In Which We See More Than One Side To This Story

His Trip To Greece

by WENDY ARAND

He is loudly asking a baby, Where do I know you from? and I am picking grass from green and throwing it in the air, like nothing is going on. I suppose I am trying to ignore all of the yelling at the baby, much as the mother of the baby is doing. He has looked at a lot of flashcards, pictures of cars, dinosaurs, closets.

Though I know that babies look alike, I’m not insane, and don’t know why he’s screaming at this baby. Come on, I say, let’s go. He’s playing on the swings, swinging higher and higher. I sit down on a bench and read The Diary of Anne Frank. I am just to the part where she’s almost getting caught, later I will learn there’s plenty of such parts.

I cannot tell if he can hear me as I write this, and try to tell what happened; a small fly buzzes past my ear, and reminds me he cannot hear loud, distinct sounds, because I was ill during pregnancy. For now, I think of the time when he was just a baby. I was bottle feeding him in a eerily similar-looking park, and he was refusing to cooperate. That was then, the birds were out, pecking and bobbing around for seeds, seeds, seeds.

A crowd of children tosses triscuits into the catfish pond.

I think he is among them; the white mixing with orange, his color. It is twenty seconds before I realize what I mean. The space of twenty seconds holds an Indian woman selling arm-bands for charity while I take a can of vegetable soup from a nearby box, for it is best to steal from those with very little, because then they miss it.

by pete max again
paintings by Peter Max

He is dancing in front of paintings that tilt to the sky. I squeeze my eyes together. Cubist frames, another movement. And as everything appears to be slowly accumulating into a finite collection of people and moments that could wash clean if it could stop raining, snow would be fine instead, he punches me in the elbow. Why didn’t you name me Tyson, Mom, he is saying, I am wondering if I am also beginning to suffer from hearing loss. I give him The Diary of Anne Frank to read.  It is his second book of that length and he finishes it that night, under the covers, by flashlight, as I see the light through the door of his room, which used to be a closet.

Do you want to hear a story about grandma? I say. We, my mother, blond-tressed and conclusive, and I, seated on a stone couch in a graveyard, wait for the sun to come up, so that the flowers can be laid down. My brother Nic is telling us about his trip to Greece. I say to my mother, we should have brought sandwiches. She doesn’t respond, though a sandwich might reduce the gloom of us going to my father’s grave on an annual basis.

I was alive for my father’s funeral. I was seven, and didn’t have a baby then, and my baby wasn’t screaming at a baby in a park built by Poles. Witlessly, this has become another story about my mother. At the funeral, with all its dirges and strange potato chips set out in bowls by Nic and my mother, as if there was anything at all in that. The arrangements were generous, I thought of nice moments I’d had with him, my father, whose name was also Nic. An earring pierced through cartilage, a way of saying ‘hey’ and leaving it at that, and a wide open mouth like my son’s, who conveniently says, can I bounce on that moonwalk?

Bright waded sun. Though there is a little sign that dissuades someone of his height from bouncing too high and also at all, I tell the man running it, it’s OK. I’m a child psychologist. He needs to learn to fly so he can learn how to walk. The authority is understood. Learning, learning. He bounces, up on the waxen moonwalk. A geriatric patient wanders up and sees him bouncing.  Something gives then, my son bounces off and hits his head on something hard. He is bleeding, and the geriatric patient has noticed. A bruise, he said, as I rushed to aid. I pick him up and dust him off.

How’s your head, I say, he doesn’t say anything, the child discovering he is not an adult. I write this down.

The geriatric patient, he himself perhaps a nameless veteran, if not of war, then of other complicated things. Nothing a band-aid won’t fix, the geriatric patient says. My son starts lightly punching the geriatric patient in the ribs. The security guard holds him back, then, later, in the paneled office, gives him a band-aid.

At home we talk about anger.

