Fiction -- July 1997
with the idea that children should be forced to negotiate
the rituals and prohibitions of sexuality, to enter into
the sexual politics of adults"
by Mark Walters
ANNAH has an imaginary playmate. His name is Ryan Ray. I am first made aware of him one Sunday afternoon as I prepare to mow the lawn. I gird up my loins for it--snap into place my allergy mask, pull my ball cap down low and tight on my head, hoist and hitch up my gym shorts and argyle socks. As I do this--brace myself--Hannah bursts out the back door and shouts at the swing set, "Ryan Ray! You get off that right now!" and then stands with her fists on her hips, her jaw pushed forward, glaring at a swing that as near as I can tell is empty, dangling and swaying loosely in the light wind.
I feel something cold arc through my chest, and believe for an instant that my daughter has lost her mind. "Hannah!" I shout--a familiar voice, a line with which to pull her back to this world. "Hannah! What are you doing?"
She turns to face me and raises her hands, pink palms forward, signaling that all is well. "It's okay, Daddy," she says. "He's off." And then she smiles sweetly, takes two rabbit hops forward and one back, and runs into the house again.
I start the mower and lurch across the lawn, my face tucked in to avoid the dust, my upper body vibrating as if I had hold of a jackhammer, and I see Hannah as she was, standing on the patio and shouting at air. Surely Greta's family is to blame for this--that collection of crackpots and loons, their strangely coded DNA seeping into the gene pool, manifesting itself in the fifth year of our daughter, prompting her to see rascals on empty swings.
We once went to a dinner party given by an acquaintance at the small Missouri college where I teach literature. The invitation came from a gaunt, hook-nosed man in the biology department, whose office was across from mine and whom I could hear breathing noisily throughout the day as he labored over his lecture notes. "Shoe!" he had shouted one Friday afternoon, from out of the blue, from across the hall, not bothering even to rise from his desk or show his face. "You and the missus come to our house tomorrow at seven." And so we did; and there we met a woman who was terrified of creating strange children.
She sat at one end of the table, next to her fidgeting husband, and confessed to us, complete strangers, and to three other couples of varying familiarity, that she feared pregnancy. "Really," she said, leaning forward, enlarging her eyes as if startled at the revelation, "how do you know that the kid isn't going to grow up to be an ax murderer or something? I mean, what guarantees are there?"
After chuckling in what Greta later told me was an unbelievably condescending manner, I began to explain the predicament of Raskolnikov, but abandoned the allusion after noticing the dull faces of my dinner companions and the hot glare of my wife. "I don't know," I said finally. "I suppose there aren't any guarantees. It's not as if they're returnable."
The woman smacked her lips tartly and shook her head. "You don't understand," she said. "How can you be sure that some crazy trait from somewhere in your family won't be passed along to your child?"
The table, of course, fell silent, everyone surely trying to imagine what sort of lunatics lurked in this couple's past. The husband reddened and lifted his eyes from his plate only once, briefly--an anxious, moist glance at the rest of us, an act of such self-consciousness that I blushed and looked away.
I wrestle the lawn mower around the posts of the swing set, trying to circle tightly and cut my weed-whip time. Clumps of grass trail from the mower's filled bag, beneath the dangling swings, upon one of which may be a phantom boy scooping his gossamer legs to his chest, cursing me and my commotion, waiting to lead my daughter to other worlds.
I release the throttle and the mower bucks to a stop. My eyes are beginning to itch, and I feel a thin scratching at the back of my throat. The wind picks up, pressing its bullying heat upon me as I tilt the bag into a recyclable sack, swirling the cut grass and dust until I have to step away, lift my mask, and sneeze violently. I turn to see Hannah, her face bobbing like a pale balloon behind the porch glass, laughing uproariously. A lover of physical comedy, she has given up Barney for Chaplin and the Three Stooges; she delights in gouged eyes and pratfalls.
This past autumn she went trick-or-treating dressed as the Little Tramp, in a baggy black suit, an undersized bowler, and a twitchy moustache. She waddled, feet splayed, cane twirling, along the sidewalks in our neighborhood, thwarting monsters with comic violence. At one treacherous corner, from behind a dark elm a boy in a hockey mask leaped, waving a rubber ax and contorting his body grotesquely, threateningly. Before I could step between them to protect her, Hannah cracked him across the head with her cane, whereupon he dropped his ax and ran jaggedly for home.
