Crazily enough, two hours go by without an incident. I am occasionally called to refill a cup of water, juice, or “chocolate milk the straw” or give somebody a cup of goldfish crackers. Yes, I relented on the goldfish. Daniel knows that if he presses us on something at three-minute intervals for roughly a one-hour span, he will ultimately get it if the price isn’t too high. You choose your battles, and there are worse things he could be doing than eating goldfish at 9:00 in the morning, like smoking crack.
I read a satisfactory amount of Grisham and then decide to take care of some chores. With Jonah at the back of the house, I feel safe to try to load the dishwasher. This is always a crapshoot. Jonah has a sixth sense for knowing when an adult is in the kitchen, opening drawers and cupboards for him to get into and empty of their contents. He has to be heavily preoccupied with something else to resist the opportunity.
I pour a fresh cup of coffee, the last in the pot. Stray grounds have settled to the bottom. This will be a strong cup, but not strong enough. I have immediate plans to brew another pot once I’m done with the dishes.
I open the dishwasher and start unloading in a frenzy. I remember when this was a more pleasant activity. Before Daniel came into our lives, our set of dishes was pretty simple. We ate off of dinner plates, ate cereal out of bowls, drank coffee from mugs, used simple silverware like knives, forks, and spoons. We drank water out of glasses. Everything had a set place in the dishwasher. Everything could be distributed into, at most, three drawers and a couple of cabinets in the kitchen. Sure, we had the occasional annoyance of a flimsy plastic Tupperware container or a portable water bottle that wouldn’t fit in the short vertical space of the top drawer in the dishwasher. But these were minor issues. Unloading the dishwasher was a cinch and didn’t require much thought.
Now, however, the flimsy Tupperware containers have multiplied like rabbits that were left alone for a few hours. I have no idea where they all came from. We have roughly a dozen being washed at any one time. We use them to store our leftovers from every meal, half of which go bad before we can ever get to them because the kids tend to hate all nutritious food and refuse to diligently eat their fair share. In fact, they usually refuse to eat anything at all, holding out for Goldfish, animal crackers, and Oreos. I honestly don’t know how they’re still growing, much less drawing breath. In addition to the Tupperware, we also have at least a dozen flimsy plastic cups with flimsy plastic lids that the kids drink out of morning, noon, and night. This is because we don’t trust them with open-top containers, not even Daniel. These are the celebrated cups out of which Ezra drinks his “chocolate milk the straw.” Then there are the little snack containers out of which Jonah eats all of his snacks—nay, all of his food.
Perhaps I am just hopelessly anal-retentive, but I hate the tactile sensation and pure weightlessness of these “dishes.” They always feel like something I should throw away—sorry, recycle. Before Melody educated me early in our marriage, that’s exactly what I used to do with the Tupperware we used for food storage. My joy died a little when I was told we’d have to keep them. It was like being told to hang on to a used straw wrapper because we might want to put the straw back into it.
In addition to the tactile problems, we have close to a billion drawers and cabinets in which these various things are sorted and placed. Gone are the days of grabbing up a heavy stack of dinner and dessert plates and bowls and tossing them into the cabinet above the sink, clearing half of the dishwasher in one fell swoop. Nor can I just grab handfuls of silverware and sort them quickly into their drawer. Interspersed with the silverware are plastic spouts, hard plastic straws, and unidentifiable other doohickeys that have to be inserted into the kiddie cups, bowls, and plates for God knows what reason. I feel like I have to put a Lego set together exactly according to the instructions every time I empty the dishwasher, and we’re talking about the hard sets that were meant for ages 9-14 (in other words, “genius” to “Einstein”).
I bear down and go at it with all I’ve got, knowing somehow that Melody will come home and find a kitchen marginally cleaner than it was when she left and will think I’m the sexiest man alive. With her gracious heart, though, she would say that I already am and that I could give her a poop sandwich for Valentine’s Day and she’d still think I was the cat’s pajamas. But come on, really.
