Writ on Water

We stop at the corner store while on a neighborhood jaunt, Cayde on his bicycle and Finn pushing against the harnesses of his stroller. I pause every Wednesday to pick up the weeklies, my house never having been without some form of newsprint lying around for the over-fifteen years Jenn and I have lived together.

“Are you in the Reader again, Daddy?” Cayde asks, helmet askew.
“Not this week, Dude.” It doesn’t stop Cayde from announcing to the cashier that ‘My Daddy is the best writer in the world and he’s been in the Reader EIGHT TIMES!’

I shush him. This particular cashier has also heard false claims that I’m the best chef in the world, so why’s she’s charging me for labne and cat food when she should rather be asking for my autograph, I don’t know. She takes my money and the only autograph requested is in the form of a signed receipt. She doesn’t ask to see my Pulitzer or Bocuse d’Or. Good thing: they’re not in my back pocket at the moment. Also, I’m neither of those best things.

We go across the street for a slice at DeLuca’s, and when waiting for a pie, I’m studying Cayde’s hair, which is cut blockier than usual, a wedge above his eyebrows. He’s fiddling with the remote that he charmed off the pizza chef, clicking through the channels on the in-house TV, finding an astronomy documentary while I finger a Peroni.

Cayden’s eight, and he knows I write about him. It was kind, the SD Reader picking up a few pieces the past few weeks. Cayde did the math and calculated how much money I had made; I quickly told him that was hugely unimportant (the amount being insubstantial, for one, and, two: something unnecessary to talk about, money never being the why).

I’m thinking about words. I’m staring at Cayde’s hairs and his brown brown eyes (distracted as they are, cathode-ray aflicker), which have always been his magentism, all this while Finn picks at the mushrooms on his plate declaring ‘Mmm-MMM’ and kicking in his chair, mouth tomato sauce-stained. My brain’s switched on a narrative mode, to translate every moment into words, so that I can figure it all out.

I used to be cynical of authors who, in interviews, would talk about their characters in third-person, who would say: “I didn’t know what X was going to do.” I’d think, “How could you not know? You created X.” But, end all, something happens when you start writing and when you press <publish> or press <period>, sometimes you’re left with some strange cartography you didn’t expect, your brain mapped out on the page for sudden and anthropological study, a hand-lettered thing your hand didn’t know it was doing. Wow–what did I mean there? The words land often, in a reverse Rorschach.

Cayde sometimes curls up with me when I write, with me and the laptop; he’s not an X, but my kid; not a creation but my creation. The words are a way to prolong all this, him and me, to stay the time, and to lend it for study, both now and future.

We say, “It goes by so fast,” and then take pictures to archive all the important and non-important things, the ephemera that makes up the day. Pictures, in the end, don’t do it for me. They’re static and they ultimately make me sad.

Instead: the bones. Write down the bones is common writerly advice. Trace a skeleton, and the flesh goes up fast, and living.

I tell Cayde that I’m not in The Reader this week, and he says, “Awww.” Sometimes I worry what he’ll think when he finally reads everything, when he’ll strip me of my current corner store Pulitzer and put everything up for a recount.

“It’s cool, Cayde. It was nice they published me. I don’t care.”

(I’m not saying, “I don’t care” out of any affected disinterest–that would be disingenuous; and disinterest is usually disingenuous, belonging only and truly to those people that can blithely paint over their masterpieces, else block out the world with aplomb, gripping their preferred pen or paintbrush with a firm and guidant middle-finger.

My “I don’t care” is a particular shrug of the shoulders; I had a three-week run in a good column, the satisfaction, even, of having the editor exclaim my welcome return. I’m proud of it all, sure; when I shush Cayden, though, it’s knowing the words are mine to curate now; it’s a shouting of love letters into the ether, to have the ether respond in turn, until the ether eventually dissipates; and knowing that Cayde will have those love letters, later and crystallized, for his own purpose when I’m satisfied having stopped shouting.

We’ll have all the quiet moments in the later meanwhile, the secure and private history of us, but also the moments I shouted and made my heart and head a public thing, refracted and cartographic, maps he can re-travel when I’m not there anymore. Let that be much later. He’ll understand me eventually, and I’m leaving me him the Hansel trail currently).

He eats his pizza and asks me for the third time if Jupiter’s moon is pronounced ‘Io’ or ‘lo’ because the words look the same depending on typography.

“I-o, Buddy. I-o.” We then discuss how the earth was created from two planets colliding, the moon being a displaced fragment. He goes on to say how there is an ocean on Callisto, this moon of Saturn, but that the ocean is just frozen beneath ice.

“We can maybe live there someday,” he says, polishing off a slice, and I choose to not disagree.

He goes on about water and oceans.