"Why do you let her watch that stuff?" Greta asked later, as we sat in the living room reading the newspaper. Hannah was in bed, still trembling, no doubt, from bite-size Baby Ruths and Gummy Bears--the sugary spoils of conflict.
"What do you mean?" I said. "Chaplin was a genius. She's just cultivating a taste for classic physical comedy."
"It seems to me that she's cultivating a taste for violence."
"Are you kidding me?" I leaned forward and rustled and snapped the sports section in a display of pique. "Would you rather she had shrieked and fainted? You're the last person I dreamed would buy into that horror-film cliché, that brand of misogyny."
Greta rolled her eyes. "This wasn't a B-movie scene, Joe. This was real life, and she actually struck a kid over the head. And I tell you what: I'm going to be angry if either you or she laughed about it."
"Of course we didn't," I said, snorting resentfully, but I felt a damp tangle of uncertainty in my chest. Had I actually guffawed as Hannah smacked her cane across the boy's startled head? Had we, father and daughter, then stood snickering in the moonlight as he reeled up the street toward home? "Of course not," I said. "But even if we had, I'm not sure I'd apologize for it. Our culture has made female victimization the stuff of comedy for years. I'd think you would appreciate women's appropriation of aggressive humor--it's Thelma and Louise, La Femme Nikita."
"Great role models," Greta said. "Lovely women."
But I could see that the conversation had taken an odd turn, had progressed in such a way that Greta now found herself on the opposite end of the court from where she usually played, awkwardly having to question the subversion of gender roles, the physical assertion of women.
"Hannah's four years old," I said. "How was she to know that ax wasn't real? I'd think any reflex of self-defense should be encouraged."
"That's such crap, Joe," Greta said, standing now, attempting, I imagined, to gain authority. "Just last week you were arguing that urban violence"--and here she lowered her voice, set her jaw forward, spoke in a nasal, pompous tone that was meant to parody mine--"codes of reciprocal violence,' could be broken only if someone had the perspective to walk away, to not respond. Now you're saying that we should encourage our daughter to bash heads?"
"Of course not," I said, now standing too, secretly pleased that Greta had actually been paying attention to my spiel the week before. "But offing someone for scuffing your Nikes is different from defending yourself from physical attack."
"But she wasn't being attacked! This is Halloween! The neighborhood is filled with costumed kids trying to be scary."
"Aha!" I shouted, and Greta shushed me and glared and pointed at the ceiling, to Hannah's upstairs bedroom. I ducked my head, a gesture of contrition, and repeated, softly, "Aha. Just a minute ago you were saying that this was 'real life,' not a B-movie scene."
"Exactly," Greta said. "And so Hannah needs to be able to distinguish between an actual and an imagined threat, because her hitting someone over the head has real consequences--that's real life."
For an instant I felt muddled, confused, in danger of losing the point before this subtle equivocation. "Well," I said cautiously, "that's asking a lot from a four-year-old. We don't even expect that sort of discrimination from cops confronted by toy guns."
"Well, maybe we should," she said, and turned and walked toward the kitchen.
I stood there gnashing my teeth, feeling cheated. Greta should have been pleased that Hannah had taken a cane to a monster's head. This, after all, was the same woman who, upon hearing that an Ecuadorian hairdresser had lopped off the penis of her abusive husband, simply raised her eyebrows and nodded.
One of my students once told me that the older his parents grew, the more like themselves they became, and I thought at the time that that was as precise an observation on aging as I had come across: eventually we become caricatures of ourselves--our ears and noses enlarging, our fears and biases assuming grotesque, exaggerated proportions, our quirks becoming habitual, predictable, farcical. But Greta was moving in the opposite direction, becoming less like herself, and I was still stumbling after her, trying to figure out just who she was.
I once lay in bed and watched her as she slept, her mouth slack and pale on the pillow; her eyelids blue-veined, translucent, puffy from slumber; an astonishing growth of blonde down on her cheek and jawline. I marveled at the idea that she was mine, my woman, my wife, the mother of my child, that we lived together but that essentially I didn't know her--I had just come upon her, a stranger, and had taken her home, so to speak, and here she was in my bed, alive and inscrutable. I felt a vague sense of the kind of terror one might feel if he were suddenly to discover that he had been living for years with an undomesticated and dangerous animal.