Jonah’s still going at it in his room. I have made it a point not to so much as look in that room until time to put him to bed tonight, not unless I absolutely have to. I could pick it all up, and he’d go medieval on it again the second my back was turned. No, let him have his personal disaster area. Maybe it’ll keep him from chucking bricks and paving stones at my head.
A few minutes after starting, all the clean dishes are now in their places. Or close to it. I always have this dishtowel off to the side where I put stuff I swear I’ve never seen before, hoping Melody will have the grace to put it where it needs to go later. She likes to drink smoothies for breakfast. She washes the blender parts every day, and I never can keep straight how to put them back together. Every time she sees the towel of “spare parts,” she laughs and gives me a simple and easy 26-step tutorial on how to put the blender together.
The dishwasher is now empty. I frantically begin throwing every last dirty dish in there. This includes more random flimsy pieces of plastic as well as gigantic mixing bowls Melody used to make the pancakes. Each bowl takes up roughly half of the available space in the dishwasher. There are three of them. I opt only to wash one with this load so I can fill in the remainder of the space with annoying, weightless plastic so the kids will have twenty cups available to each of them. This is because both Daniel and Ezra have the frustrating habit of asking for a beverage, taking one drink out of it, then setting the cup in some random place that time forgot. They only remember what they did with their beverage when Jonah begins to drink out of it, setting off a bloody, jealous skirmish. Jonah especially loves the straw cups. He picks up whatever cup he sees and tosses it back immediately. The beverage slips around the straw and out the hole in the lid, trickling all over him. It appears that he will never grasp the concept that you have to hold a straw cup upright to drink out of it. To him, everything is still a bottle.
If Melody were here, she’d have found a way to get all three mixing bowls into the dishwasher. Honestly, the woman missed her calling as an engineer. She’s so much smarter than I am it makes me sick. I anticipate washing at least one more load today, and the machine will likely be packed full, at that. Nevertheless, she’s going to look in there and say, “That’s it?” Then she’ll find some way to park a Cadillac in the space I somehow didn’t fill.
A sudden whoosh of air, and the handle of a screwdriver clips my nose and goes spinning into the sink.
“What the…freak!” I manage just barely to catch myself.
“Eeee!” Jonah exclaims. I look into the sink. A Phillips-head screwdriver rests in the middle of a pre-soaking bowl filled with water and suds.
“Jonah, good gosh, how?!”
My screwdrivers stay in the garage with the rest of my tools. There is a child safety lock on the door to the garage. He cannot get through it. I’ve watched him try and fail a hundred times. There is no explanation for this. None. My heart pounds. Seriously, what is happening to my sweet baby?
I count my lucky stars that the screwdriver hit me with the blunt end. I also count us all fortunate that Jonah didn’t poke himself with it or shank his brothers. I take the screwdriver out of the sink and set it on my towel of mystery dishes.
“Oh!” Jonah says. He climbs on top of the dishwasher door, squats down, and peers in. He reaches into the silverware basket, grabs a dirty fork, and sticks it in his mouth. He stands back up with it just hanging out of there.
“Jonah, not a good idea, bud.”
I reach for the fork as gently as I can, knowing we’re in a delicate situation. Jonah jerks away from me, however, and in doing so, he injures himself. His face breaks, and he begins to cry. The fork drops to his feet (landing safely between, thank God), along with a couple drops of blood.
“Oh crap, Jonah!” I pick him up and hold him tight to me, his screams temporarily deafening my left ear. That’s a good thing, though. I can bear to let him scream into it now.
I pull him back from me to assess the damage. It’s not hard. His mouth is wide open as it screams.
“Daddy, what happened?!” Daniel shouts from the computer chair. He’s temporarily broken his gaze on the computer to observe. As distracted as he can be by all his devices, Daniel is nevertheless very concerned and aware when the baby is hurt.
“Jonah poked himself with a fork.” I see where it poked the roof of his mouth. There’s some blood, but not a lot. He’s drooling from the crying. There’s blood in it, made watery and thin by the drool. I hold him close to me, shushing him and telling him he’s going to be all right.
