to switch names for a while. My son finds you a veritable wealth of information and is surprisingly unconcerned with his abominable progress report in school.
And so here we are: Brandon crying and telling us, between gasps for air, that good ol’ Arthur tied his shoelaces together while Brandon was working on his tissue-paper stained-glass sunset so that when Brandon stood to borrow the paste he pitched forward and knocked his head on his neighbor’s desk. I can feel it there behind his hairline, this egg-sized bump rising from his skull.
“Can’t you get him, Uncle Roddy?” he says to you. “Blast him with your blaster!”
I remind my son that we do not believe in retaliation.
You, though, say to Brandon, “An eye for an eye.” He has no idea what this means, of course, but when you wink, he understands that you are on his side.
“An eye for an eye,” Brandon repeats, a bag of frozen peas dripping water down his forehead while you pull at your upper lip and plot revenge.
THIS IS WHAT I HEAR from Maria Delrosa, the woman who works in shoes: that on Thursday afternoon, two people fitting the description of you and my son egged Arthur’s parents’ house (the house belongs to the parents and not to their seven-year-old son) with two dozen brown eggs bought from Mrs. Lord’s farm over on Route 43.
What you are not prepared for, after you save the world and go back to watching TV, is Brandon the next morning. He climbs off the bus and sees Arthur in the distance and shouts, at full lung capacity, slight asthma and all, “I am a pussy! I am the biggest pussy! Yee-hah! Eye for an eye!”
Unfortunately, Mrs. Woolf, the no-nonsense fifth-grade teacher one year away from retirement, is the bus-line monitor that day. Who would ever imagine that a seven-year-old boy could be suspended for “verbally abusing” himself? But he is, for a day, missing gym and the parachute and weaving on the loom, so that he might “sit home and think about words and their unfortunate misuse.”
I come home from work, and there is Brandon crawling over you, under you, around you, afraid to be apart from you, even at dinner, his pinkie hooked through your belt loop — I saw it, don’t tell me it wasn’t so — so sweet and loving and admiring of you and all you stand for in his seven-year-old mind.
Oh, don’t tell me it wasn’t you, Mr. Superhero, who stole my credit card way back when and gave it to your girlfriend to sign my name and buy those clothes for you, Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren and Air Jordan. I am on to you and all your Robin Hood ways.
Once Brandon is in his room, I ask you to leave.
“What?” you say. “Sis.”
As if this has ever been a relationship in which we use familial nicknames.
“Come on,” you say. “You’re yanking my chain.”
No, I’m not.
You say, “I thought you could count on family.”
I tell you there are limits.
You tell me that there are no limits with family. But that is where you are wrong.
“You cannot sweep in here and train my son in your delinquency boot camp. I do not want him to be like you,” I say.
And at that moment Brandon emerges from the hallway. “I do,” he says. “I do want to be like him. I want to be just like him.”
“Go to bed,” I tell him.
After we have heard his bedroom door softly shut, you say, “You’d just put me out in the street.”
And I nod and say, “Yes,” although, I have to admit, it’s hard.
“Fine,” you say, and that is that. You pack your green duffel bag, the same one you rode into town with, and leave.
I am not worried about you. You know people. There’s a girl around the corner who will happily give you a hickey. I am worried about Brandon, who will wake up in the morning to find you gone.
Of course, I know it is you who steals our garden gnome.
BRANDON WON’T SPEAK to me for days. When he needs something, he leaves a note: “Need $5 for field trip to zoo.” At dinner he sulks, and after dinner he closes his door and hangs up a handmade construction-paper sign that says, LEAVE ME ALONE. I re-enroll him in the after-school enrichment program, where he is welcomed back with open arms, until he throws a fit when he loses a game of checkers to a girl. His teacher wonders what has gotten into him and sends home notes that remark on “the sensitive home issues Brandon is dealing with.”
Finally, I break down and tell him what happened: That the Royal Hedgehogs came calling. That you had to leave for a secret mission, and that our fight was just a front.
He gobbles it up and apologizes. “I’m sorry, Ma,” he says. “I should’ve known.” Then he says, “Someday he’ll be back to get me. Promise you won’t cry when you wake up someday and I am gone.”