As I wheel the mower around and begin my descent from the hill, I see Greta standing on the patio, waving. She has a bit of a scowl on her face, and I feel a sudden wash of anxiety. I try to recall if I've committed a crime recently. I am struck by the audacity of men who keep mistresses or steal inheritances and continue living with their wives, unaffected, going through the motions of marriage as if blameless. I kill the engine and walk toward her, pulling down my mask and pushing back my ball cap.
Greta invites me to sit on one of the patio chairs. She drags and scrapes hers over to me, so that when she sits, our knees are touching.
"I've just had a conversation with Hannah," she says. "A boy in her preschool class wants, she says, to 'sax' her."
For an odd instant I think of Bill Clinton, in coat and tie and sunglasses, blowing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. "What?" I ask, though I know exactly where she's going with this.
"There's this boy, Freddie McGuirk, and he's been trying to hug Hannah on the playground. During nap time he'll reach over and touch her and say that he wants to 'sax' her."
"Where does he touch her?" I ask, leaning forward.
Greta nods. "Just on the arm. But she's pretty upset by it. She wanted to know what 'sax' means."
I feel a clutching at my heart. I want to hunt down this Freddie McGuirk and his father, who, I imagine, is a fat, beer-drunk auto worker. He'll wobble to his front door wearing a T-shirt that rides up on his white gut, holding a can of Old Milwaukee in his greasy hand, and Freddie will be standing behind him, peering up at me with his filthy street urchin's face. "Are you Mr. McGuirk?" I'll ask, clenching my teeth, balling my fist at my side. And in the instant he nods, I'll club him with a left hook. As he crumples, I'll lift Freddie by the throat and say, "Look, you little son of a bitch, if you ever touch or speak to my daughter again, I'll break your stinking little neck."
"I've made an appointment to see Rachel tomorrow afternoon at four," Greta says. Rachel is the director of the pre-school, a tall blonde woman in on whom I once walked as she sat on the toilet--her blue panties coiled about her knees, her legs long and remarkably tan--while I was wandering the hallways, looking at crayon drawings and waiting for Hannah to find her backpack. "Oh, God, I'm sorry," I cried, slamming the door shut and standing on the other side, weak with surprise. "That's okay," she shouted. "We take the locks off all the doors, though we try to teach the children to knock before they open one." "Of course," I said, and crept away, crouching a bit beneath the weight of her rebuke.
"Can you be there?" Greta asks.
"Of course," I say.
"Good. Rachel's going to invite the McGuirks, too. We need to take care of this."
We sit there, our knees touching, looking at each other. "What did you tell Hannah?"
Greta sighs. "I tried to distinguish good touching from bad touching," she says, narrowing her eyes in recollection. "I asked her how she felt when her friend Mason hugged her, and she said 'Happy,' and how she felt when Freddie McGuirk hugged her, and she said 'Yucky.' I told her that she never had to let anyone hug her or touch her who made her feel that way, yucky; that her body was hers and that certain parts of her body"--and here Greta, with childlike intensity, points to her own--"like her breasts and her genitals, are especially private."
She sighs again and shifts around in her chair. "And then I thought, Oh, Christ, I'm going to make her afraid of the doctor or ultimately frigid or something, so I told her that sometimes she might have to be touched there--by Dr. Marks, for instance--to see if she's healthy and all, but that she should always tell us if anyone touches her and makes her feel funny or uncomfortable. I told her that someday, when she's much, much older, she might be in hove and want someone to touch her to give her pleasure, because the body is a wonderful thing, but is only shared willingly, with permission. And that is what sex is, but the yucky feeling isn't sex at all--it's violence or meanness or something." Greta reaches up and covers her face with her hands. "Oh, God. I don't know what I said. I've probably screwed her up for life."
I touch her shoulder. "No, hey, no," I say. "That was perfect. It was great, really."
Greta drops her hands and stands abruptly. "I'm going inside. You can finish mowing." And she turns, pushes and scrapes her chair back into place, and walks to the patio door.