Daniel and Ezra come in to stand by my side. Daniel tries to shush and comfort Jonah as well, basically by screaming at him, “Jonah, it’s okay! We’re here! It’ll be all right! Take it easy! Jonah! Jonah! Jonah!” Then, the attempts to make Jonah laugh—more face-palming and fake barfing. Jonah does not laugh. He cries harder, more loudly.
“Hey Ezra, let’s—”
We’re covering familiar territory, and I picture some of the same results as we had this morning.
“But Daddy, we’re going to cheer Jonah up!”
“Daddy, Jonah’s crying,” Ezra says. “Jonah hurt himself.”
“Guys, just go back to what you were doing. I’ll handle it. Why don’t you go outside?”
“NO DAD!” Daniel screams. I’m pretty sure crickets and birds stopped chirping and tweeting somewhere in China because of the sudden disturbance. Being outside is anathema to this kid. I’ve never understood it. While he can be physical and animated, he’d still love nothing more than to veg out in front of a screen of some variety all day. We had a house full of toys when he was a baby, and by the age of 18 months, he was done playing with them for good. TV was better and nothing could take its place. He does break a sweat when playing the Wii or loading a billion new apps a day onto my iPod, but the thought of going outside kills his joy for some reason.
“Daniel, come on, it’s a nice day.”
“Outside is boooooooooooooooooooooooring!”
Through all of this, Jonah continues to wail and drool. He’s had his hand in his mouth. There are small droplets of blood, but it looks like the trickle has stopped. Thank God.
“I’ll go outside, Daddy. Will you come with me?” Ezra says.
I feel chills all over. My heart melts. His sweetness always comes at just the right moment and hits me so hard in the feels I swear I’ll never recover.
My ears are split. My head hurts. I feel a trickle of warm blood begin to slip from my right nostril from the blow of the screwdriver. My face and temple still throb from the last two objects that clipped me. The morning has been an epic disaster/typical morning for our household, and Ezra single-handedly turns it into one of the best days of my life with one simple question.
I smile. “Sure will, buddy. Let’s get you dressed.”
Dressing Ezra is easy. The only hard part is setting Jonah down and holding it together as he instantly begins to scream at the injustice of not being held. Mercifully, the whole process takes about a minute.
“Can you get your sandals on?” I ask Ezra.
“I put my sandals on, and you put Jonah’s sandals on,” Ezra explains.
“Yes, that’s right.”
I leave the dishwasher in its current state. It may not get done today, but I tried, right?
I take Jonah to his room and sit him down on the bed we’re going to transition him to in the next couple of months. In so doing, I’m forced to see the mess I didn’t want to confront until tonight. His bookshelf is completely empty, every last book tossed to the farthest corners. A good portion of them are in his crib, and I picturing him carefully poking them through the slats. A couple of them look as if they’ve been forced, as they were too wide. The binding on them has been broken, pages torn.
Just to walk into the room is courting disaster. Cars, Legos (the baby-friendly kind that attack your bare feet in your weakest hour), and other hard plastic and metal toys litter the landscape. I picture the total shred-job these things will do to my feet and am thankful that Jonah’s bed sits right by the doorway. I only have to venture about a foot into the room before I can set him down on his bed and work on him. I carefully shuffle my feet to clear a swath of floor-space I can walk through.
He continues to cry as I get his sandals on, but it’s lessening. After I get the right one on, he makes an enthused noise: “Dthee?”
“That’s right, bud. We’re going outside.”
“Unh, unh,” he grunts, pointing toward the doorway of his room. His intention is to show me that we go through that door as a first step toward going into the backyard.
I move to his left sandal. He helps me get it on by promptly removing the right sandal and throwing it at the top of my head.
“No, Jonah, keep the sandal on,” I say, retrieving it from where it landed.
I get his left sandal on and keep a close watch on his hands as I again put his right one on. Ezra comes in to join us.
“Daddy, is these on the right feet?” he asks.