“Maybe, Dude.”

We pack up the to-go box and it was Keats who was buried beneath a headstone saying ‘Here I lie with my name writ on water,’ probably the most impressive epitaph ever carved, ironic too as it was stenciled in stone.

Cayde puts his helmet back on and wobbles up the street on his bike while I have Finn by the hand who pauses in the puddles; he says, “Ah-pu-ta-dah.” It’s a very specific set of utterances,something he aways says and there’s a meaning there which I haven’t yet figured out; I still haven’t figured out what I’m saying for Chrissake, so we’re in mutual befuddlement while Cayde carves the puddles, announcing over his shoulder: “I’ll see you at home, Daddy!” before pedaling up the street and around the corner.

Finn presses a thumb to his forehead, and resolutely says: “Daddy.” He stomps in a puddle, then laughs, before breaking away and running after Cayden, which I allow, watching.

Teen-aged, Pretty

I said I would stop by, though I didn’t think I would, but then I found myself parking the car anyways in front of her house.
There were dried flowers hanging upside-down from the ceiling and a mattress beneath the window curtained from the outside by yellowed bougainvillea sepals. There was a Bjork poster on the back of the door, an antique dresser, sundry silver things and candles, Bouguereau prints: all of it just anthemically pretty and teen-aged and nicely enclaved.
What do you want to listen to?” she asked, this, back then, being the earmark and most important question you could ask. From her CD tower (when that was something you had as bedroom architecture) I chose ‘This Mortal Coil.’
“Good choice,” she said, prim hostess of her bedroom, turning on her heel while administering the disc into a plastic bookcase stereo.
We were friends by nature of a few shared phone calls, the idea that we could ‘maybe hang out’ being that unspecified adolescent thing.
She showed me albums of photographs–all her friends with their wild-colored hair and vintage clothing–the people I wanted to be, but wasn’t.
I left sweaty prints, apparently, on the photograph sleeves because I have hot hands, but she took it to mean I was nervous, which maybe I was. It made her gentle.
I called a song ‘pretty’, and she said boys don’t usually call things ‘pretty’, but she said it smiling, like she had discovered a new species of flower, there hiding in the grass.
Later, she said: “You’re the saddest boy I know,” saying it slow like it was something of a marvel or a revelation, but she kept her smile while we sat across the room from each other, and when I left that day, I knew I’d have to see her again. I really liked her smile.
That was twenty years ago.
I arrived home this evening and the TV was on, but broadcasting to an empty room, all suspect of course. I voiced loudly, “Nobody home, I guess,” while putting down my bags, “Awesome!”
On cue, Cayde rolled out from beneath the couch, and Jenn burst through the bedroom door, arms splayed; Finn followed Jenn’s lead and pounded into the living room with outstretched starfish limbs–Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!–looking to be swept up.
“Surprise!” everyone shouted, and I had a lot of hugs, which is the greatest thing to come home to. Two decades, me and Jenn. My Jenn, my girl, my happiness.

Not New Very Often

I look out through the kitchen window of my parents’ house. The lesser Cuyamacas are newly visible: the massive feldspar and hornblende mountains do an ellipsis into what geologists designate acid igneous; there are free-standing boulders, which for the longest time were just monuments in people’s front yards, else namesakes for local rec: Big Rock Park, etc. They’re now placeholders on the sides of a freeway, which—for a decade and a half at least—existed simply as a dotted line in the Thomas Brothers’ Road Atlas, a freeway proposed but not constructed. In that meantime, you had to imagine the here to there.

It’s the holidays; neither my added stature nor the recently replaced window panels account for the different view. Through the East County skree and over the river with its companion roads, the sluices with their cottonwood and mulefat , mallow and sedge, it used to be the city planners’ prediction that the asphalt would be as it is now, an iron-supported thing, over the riverbed and turning a sigmoid curve past the CostCo and over the unlikely car lot. It’s not all visible from my parents’ window, but some of it is. When I was a kid, this was tomorrow, which is now today. Rattlesnake Mountain used to burn every year and currently it’s prime real estate.

Exactly four cypress were cut down in the Circuits’ backyard. The Circuits live across the street. They still live there, at least Mrs. Does, Mr. having died this past year. He was the Briton with the cable knit and roll-collared cardigan that always walked his dog and had this funny joke: everyone’s sycamore trees should be color-coded so you’re responsible for raking your own damn leaves on the weekend.   He had sinister juniper hedges, which hurt when you fell into them. They were prickly, and games of catch that relied on six-year old accuracy generally resulted in scratched and reddened hands.