In the park on the following Saturday, shaggy ladies walk miniature dogs, he says, you could step on those dogs and probably snap spines, and with my eyes I see tantrums for which I will have no antidote. It seems he is not that old after all.  I wonder if I am raising the Fourth Reich, and, of course, I wonder about the father specifically, and what genetic role he might have played, because I don’t know who he is. I am not looking for the father, though I know many who are. I have to cope with the son.

In the park, artists sketch portraits of what the next Saturday will be like. Now he is reading and trying to summarize chapter twelve of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It’s important, I told him, to be able to summarize it all succinctly, even though I’m glad he’s reading the book when he’s unable to fully understand it, like my mother giving me Schindler’s List as a birthday present.

Still on that day we eat strategically, and feed the rest to the grass. The chapter is called “Transformer.” I ask him to read his favorite part to me. He says, Boom!  Boom! The boy dreams of destroying the world. You know? he says. You bet, I say.

peter max within without

At the same time next afternoon, I am flipping through the summer camp section of the Times. This one looks nice, I say, and peaceful. It is somewhere in Maine on a river. There is, presumably, a girl’s camp across the lake and dances. But he doesn’t have that preconception. It’s something that’s been in my head, but not in his. Not like in Heart of Darkness (which he reads at eight), when Conrad said that our minds are capable of anything because everything is in the mind, all the past as well as all the future.

He wanders off, around, maybe to the swings. I try and think of things for him to read that will make him realize he is only one element in a world of too many, but I can’t think of a book that isn’t either about him — the male psyche, or the end of the world, neither of which I think he needs to learn anything about. I go down to the bookstore which is about a block away, and come back with a calculus textbook.

I find him sifting through a sandbox with children much younger than him. He is removed from the scene, and his glassy eyes and ghostlike face tell me he’s not there at all. He has no presence, he’s not individuated, and he doesn’t know how to type.

You don’t know how to type, I say, so we go home and I teach him on my old typewriter, because his fingers, greasy with onions and bartering, would harm my computer. He spends most of the time in his room but in two weeks he has learned the name of every U.S. congressman. So who’s the surgeon general? I ask. He turns, his back, on me.

I take him to the market that’s one exit off the dirt highway, sweeten his voice with the Italian men my father always seemed to be around, worried he will catch colds, rocking back in birthday chairs. My hip is not faring well this year, and I was in the hospital at odd times, for days. Unable to sleep on my side, I spent nights without rest trying to get the slightest hint of how he will treat women.

With a fortnight of bartending courses under my belt, I give him a polo shirt for warmth and tell him I decided we’re leaving tomorrow, for the day. The country air feels better, he tells me, and the rented car seats, new with leather, are good for him as well. He is not, I hope, thinking anything, anything about the end of the world, anything bad about me. It’s crushing, sure, I sleep with it when I can, but during no other important time is it so close to me. Waking up in a bread and breakfast, I watch him sleep. Though television has ruined a variety of child-related moments for me, his breath echoes mine, though he is in a dream life and I am awake.

As that distinction blurs, he stirs, still capable of bundling, and crawls onto me. I ask him, how was your dream? He tells me that he feels the books he’s reading are influencing his dreams. I know, I say. I say I know. And years pass.

I tell him about Borges’ nightmares in which, each dire sleep, he found himself in a labyrinth. Then I’m glad I wasn’t in something I couldn’t get out of, he says.  I pass him a Times crossword puzzle I can’t finish, I pick up a toothbrush, I’ve no intention of brushing my teeth, I grit my eyes together and pound my head against the wall. Is everything all right? he asks.

I don’t hear him. I don’t hear a thing. Within my head, the words merge together. So wise, they say. For christ’s sake, if nothing else, he’s wise.

Wendy Arand is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin.

Paintings by Peter Max.

“Cry Baby” – Cage the Elephant (mp3)

“How Are You True” – Cage the Elephant (mp3)

cage-the-elephant-matt-schultz-2-lollapalooza-2014-by-joshua-mellin

 

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