I look down at his sandals and see that, indeed, they are. This is the difference between kids and cats, I tell myself. Kids learn. The process does have its rewards if you can wait it out.
“Very good, buddy!” I tell him.
He giggles, putting his hands over his mouth. He does this when his good work is recognized.
The little boys are now shod. I carry Jonah and try not to walk on Ezra’s heels as he walks slowly and purposely (skips, rather) right in front of me on our way to the back door.
“Ezra, could you walk just a little faster or just move to the side so I can pass?”
This causes him to move more slowly and make extra sure that he is blocking my path.
We make it onto the sun porch. Jonah sees the various toys, balls, and sporting equipment we have there and lights right up.
“Bah,” he says. Ball. He says this every time he steps out on the porch. He begins to buck in my arms to be set down so he can play with them, but I will not be deterred. Sure, he’ll toss the balls around and even play catch or something like it, but as soon as the thought of a heavy object with sharp corners enters his mind, he’ll be in search of things to throw that will cause more damage. I still have a glob of blood in my nose to remind me not to let that happen.
“Yeah, ball,” I say. “But we’re going outside, Jonah. You want to swing?”
He points again at the back door and grunts.
“There you go.”
“Daddy, Jonah’s going outside, and I’m going outside, and you’re going outside. Where’s Mommy?” Ezra says.
“She’s with some of her friends.”
“Mommy be back later.”
We open the door, and the dog, Charlie, immediately tries to break in. I edge him back out with my foot. Jonah chuckles at the proceedings and babbles something.
“Ugh, Charlie!” Ezra says. He’s laughing too. “Daddy, Charlie wants to come in.”
We step out and Charlie stands up on his back legs and sniffs and licks Jonah’s face a few times before I can step on his back foot to deter him. He backs off, but he’ll be back at it momentarily. Jonah giggles at being tickled while I try not to think of all the germs and bacteria this awful dog just planted on him.
Charlie is the most useless dog in the world most of the time. We got him nine years ago. We had been married a couple of years and thought it was time for a dog. We went to the Humane Society to buy a puppy, and we fell in love with two. Charlie was my choice. He’s a black lab-American Huskie mix, an absolutely beautiful dog, and at just a few months old, he was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. Melody got attached to a girl dog, another mutt that most definitely had a lot of Great Pyrenees in her. She was freckle-faced and cute. We couldn’t resist. We had to get them both, and we justified our decision with the idea that they’d keep each other company.
They did. They were fun. Our old house was outside the city limits. On the 4th of July, we’d shoot off bottle rockets. Izzy, the girl dog, would go nuts over them once they were lit and grab them out of the bottle. She’d run around the yard, holding them in her teeth by the stem. They’d fizzle and pop, making her yelp and singing the fur around her muzzle. She’d never quit, though. We finally stopped shooting them off around her because we were afraid she’d grab one by the head and it would pop in her mouth.
Izzy was easily one of the best dogs I’d ever owned. She loved being near us, but she gave us our space. She never jumped on anybody. She’d lay down by our feet when we sat down and roll over so we could scratch her belly. Both of them were always outside dogs, and with good reason. Once they got full grown, they pooped like Clydesdale horses, and their shedding in the summer was awful, Izzy especially. We bought a curry comb and took it to her every year. We could comb that dog 24/7 for three straight months, and there would still be fur coming off of her by the bagful. With each brush, her fur would come off and then float wispily through the yard, landing everywhere and on everything. Sometimes a draft would catch it and lift it high up into the trees or on the roof. Sometimes it looked like a pillow had exploded. Izzy liked to eat these swaths of hair. She especially liked to catch them when they floated through the air, her jaws snapping at them.
She was a horrible walker, though. When we walked those dogs, she’d immediately jerk at her chain and keep jerking at it the whole way, choking herself to the point of hacking and spitting and barfing. Passersby would look at us like, “What are you doing to that poor thing?” I stopped walking Izzy after a while. She just wasn’t made for it, but in every other way she was perfect. We never had to teach her not to jump on anybody, she never chewed anything she wasn’t supposed to, and she never barked.