Mr. Circuit preferred German Shepard mixes most, I recollect, but he also walked a league of other dogs, a Dalmatian I remember that was trained to sit down at the sight of a car coming up the cul-de-sac. I would pass the dog, seated sentinel-like, and with Mr. Circuit holding a slack leash, this speaking enormously of his kindness and gentle ability; we would exchange nods and I would wave a hand outside the window in acknowledgment.

(Maybe it was the house on the other side of the fence, on Big Rock Road, that had the cypress cut down, maybe it wasn’t –I dunno).

Our kitchen used to be an inexact shade of orange. There was an owl clock on the north wall, and brown and yellow terry curtains. I remember this as I look out the window.

Cayde taps me on the knee, requests: “Daddy: football?”

We have our game of playing catch in the street, me and Cayde, which I think Cayden enjoys in part because we have to pause our game every few minutes to let a random car pass, or that sometimes we have to compete against the streetlights. That’s North Park, though, where we live, more urban than my parents’ drive where a game of catch is less the hazard.

The cul-de-sac where I grew up was lined with sycamores, the traffic limited to the residents pulling into their respective driveways. It remains a private drive, pot-holed and gravelly. Most the trees are inexpertly arbored now, sprouting regardless. ‘Stubborn’ is perhaps the right word, like the squash patch that used to volunteer its late summer existence at the foot of the street where we would halt our bikes in back-wheel skidding fashion, leaving marks on the asphalt. Every year: the anemic squash with its leaves smelling of nightshade, and every year us breaking the fruit with random sticks before the fruit could even ripen–some hymenic trespass–always the splatter of seeds on gravel in front of the picket fence, with our bikes momentarily discarded and us banging sticks as boys, breaking up the fruit in violent oranges and greens, and splitting the gourds bang bang bang.

At the end of the street remains the picketed fence; I remember telephone lines, too, running parallel to the fence in caternary fashion. Birch poles with buzzing and insulated ropes, bevels and cartridge fuses, decorated in pitch, decorated with pigeons, too.

If the telephone lines don’t exist any longer—I can’t recall if they’ve gone underground and the creosote-coated timber cut down—I’m certain the pigeons don’t either.

When changing geography, the difference in bird-life is the surest sign of travel, meadow larks replacing cardinals, east-west, and so on. The difference in bird-life is also the surest sign of time passing: crows over the years supplant pigeons, and there is the push and pull of feathered things replacing each other on the telephone wires, climate in slo-change and niches reassigned.

Cayde lines up on the street and we’ve got a good rhythm going, back and forth, with Cayde admittedly throwing better spirals than me at this point. Behind him is an orange tree that used to be owned by the lady who regularly cut my hair in her garage. The tree and its accordant house have changed hands multiple times and, too often, the oranges lay buried in the grass speeding to rot. The tree is pretty, the house sagging slightly, and Cayde is jumping up and down in the driveway yelling for a ‘Hail Mary!’ because he wants the high-drama catch.

I back up aside the Circuits’ juniper hedge. The hedge, for a long time, was inaccessible what with their son’s rusted mess of a jalopy parked parallel and missing its wheels. I throw a long one, which Cayden catches. He bounds up, breathless, wanting to diagram a new play.

He bends at the waist, hands planted on his knees as if in a huddle. “On this one, I’ll run, Daddy. You be the quarterback and throw it and I’ll catch it while turning half-way around.”

He’s wearing a Star Wars raglan-sleeve but shorts, too—even though it’s cold—and has this idea that his imagined play will be spectacular, one for the books, much more than is actually possible. We’re just playing catch where there used to be cypress and sycamore trees. The gravelly street is much more gravelly now than when I was a kid, cut up with age and with the traffic of a thousand tires having turned into their respective driveways.

But I’m game and he sprints down the street while I do my part and become the quarterback, tapping the ball nervously as if linebackers were advancing. I search downfield while Cayde runs and I point to pretend wide receivers in the imaginary back-section, the end-zone populated only by an orange tree with no uprights to speak of, and I hurl the ball, Cayde laughing and picturing this all differently as he runs headlong down the pitch.

He turns, momentarily, hands up to catch the ball and, as he looks behind him, his ankle turns on the pebbled street; quickly, he is on the ground. The ball lands behind him. The football does its yawing thing before spinning to a slow stop, all this before Cayde can even manage a wail. I run up to meet him doffing my pretend QB jersey and re-shouldering the Daddy jacket instead.

Cayde cries.

Sometimes his tears trigger tiny fibrillations of panic; other times there is instead a spreading sense of calm, like surge water outwardly filling a floodplain, these waters drawn from the wellspring of fatherhood, at origin something aqueous and warm and subterranean, the simple and tributarial fact that I’ll be his dad every day for the rest of his life, and that every day for the rest of his he’ll be my son. When there are tears, Cayde crying, I’m comforted knowing that I’m needed. I may be less than utile someday, but when he cries now and currently, I’m there to take care of him, which is something of a blood oath and the unspoken agreement. It accounts for the particular calm I feel when he cries: there is the particular defibrillation, a cessation of panic, my pulse being normal by virtue of knowing what to do now, in the moment, purposefully forgetting that now will someday end.