"Hey, Greta," I call, and she turns to face me. I hesitate, wanting to say the right thing. "You know, she's lucky to have a mother like you." For an instant Greta's eyes seem to blur, and then she gives me the finger and tells me, not unkindly, to get back to work.
While I'm mowing again, stumbling back and forth across the lawn, I recall that just a few months earlier Hannah came home from preschool smelling of the outdoors, of playground dust and wind, flushed and jumpy with excitement because they were learning "Spanish" in her class. She demonstrated--held her hands carefully before her chest and manipulated her fingers--and I laughed and said, "Signing. You're learning to sign." And she looked at me as if I might be trying to confuse her, and cautiously nodded her head and said, "Uh-huh," and continued working her fingers, an expression of deliberate modesty on her face. I think about this and find myself breathing quickly, shallowly. I have to stop the mower and stand there, absurdly, in the middle of our tidy back yard, panting as if I were about to die.
That night I rise from bed three times to make my way to the kitchen, where I sloppily drink cold tap water, trying to quench a thirst that hangs stubbornly in the back of my throat. Each time, as I retreat, I am momentarily touched by an odd, dreamy sense of well-being, as if I had been returned to childhood and, creeping the darkened hall from the bathroom, could hear my father's rhythmic snores in the distance. I recall the limey scent of his skin, his hairy, muscled arms lax against the sheets, his body curved toward my mother--a stay against night terrors. I feel this each time and then am struck with the realization that he does not live here, that I am the father, the protector. I am vaguely frightened as I crawl into bed again, lie on my back and feel my weight sagging into the mattress, recollect my graying temples, my aging body, within which on such nights I attempt to still the panicked rushing of my childish blood.
"Hi, Professor Shoe!" she calls, waving and walking toward me. Behind her I see Hannah's blonde head rise suddenly from a pack of playmates and search the air for my presence, a cub sniffing the wind. When she sees me, she shouts "Daddy!" and charges past Jennifer to meet me at the gate. After a cheerful collision she abruptly turns serious.
"Come see what we found," she says, her lower lip thrust forward dolefully.
But Jennifer is before us now, and so I stand. "I will, sweetheart. Just a minute."
"Hi," Jennifer says, adjusting her sunglasses, crinkling her nose. "How are you doing?"
"Just fine, thanks, Jennifer. How are you?"
"Fine," she says, nodding. A hot-pink fever blister is budding on the corner of her mouth. "Just fine."
Hannah is following the exchange, holding my hand, her face tipped upward and one eye squinting into the sun.
"The kids found a dead bird," Jennifer says. "They're going to give it a funeral. Right, Hannah?"
"Really?" I say, but I am watching the rushing boys, particularly one who seems to be the leader. He is scuffed and aggressive, wears a red crewcut, and bullies the other boys with his elbows. "Who's that?" I ask casually. I imagine him at nap time, running his scaly hand up my daughter's leg. "The one with the red hair and the Ninja Turtle T-shirt."
"Perry Gee," Jennifer says.
My heart dips in disappointment, but I continue asking names until ultimately, because I'm having no luck and the game is growing tiresome, I ask which boy is Ryan Ray.
At this Jennifer peers over the top of her sunglasses at the children, frowning, repeating the name silently, and Hannah relaxes her hold on my hand. She looks at the children too, but vaguely, nibbling on her lower lip. Then I realize my mistake, and I scoop Hannah up into my arms, holding her as if she might be snatched from me on the heels of this betrayal.
"Sorry. Never mind," I say. "I was thinking of a boy in our neighborhood."
Jennifer nods and licks her fever blister distractedly. Hannah leans into me and whispers in my ear, "Come see what we found." And I go happily, as light as the newly forgiven.
At four o'clock Greta arrives, stern and striking in her black business suit, and she and I walk to the main building. Its cavernous interior is cool and smells of construction paper and paste. We click along the hallway to Rachel's office, my stomach doing slow revolutions and feeding a thickness in my throat. Rachel meets us at the door and invites us in. A rumpled-looking couple is already present, sitting on a vinyl couch and whispering conspiratorially.
