6.16 / December 2011

So, They Are Not Wholly Defenseless

Their four-year-old is in his bedroom getting ready. Since he was three-and-a-half, it has been his choice to climb into his little black suit for dinner with his white shirt-which he’d taught himself to button-and his blue clip-on. He can only wear his cowboy boots to dinner, though, because he does not yet know how to tie shoelaces. This bothers him greatly-this limitation and this hopeless, Southwestern ensemble-so he practices tying all the time.

The mother and father are in the kitchen, getting things ready. The father pulls open the oven door and waves the odor of chicken nuggets to his face. Then he closes the door and looks at his watch.

He announces to the mother: “He shall dine at seven fifteen.”

“That’s past his usual reservation,” the mother says. “He will not be pleased.” She continues setting the boy’s table.

The father knows this already. But there’s something wrong with the oven element and the water for the macaroni and cheese is taking longer than expected to boil because he over-salted.

“There’s nothing to be done,” the father says.

The mother has already scrubbed off the boy’s white and blue booster seat strapped tight to the chair because the boy had once noticed some spots of dried food on the seat, called the whole affair dirty and refused to sit in it or eat at all. They’ve learned to avoid these tensions. The mother gives the boy no reason to protest things like how he will not eat off his baby plates or drink out of his baby cup or eat off a plastic half-fork, half-spoon, because he wants “big boy” silverware and dishware. The mother now sets out the good china. She serves milk in a short glass. She sets a full lineup of silver, though he only uses the dinner fork and the soup spoon. Of the butter knife, the boy always looks seriously and says knives are dangerous.

The water finally starts to roll and the father sidesteps to the counter for the opened box of macaroni and cheese, pulls out the cheese pouch and dumps in the noodles. He checks his watch and makes sure it’s synced with the clock over the sink.

The mother drops a daisy in the little red vase before the boy’s place setting and lights a white taper. She shifts the taper to the opposite side of the table. Fire too is dangerous.

It is seven and the boy emerges from his bedroom dressed for dinner. His dark hair is messy and his face and hands are smudged with red magic marker. His shirt is half un-tucked. He crosses the living room and clip-clops into the kitchen and stands for a moment watching his parents abuzz. When they don’t immediately notice him, he says, “Charlie Brown says ‘stupid.’ That’s bad.”

Father and mother tense and twirl at the sound of him. The mother clutches her chest and says, “You’re right, dear. That is bad.” The boy looks at her and then at his father, who wipes his sweating forehead with a dishrag.

“Lucy says ‘stupid,'” the boy says. “I don’t say ‘stupid.'”

“No, because you’re a good boy,” the father says and flips the rag over his shoulder.

The boy walks to the table and rises on tip-toe to look at the plate.

“Where’s my food?” he says.

“Just a few more minutes,” the mother says. “It’s father’s fault.”

The father mutters something then turns to the boiling pot and stirs. He spoons out one noodle, blows on it, and eats it. “Still stiff,” he says.

“I’m hungry!” the boy says. “I want meatballs!”

“Shit!” the mother says then covers her mouth. The indiscretion has humiliated her.

“Everything is almost ready,” the father says. “I apologize for the delay.”

The father suggests that the mother might seat the boy and start him with an hors d’ oeuvre of string cheese.

The mother turns to the boy. “Would that satisfy you?” she says.

The boy looks at her and his face grows serious. “Darth Vader grabs people’s necks,” he says. “That’s bad.”

“Oh my,” she says. “That is very bad.”

“We don’t grab people’s necks,” the boy says. “We don’t grab people’s necks like this.” The boy grips his own windpipe and begins to squeeze. His face reddens. The mother starts to move toward him, but stops and pleads with the boy to let go. He holds on for another moment before releasing. Then he laughs.

“Won’t you sit down?” the mother says.

The boy examines his seat. The mother reaches down to help him and the boy waves her off. “I can do it myself!” The mother backs into the refrigerator. The boy climbs up the side of the chair. The chair tilts on two legs and almost flips over, but he manages to settle in. His suit coat bunches up around his shoulders and the mother goes to him and straightens it out. The boy picks up the butter knife and throws it on the floor. “Dangerous,” he says.

“Can I start you off with some string cheese?” The mother starts to open the refrigerator.

The boy shakes his head. “I want food,” he says.

“Cheese is food,” the father calls from the stove. He stirs.

“I want hot food,” the boy says and sticks out his bottom lip.

The father rounds the corner of the counter and opens the oven door and reaches in to test the nuggets. He flinches and withdraws and sucks his fingertip. “Coming right up,” he says. He slips on a flowered oven mitt and pulls out the baking sheet and sets it on the counter.

“These must cool first, so you do not burn your little tongue,” the father says and starts to blow on the nuggets and fan them with the mitt.

The mother fills the boy’s glass with white milk.

“I want chocolate,” the boy says.

The mother returns to the refrigerator for the syrup and then digs in the drawer for a spoon. She begins to prepare it.

“I want to do it!” the boy says.

The mother surrenders. He squeezes in the syrup until the milk displaces almost over the rim of the glass. The mother is horrified, but the boy stops before it spills. Then he takes up the spoon and carefully swirls it around in the milk. He stops before everything is mixed up and little black worms of syrup float around. The boy takes up the glass and drinks. When he finishes, he sets the glass down and with a moustache says, “My name is Norman Gregory and I will be five years old.” He holds up four fingers.

The father looks up from blowing on the nuggets, “That’s true.”

The boy turns in his seat and asks his father, “What town is this?”

The mother says to the boy, “Why don’t you tell us?”

“No.” The boy points at his father. “I want him to tell me.”

The father walks toward the pot of macaroni and removes it from the stove. “The Town of Wallace,” he says.

“That’s not right,” the boy says and laughs. “This is Poopy Town.”

Then the boy belches loudly and the mother and father say nothing. The father dumps the pot of cooked macaroni into a strainer in the sink and the steam rises in his face.

This is the way it is for them. Night after night. And always the boy winds up taking little interest in the food because he’s more taken by his tiny concerns and observations. They let him go on until he starts covering the same ground and it becomes clear that he has gone as far as he can go with his knowledge and bedtime is nearing. At this point, the mother gives the father a nod and they move away from their positions by the table to the shadows of the kitchen by the laundry recess and start whispering. And when the boy realizes they are no longer standing by the table and responding, he searches for them and when he sees them, he warns them about keeping secrets. That it’s bad. They ignore him.

“That’s not nice! That’s not nice! You’re mean!”

But they keep going, this father and this mother. And when finally they have offended the boy enough that he grunts angrily and pushes out of the booster seat and clip-clops out of the kitchen and slams his bedroom door behind him, they hunch together over his plate and finish what is left like animals.

Justin D. Anderson is completing an MFA and teaches writing at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he lives with his wife and son. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Whitefish Review, South Dakota Review, Necessary Fiction, BLIP, flyway, Controlled Burn, and elsewhere and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
6.16 / December 2011