“Daddy!” he wails, bleeding, and I pick both Cayde and the football up off the ground, my boy, my boy–I know exactly how to fix this.

Cayde has been hurt often, three broken arms in three successive years, and it used to be that his hurt unleashed a rage in me—that he could be hurt physically, and in radiographic luminance–with his arm bones splintered in two places, bruises fully formed. I would be angry, like the time he fell, unattended down the front steps, and I would and could be angry at the fact of him hurt, maybe angry at my own and still unattended hurt, just angry.

But, with time moved on, and purpled bruises having greened before smoothing into disappearance, it’s not anger anymore when Cayde is hurt.

I drop my voice a register.

“We’ll get you cleaned up, Cayde.”

“I know it hurts. I understand.”

“Walk with me—you’re ok.”

“I got you.”

All these things are as true as the orange tree, as true as the goalposts are not and I walk Cayde up to the front porch where the potted succulents are growing together, up to the front porch where I used to launch downward on my scooter years ago. Cayde’s’s still crying, and my dad is quick to respond at the door, fetching a washcloth while I lead Cayde to the bathroom.

The washcloth is pink, and I’m thinking how to attend to Cayde’s skinned knee, which is asphalt-blackened, and I close the bathroom door because I want this repair to be something between us, as if we were correcting our carefully diagrammed but failed football play.

I sit him down on the toilet seat, and wet the cloth.

Cayde is angry at his skinned knee, all the while blaming the street.

“This street is STUPID!” he yells, because the gravel slipped him up.

“I hate this street!” he sobs as I dab his knee with the pink terry, blackening the cloth but erasing his knee of injury.

“I fell a thousand times on this street, Friend,” I say, “I know it hurts.”

I look above his head at the medicine cabinet and it’s most likely stocked with peroxide, but I choose to spare Cayde the extra tears, wishing instead to instill in him the sudden calm I feel in granting him care.

He repeats his invective about Paseo Bello, this street where I lived a long time: “I hate this street!” he repeats. He’s mad about the gravel that tripped him up.

I explain as diversion: “We live on a different kinduv street, Dude. Remember how it got smoothed out, new asphalt? The steamrollers? We live on a public street, and we get a new street every now and then, right? This is a private street, Dude. Not the same,” I continue, dabbing away the black smudges. “I’ve fallen on this gravel a thousand times,” I repeat. “It hurts. I know.”

“It’s stupid.”

The football is currently inside.

“It’s not stupid, Cayde. It just doesn’t get new very often.”

Cayden wipes his eyes and I apply a bandage to stem the tears.

“Daddy, we just can’t…”

He’s still crying and I can’t stop him.

Mrs. Circuit across the street had geese in the backyard. They were a domestic white with orange bills, ornery. I was scared of them.

“We can’t play here,” Cayde insists, his knee bleeding.

“Sure we can…”

“No we CAN’T,” he insists, pointing to his sticky-blooded knee.

The freeway, a few miles distant, chugs along and—to stop the geese—you cinch their humeri together and hold them at arm’s length, pinning their wings in an upward splay, like arrested flight.

“You’re fine, Cayde,” and he agrees, finally, while I wrap my arms around him in the bathroom, kissing him on the head, with the Band-Aid certain to fall off.

 

Bing Bong

We’re at the San Diego Safari Park today, and there’s a playground south of Condor Ridge and near to the tigers where Cayde insists on having a break from all the walking. Finn is liberated from the stroller while still wearing a knee-length insulated jacket; he’s dancing around encumbered but happy, hands occasionally lost in the sleeves. He finds a corner of the playground where a circle of girls has formed, cousins by the look of it, with one tweeny and pony-tailed ringleader entertaining the lot by singing the ‘Bing Bong’ song from ‘Inside-Out’. They’re all shouting along to the chorus while beneath the playground slide, and it’s charming. There’s maybe ten of them altogether. Finn takes notice and sits down, then sidles up to the outside of the circle by scooting on his backside. Finally, he announces himself by tapping one of the cousins on the shoulder, all the while bouncing in his seat and wielding that big gap-some grin of his. He’s loving the sing-along. He wishes to say hello and join in. The cousin’s maybe seven. She sneers at Finn and recoils–she actually retreats with a look of shock and points. I can’t hear her, but her mouth forms an ‘Eeew.’ She scrambles away, climbing up and over all the other collected girls in a move to get away; Finn just waves. It’s heart-breaking and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone react to Finn this way, adult or child, and though I’ve expected it, been aware of eyes, usually a surmisal of Finn has been met with a smile–sometimes unnecessarily sympathetic, sometimes acknowledging. I scoop up Finn, mostly to save the cousin from further and needless recoil, and the girls continue to sing: “Who’s the best in every way, and wants this song to say…” Finn laughs and echoes the chorus while I carry him away, “Bing Bong!” because he knows the words, too.