"Joe and Greta Shoe, this is Gene and Linda McGuirk," Rachel announces, gesturing gracefully, first to us and then to the McGuirks, who rise hurriedly, knocking into each other, bobbing their heads and smiling and extending their hands. He is a short, ruddy, walleyed man with an unfortunate moustache and a pinkie ring. For an instant I am bolstered by the thought that if it came to it, I could beat him in a fistfight. She is taller than he by half a foot, but thin and pale and trying self-consciously to smile without revealing a pair of coffee-stained buck teeth.
"Hi, nice to meet you," we say to each other, everyone shaking hands clumsily. I resist the urge to turn at last to Greta and shake her hand too, do a shtick, vent the fear and violence in my heart.
"Please, everyone, have a seat," Rachel says. She will be the moderator, the voice of reason.
I sit in a fat upholstered chair whose seat cushion collapses at the rear, so that I am pinched, knees high, childish in the company of adults. While Rachel speaks, I stealthily wrestle my way forward until I'm on the chair's edge, magically dignified again.
"Now, we're here today because we're all concerned about some interaction taking place between Hannah and Freddie."
The McGuirks nod emphatically, ready to confess sin. Greta sits with her chin propped elegantly in her hand, staring at Rachel, unblinking.
"As you all know," Rachel continues, "Freddie has apparently been touching Hannah and making inappropriate suggestions about sex."
As Rachel says this, I not only re-experience my initial outrage but also--oddly, deplorably--feel a sudden interest in her legs, which are slender and dark, touching at the knees and sloping smoothly to her crossed ankles.
"I know that Joe and Greta have talked with Hannah about this and explained, though probably earlier than they would have liked"--she pauses to smile sympathetically at us--"what sex is and what constitutes its proper boundaries." She shifts her attention to the McGuirks and leans forward; the hem of her skirt rides provocatively up her thigh. "But I don't know if Gene and Linda have had a chance to speak to Freddie yet."
The McGuirks appear surprised, as if they had been caught napping, and then they both begin speaking at once, he nervously fingering his sparse moustache and she holding her hand protectively before her mouth.
"I got home late last night, so Fred was asleep when I got home," he mumbles.
"It's his brother," she moans. "He tells him things a little boy shouldn't know."
"And then of course I had to leave the house early this morning."
"He shows him nasty pictures. I know he does."
Rachel is listening attentively, her dark, thin-plucked brows knit. Beneath her blonde hair are the roots of a brunette. I replay the bathroom scene from the year before, seeing her perched on the toilet, facing me, her sandaled feet pigeon-toed, her knees bound by blue panties, those long legs naked and brown. Had I seen a pale bikini line? A tufted shadow? My pulse trips and quickens at the prospect, but then slows as I recall her dress heaped modestly on her lap, my own quick and remorseful exit. Oh, God, I'm sorry.
"But, boy, I'm going to talk to him tonight!" Mr. McGuirk declares, banging his plump fist on one knee. Mrs. McGuirk stretches her lip over her teeth and nods in agreement.
I am horrified by my inability to concentrate on this matter. I recall that two nights before, while watching on CNN a weeping victim of natural disaster, a Missouri farm wife who had lost her home and hundreds of acres to spring floods, I realized I was only admiring the tangled sweep of her hair, the sensual arc of her trembling lip. I fled to my study, to my books, seeking redemption, trusting that reading would check my lust, bring me closer to God.
Greta folds her hands beneath her chin, extending the index fingers and touching them at their tips. "I just think it's unfortunate that children can't be children longer than this," she says. "Not that they shouldn't be aware of their bodies and sexual difference and even desire, but that they should have to begin thinking and worrying about aggression at this age--how to cope with it. I just think it's unfortunate." And then, as an afterthought, "God knows, once you enter that world, you're in it the rest of your life."
The ambiguity of this remark, its confessional tone, startles me. While Rachel and Linda McGuirk nod empathetically, I imagine that Gene and I are crouching outside their circle, hulking, rapacious, mouth-breathing and hairy-backed.
"Yes," I announce a bit too loudly, "I'm uncomfortable too with the idea that children should be forced to negotiate the rituals and prohibitions of sexuality, to enter into the sexual politics of adults."
Everyone looks at me dumbly except Greta, who is concentrating on a loose thread in the hem of her skirt, smoothing it meticulously with her finger. I suddenly feel ludicrous and hot.