Nothing Never Not Happened

“I like it when you park far away, Daddy,” Cayde remarks to which I say, ‘You’re welcome,’ despite it not being my choice. You should see the queue in front of the school come 3:30. I walk the boys to my car; it’s Sherman Heights so there are Victorian houses in varying degrees of upkeep. It’s also cold and Cayde is happy being in short sleeves whereas I do my best fast-walk in multiple layers. I park on 21st, usually, in front of the historic house which features an official sign: HISTORIC SITE.
The sign also features the parenthetical: “(Built in 1887. Nothing happened here)”, which has Cayde questioning:
“What does that mean?”
I explain how it’s a joke while placing Finn in the car–halfway hurling Finn, actually, into the back seat, the back regions of the car something difficult to negotiate–and I say again: “There’s no such thing as ‘nothing happened’, Cayde.”
“OK,” he says, shrugging, not getting it.
“There’s no such thing as nothing happened, Cayde. It’s a joke.”
He doesn’t get it, and I remember when he was three, the same age as Finn, and when every sentence was historical.
“Nothing never not happened, Cayde–you understand?”
“Oh. Yeah.”
The sign sprouts from artificial turf  and a cat by the always closed door has its eyes closed and one ear bent.
Things continue to not not happen.

My Boys

Our house is currently being painted. Before school, Cayde slips out the door, then reappears.

“They’re Argentinian!” he says in a high whisper, almost conspiratorially. He disappears again and soon I hear Cayde’s excited jabbering, and the painters’ bemused response. There are a few deep chuckles; when I go to check in on Cayde, he’s standing with feet planted on the lawn, clutching his backpack straps, recounting yesterday’s conferencia de sciencia, and how there’s a scourge of pez leones—lionfish—in the ocean. Only tiburones can eat them, he explains, and there are fewer sharks in the waters these days.

The painters have their brushes holstered in plastic buckets, smiling.

“He speaks good Spanish,” they say. I don’t want to give Cayde a big head, so I smile, nod, and meet their eyes in response.

Cayde disappears at the Mexican grocer often, then reappears with tortillas in hand. He’s learned that his blonde crown coupled with his adept tongue results in bounty: a free bolillo, pats on the head.

Parent/Teacher conference is delayed a day, the meeting before Cayde’s having gone long and with us having to reschedule. Cayde’s English teacher offers a hug of apology when we do meet, though I warn against it: I reek of penguins. She hugs me anyway—a good and earnest embrace—and remarks that penguin hugs may well be the best. The hug and the fact of her nose ring has her ahead in my book.

During any and all Parent/Teacher conferences, I physically ball up: I lace my ankles tight, I cross my hands in my lap. Much of my upbringing has me wanting to succeed, needing the pat on the head, which is why these meetings necessarily stop me. I want the automatic success for my kid; at the same time, I furiously don’t. Cayde, meanwhile, randoms praise from the fabricante de tortillas, else this morning’s Argentinian painter, and so easily. I know the news from his teacher will most likely be good, but I dislike forums where judgment is du jour and where often I’m suspicious of the judges.

Meaning: all discomfort is mine. Cayde’s coast is clear.

Cayde’s English teacher has two rings on her right hand ring finger: one of copper leaf, and one that looks like white gold. She has on silver nail polish, which bridges the difference, and she smooths out Cayde’s papers and projects purposefully, pointing out the academic things she’s supposed to point out. There’s red ink on the evaluative papers, but she says: ‘That’s just my advice. I tell the kids I’m only giving them advice. Teaching is not correcting.”

Words come up: ‘Seminar’. ‘Smart’. ‘Hasty’. ‘Distracted’. The phrase: ‘I-know-this-already’.

Cayde is very cued in to the fact that I skipped a grade in elementary school; he wants to as well, but his English teacher forces a full stop. “He’s doing everything kids do at the end of the third grade already, but I’m not going to give him an advanced score on his report card—maybe later. I want him to keep performing well at a third grade level. I want him at three, not looking toward four.”

In which case, I want to hug this teacher again.

Cayde talked to the Argentinian painters this morning, then remarked he forgot to ask them their names, something he’s forgotten to do for two weeks. A sign, I worry, that he’s encroaching on over-confidence and missing the point that having smarts is necessary avenue to having heart.

“Hello. How are you?” is the most important sequence of sentences one can utter. Waiting for the response, and patiently, is even more important.

It’s the one most essential lesson I seek to instill in Cayde: make your brain and heart one organ, Kid.

(Yeah—I like that he’s smart. I enjoy that he kicked the first goal of the soccer season, and that he has the best punting ability on the team. I like that he can now stump me at twenty questions; I love that he’s a good big brother…)

Cayde’s Spanish teacher pipes up and shows me his essays. “He does this, he has a voice.” Cayde gets high points for conceptual thinking, low scores for grammar, and I welcome the mixed-bag humility. I love that he misspells things and gets the tenses all wrong. I really want the mistakes.

Spanish teacher: “He’s bilingual, though. He wasn’t deterred by my accent (she’s Puertoriqueno); he gets my jokes.”

Understanding a joke is the highest mark of language apprehension. Taking a joke is not on the same ladder, but still equally—differently—difficult.

Spanish teacher presses her palms to the table, chipped manicure. “I give him a four here.” She points to the report card, and I have to adjust my scratched bifocals, because all my glasses are scratched, and I can only see out of the bottom of my lenses.

She pauses. “He really knows science. And in Spanish! He knows the concept, he explains it to the rest of the class. I’ve worked eight years here. I’ve never given a four.” She brings her voice down: ‘He is such a joy’ she whispers. She taps again on the report card. ‘A four.’

I don’t like numbers. But what the English teacher said erased the arithmetic: “He had problems with his homework, but given guidance, he took advice well.” This is the best thing a parent can hear.

“He knows he can learn by taking advice, and he does.”

I’m relieved. I explain that Cayden is very much me, just blonder and with those better parts of Jenn that lend him temperance.

I confess: ‘knowing it all tempts…’ and my ankles are still crossed in perhaps embarrassment: knowing it all, all these years of knowing it all have proved the exact opposite, the exact opposite of how I’d like to be perceived or accepted.

“It tempts arrogance,” I suggest.

The English teacher says ‘no.’

‘He’s just very excited to be learning, and to know things.’

The Argentinian painter greets me at the door because I have no choice: he’s painting the door. He has a moustache and meaty hands. He sees my guitar in the front room, says: “You play?” I confess: not much anymore. But it’s a great guitar, with a solid mahogany top.

“You like Pink Floyd?”

“Eh.”

“What do you like?”

I’m at a loss and reel off some names; I don’t know what I like anymore. At a certain age, and as I tell Cayde, asking about favorites is a useless exercise: life is too big for favorites.

Finn wanders to the door with a fistful of cereal and says, earnestly: “Ah-po-te-ba.”

The painter smiles, his moustache dividing.

“This guy: he is my friend.” And he gives Finn both a hug and a high-five.

“You–you are my friend, Little Man,” and Finn says his syllables; I have my coffee and the painter-man his brush.

“Your son—he speaks perfect Spanish. And this guy. In my family, a kid—especial. You know? Especial, muy. This guy—he my friend. “

I tell the painter that Finn used to be a secret. I tell him I told my friend Leah about him, and that she looked at me stonily, and said from behind sunglasses: “my nephew has Down Syndrome and he is the light of our family.”

At the Parent/Teacher conference, the Spanish teacher showed me an illustration Cayden had done, and it was a red and orange picture of the sun; the moon was in pencil and very small.

 

“You see? This. He knows perspective. This is why the four.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angle of Louis

In sleep, and with the bed a twist of sheets, with my body longer than hers but while our feet remain touching, my chest meets her shoulder at the angle of Louis, which is where there would be an asterisk if the heart had one, above and to the right, that sternal place where the head is most vulnerable to remove from the body should it be removed, the angle of Louis being the aim of the guillotiner; in sleep, though, where the remove of head from body is the aim of the willfully guillotined, the determined sleeper, the angle is simply where my shoulder rests against hers, borrowing something; our bodies are a fact of the bed, the twisted sheets; also a tomorrow-fact when we will make the bed and separate, just never completely.

On Being Dad

You inherit a fierce type of love when you become a parent, different fierce when you are a dad and there is not the organic love of having tethered your child by an umbilicus, nor having felt your body change while growing a body. Being a dad is being a different type of parent by default.

I pick up my oldest from school on Wednesdays, his Minimum Day, when at one the queue circling his school is doubled-up, parents double-parked in complete disregard of transit laws; everyone is there, stubbornly braked and singly there for their kid, and theirs alone. I’m shy to break the law these days, so I always circle the school, which is perched over downtown and the ocean. Mexico is to the left and the ballpark is in view, occasionally transmitting neon things on the big screen: all this coastal architecture of suspended cranes and high-rises, steel and outdated brick. I always remark the sky—have to—this genetic imperative to see what the sky is offering the pavement on this day, whichever day.