Eventually, when we have all agreed that Freddie will be spoken to, that we are reasonable people and can teach our children to behave properly, we stand and shake hands again. Greta and I follow the McGuirks to the door, taking our time, hanging back, so that we won't have to make small talk with them in the corridor.
In the parking lot we see them walking with a thin, blond-haired boy with owlish glasses and enormous pink ears. "That's Freddie?" I ask. This child, I recall, was not part of that stampeding herd of boys; rather, he sat by himself on a swing, twisting and spiraling slowly, dragging his heels in the sand, staring contemplatively at the sky.
"Evidently," Greta says. She seems tired, or sad.
"Hey, are you okay?" I take her elbow, slowing our pace.
"Uh-huh." She looks at me and smiles, and I feel lightened by this act of generosity, pleased that I have not somehow disappointed her.
I watch the McGuirks approach their car--a white Ford Escort that's missing a hubcap. I watch as Gene secures Freddie in the back seat, jauntily rounds the trunk to the passenger's side and opens the door for Linda, places his hand gently on the small of her sweat-dampened back, closes the door firmly. Seamus Heaney once wrote about such gestures, the banalities of affection and care, "Here is love like a tinsmith's scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin," and I think of this as Gene returns to the driver's side, trying to conceal a bit of a limp, his trousers too short, his shoes scuffed and thinning at the soles.
I wait a few minutes, my feelings hurt, and then follow to her bedroom and stand quietly outside the door. I am old and goatish in my boxers. I am growing hair in improbable places.
I see Greta's silhouette on the edge of Hannah's bed; she is speaking quietly, stroking Hannah's hair.
"Mom, are you going to die?" Hannah asks.
The suddenness of this question shocks me, dislodging something. I want to step into the room, turn on the light, and say, "No, of course not. Go to sleep now." But in the concentrated stillness I hear Greta say yes, she will die someday--that people die, and because she is older than Hannah, she will probably die first.
Just like that.
Then there is quiet again, a broad, dark space within which they are surely watching each other, carefully, seriously, Greta stroking Hannah's hair, their hearts beating slowly, making necessary adjustments.
"I'm really going to miss you," Hannah says finally. The declaration is so clear that I lose my breath before it and must turn and make my way weakly back to bed.
When Greta returns, she tiptoes past me--her ankles cracking, the floorboards creaking--to our bathroom, closes the door, and turns on the light. From the bed I hear water rushing in the sink, and behind it what sounds like the muted gasps of someone struggling for air.
"What happened?" I ask.
She licks her shiny upper lip. "A piano fell on his noggin," she says, and then stretches her arm upward and lets her hand fall to her head. "Bonk!" she cries.
Greta and I look at each other. "Yikes," we say together. Greta kicks me under the table. "Owe me a Coke."
Synchronic utterances, I think, bode well, suggesting sturdy symmetry, the binding of lives.
In the fourth year of our marriage my sister Susan came to visit for a weekend, and after a night of barhopping we returned jovially to our apartment, where Greta scooped the startled Molly, our cat, into her arms, cradling and stroking her until she ceased her nettled mews, closed her eyes, and rumbled and purred with pleasure. I sat beside them, my arm around Greta's shoulders, my free hand pressing Molly's paw, which clenched and unclenched with voluptuous rhythm, exposing and retracting dangerous curving claws.
Susan stood teetering before us, smiling mawkishly. "You two are going to make such good parents," she moaned. And even then, at that moment, we recognized the absurdity of the pronouncement--knew that our lives were so muddled and treacherous that even the harmonized coddling of a cat could not last long.
"Right," Greta said, and opened her arms to let Molly drop to the floor, feet first. The cat walked away, her tail swishing peevishly.
"Bonk! Bonk! Bonk!" Hannah cries, smacking the top of her head with her open hand.
"You're going to get grease in your hair," Greta says. She extends a napkin and then snatches it away each time Hannah reaches for it. Plucking at air, Hannah shrieks with laughter. I stretch my leg beneath the table and touch Greta's foot with my instep, and because she leaves it there for me to stroke blindly, monkeylike, I feel my heart bloom, and I smell spring beyond the open windows.
Illustrations by Martha Anne Booth