And never mind the change in weather—though I prefer afternoons of high nimbus and when the sky is a Crayola-blue—I look forward to picking up my kid everyday. Especially on Wednesdays when he’s home early and I’m the one to gather him from class. I didn’t grow him, perse, I was not his avenue into this world, but he’s me in part; and more importantly he takes that piece of me and makes it better because he is that kid who’s remarkable, who could’ve invented the rainbow or something and wouldn’t be any less remarkable than he already is.

I see his blond head at the curb, which is the cue for my heart to do it’s jump-thing. It’s the jump-thing every time, because seeing him is recognition and love at once, and there’s that emotional spike, that adrenaline, when chemicals understand they must be employed like fireworks when I rest eyes on him, him my kid.

Tard

The New Guy is not a new guy, in the sense that he’s done this line of work before–raising penguins that is—which is certainly a strange thing for anyone to have on their resume. New Guy has a decade and a half on me, having raised some of the birds I now give geriatric medications to, back when the penguins were in quarantine and freshly arrived from Cape Crozier; before my arrival, even, into the world. NG is cantankerous to a fault, though he also has a penchant for tossing around rattle-throated niceties on the regular.

Me: Thanks for helping me with that.
NG: Hey–anything for a pal. I’d take a bullet in the head for you.

Me: What’s up, friend?
NG: Aloha, mi simpatico!

(Which is the sort of mashed-up patois that makes NG him).

For lunch, he invariably has yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a cigarette.

NG: I’m gonna go smoke in the ‘Sitting Section’ now.

Else,

NG: Well, off to the Leper Colony.

He smokes cheap tobacco while reading the news on his phone. We confer often on Salon.com’s recent offerings, else what is published on The Daily Beast, Slate, Atlantic, Alternet. He eschews social media but is savvy to the left-leaning politico blogs. We both have grey hair and progressive tendencies, why I’m his chosen simpatico. The guy knows his Sanders; he also know his music, and we relate about—maybe—that Kate Bush song which just came on the radio (The ‘Hounds of Love’ being his Desert Island disc), or The Waterboys’ ‘Life of Sundays.’ His ears prick when there are certain mechanical resonations in the building.

“Hear that? That’s the first three notes of ‘Love Cats.’ Y’know: that Cure song.”

The other day, we were leaving work, and he was singing a ‘Jim Carroll Band’ tune, ‘singing’ being the chosen misnomer for reciting tunelessly: “Those were the people who died, died/ Those were the people who died/ All my friends/ They died.’

“Hey! I love Jim Carroll” I say, punching him on the shoulder. “Didja ever see ‘Basketball Diaries’?

NG was shouldering a khaki backpack and holding an almost pitiable cupcake in his hands. He was off to see his new friend, this elderly woman who, by his definition, walks around like a ‘fucking upside-down ‘J’. He had found her toppled over on the street the other week, walker awry, and with a goose egg forming on her head.
NG: “She was on the sidewalk and everyone was gathered round not doing a goddamn thing. She was saying, ‘Help me up’ so I just helped her up.” NG shrugs at this point in the narrative.

He helped her up, and drove her to the nursing home down the block where, by her estimation, the people running the joint are assholes—them and her goddamn son. No one allows her to smoke despite her at least seven and fiercely independent decades on the planet. Her husband’s already in ashes—why not allow her to ash on these latter and last days, when she’s in a neck brace after back surgery and also a bump-headed curiosity on the sidewalk.

New Guy and her have a pact and sneak smokes in the stairwell. She doesn’t talk much, by his report. But he brings her chocolate and cigarettes, and much-needed company, certainly.

“I liked Basketball Diaries. Think I read the book, too.”

I’m usually the guy who champions the book over the movie, but I admit to not reading the novel; me and NG chat about DeCaprio films and how I prefer his earlier work.

I dunno,” NG drawls, “I’ve never been disappointed too much by recent.”

“Loved Basketball Diaries, and the one where he’s Rimbaud. He grew a jaw, and then I didn’t like his films so much.”

He interjects: “Oh-but then there was that Gilbert Grape crap.”

“I love Gilbert Grape! He was great in that!”

And NG is holding that cupcake and poised to exit work, and I like leaving work with him so we can exchange parting remarks about the RNC and bitch about the middling mammal that is Trump’s hair, as well the lower-echelon crustacean which certainly owns Trump’s brain-stem. We have this thing.

NG owns a truck with Hawaii plates, windows always cranked open to air out the upholstery, I suppose; and before walking out to our respective cars, he voices:

“Gilbert Grape. Proof that any actor can play a ‘TARD.”

A co-worker in the room cackled immediately. “Right?” she encouraged. “So true!”

I considered bristling.

The night before, and in company of a family who also parent a child with Down Syndrome, we discussed the ‘R’ word.

“I can handle ‘retarded,’ was the shrug, ‘Just not retard.’ There being a difference between a watered-down adjective and the direct epithet.

I used to do a great Corky impression years ago. A party trick, when ‘Life Goes On’ was on TV. I would say, smirkedly, after rolling out full-Corky: “I’m going to be cursed with a Down’s kid,” never realizing how awful I was with such tongue-rooted insensitivity, my failed language, the fact that I would have a child with Down Syndrome, and that it would ultimately be so much more a blessing than a curse. I was foolish.

I was a dick.

(Me and the New Guy have grey hair. We are old, him more than me).

‘Tard,” he said. I didn’t correct him, or my co-worker exactly. I’m only corrected by virtue of my own situation, and what I’ve learned in first-person. The words bother me, but I can’t legitimately re-shape anyone else’s lips.

I said: “Please mind my Son.” The only thing I could say. It was not a reprimand, but NG ceased talking, and the laughing stopped.

Me and the NG walked out together and he was still holding the cupcake for his new friend, the broken lady; we were still simpatico. He confessed he was socially retarded. I was convinced he was correct—I didn’t like how he said it at all–but let it be and patted his shoulder good-bye while he left to go give an old lady a pastry while I left to pick up my kid, there ultimately being some kinduv kindness.

Afraid of the Ball

On the sidelines today, I experienced a different brand of dad. The guy next to me sported an American jawline and was outfitted in a Team USA soccer jersey. Something about him suggested an internal combustion engine—pistons pumping, sparks firing—but he was less than motive. Instead, he was heated metal in some slow expansive burn.
It was no coincidence that while watching USA Dad, and when remarking the fast outstanding veins in his neck, I randomed thoughts about acute geologic pressure.
The guy’s jaw was tightly clenched, molars against molars. Alchemy rarely works, in which case his compressed back-tooth fillings didn’t eventuate a diamond: pressure can only do so much. I’m guessing, though, he—at the very least–manifested a tension headache while watching his son slack in the backfield.
His wife, down the fence-line, occasionally offered a placative: “It’s ok, Honey–he probably doesn’t hear you. At least they’re having fun.” There was a question mark in her voice.
Our kids and their kids were both doing really well on the field on this bright and sunny October morning; it was a tight match. Cayde didn’t have a goal to brag of, but had scored some good defensive plays. When in doubt, kick it out. Clenched-jaw dad would occasionally pull out his iPhone to take pictures as the kids scrimmaged. It’s what parents do on a bright and sunny October morning, and when their kids are playing soccer and when the throng of parents cares more about available shade than who’s up by what amount. We take pictures, memorialize the sun, and snap shots of little legs in motion.
When USA guy’s kid was rotated out and took a water break, his dad offered him a seat in much the same way an interrogator would offer a perp a hard-backed chair. I learned American dad had actually been shooting video.
“Look at this, Brian: that’s the ball and ten other kids. Where are you?” He was showing the highlight reel to his kid, waving the iPhone in a vaguely menacing fashion. “You’ve got to be faster–lookit the other team.” Mom came over, I thought to save the poor brow-beaten kid (Dad was on his second reel). But she joined in: bad cop and less bad cop. “Sweetie–you’ve got to run faster. Don’t be afraid of the ball.”
“But the ball’s so fast,” Brian said, dropping his head. At which point, American dad berated him with two more highlight reels.
The game was really good. It was the proudest I’ve been of the kids. 4-3 was the final score and we were all excited, stoked in part by the caffeine that was necessary to fuel an 8 a.m. game, but mostly by the kids’ performance because they were so on point.
Immediately after the game, Cayde and I piled into the Beetle to get down to Liberty Station–a place which remains a blind spot for me in my otherwise highway map of a brain—but we made it to the green space next to the water, the site of this year’s Down Syndrome Awareness Buddy Walk.
We arrived in time and we were fresh off victory; a ‘second-line’ style New Orleans brass band began joyous trumpet as we joined the DS Awareness march–the parade that is the focus of the annual event. Some of my best friends were there, Jenn was wagoning Finn and his new buddy Logan around and–with the planes from Lindbergh following the windsock’s whim and launching slightly to the north today through autumn light and blue skies, it was a fantastic afternoon. Everything about the Buddy Walk is positive. When the trombones quiet, the adults get to talk. The conversations run a full gamut. Finn dances. We don’t reveal to each other that we’re crying behind sunglasses. We hug.
The event last year was intimidating to us, this year joyous. I should’ve taken a video with my phone, and showed everyone the highlight reels. I, for one, am not afraid of the ball anymore.
Luck to Brian.