Izzy died inexplicably five years ago. Melody was over at a friend’s house with Daniel for a play date. I came home from work and found her unresponsive by her water bowl, her eyes open and blank. It shook me up. Although she hadn’t been my choice at the Humane Society, I had fallen just as much in love with her as Melody had, if not more so. It should have tipped me off the night before that she didn’t eat her food when I set it out for her. Normally she and Charlie tore it up and tore each other up in the process. Charlie would stalk over to her bowl and run her off from it, voraciously eating her food while she stalked off growling. Then when she tried to eat from his bowl, he’d race back over and chase her off again. To ensure Izzy could eat, I started putting their bowls on opposite sides of the sun porch where it stuck out to the middle of the backyard. That way her food would be out of Charlie’s line of sight. The night before she died, Izzy didn’t want any of it, and she didn’t mind when Charlie came to eat her food after finishing his own. We decided she must have had some sort of gut virus or parasite we hadn’t known about. It was just one of those things. Sometimes I wonder if she never passed all that hair she had eaten, and the bound up ball of fur finally did her in.
Charlie frequently frustrates us to the point that we say to each other, “The wrong dog died.” Melody really hates this dog.
I load Jonah into the baby swing. Charlie licks at his feet. He laughs.
“Charlie, quit,” I say.
“Charlie’s gross,” Ezra says. “He’s poopy farty.”
“That’s right, Ezra, but let’s not say that word.”
“I not,” he lied.
Charlie continues jumping up to me but not quite on me. I’m the only person in this family he respects this way. Between Melody and me, I’ve spent more time with him. He’s come to acknowledge both my size and my authority, and he knows that he doesn’t get in trouble if he jumps close to me without actually landing on me. However, he still misfires from time to time and lands a muddy front paw on my shirt or on my pants. Then he grunts as if I’ve already taken a swing at him and runs off.
I alternate pushing both boys from behind, Jonah in the baby swing and Ezra in the “big boy” swing. I give one boy five pumps, then the other. Ezra knows when I’m off. “Daddy, push…me…on…da…swing!” he shouts at me. After a few sets of pumps, I have the boys both swinging high and hard. Charlie’s been trying to lick both them and me from the moment we started, but he eventually tires of being kicked in the face by the boys as they swing into him and decides to go off and lie down.
A few moments later, the sun catches my eye and makes me sneeze. This brings Charlie right back. Every slight sound we make means that we must need to be licked with his filth-ridden tongue. He comes to my side and starts licking fit to take my skin off. I shove him away. He hunches for a second, preparing for a blow. When it doesn’t come, that means he should keep licking. Ezra’s feet hit him on the back-swing, however. He grunts and then trots off to the northeast corner of the yard.
“Charlie, don’t you dare!” I shout.
There are two things he likes to do in the northeast corner, and it’s hard to tell which of them he’s about to do as he sniffs about. Moments later, however, he sets his back legs and squats for a morning poo. We’re okay for now.
I pull out my phone real quick to check the time: 11:00. It will soon be time for lunch, and I plan on taking Melody as literally as possible when she says, “Path of least resistance.” When I’m watching the kids, I have carte blanche not to try to cook anything or even to feed them healthy leftovers. I can fill their bellies full of junk and MSG. We’ll reintroduce fruits or vegetables into their diet when I survive the day.
I slip my phone back into my pocket as Charlie reappears by my side, chewing something.
“Oh, no you didn’t,” I say. Chunks of his “food” drop from his mouth and onto my feet. Did I mention I’m wearing flip-flops? “Charlie, you stupid, stupid dog!”
“Daddy, don’t say ‘stupid,’” Ezra admonishes.
Right after his bowel movement, Charlie did the other thing he usually does in the northeast corner of the yard: he helped himself to a mouthful of poop. And it’s never enough for him to go over there and eat his own poop. No, this extraordinarily worthless mutt always takes his meal to go. He likes to eat it near whatever human is within reach, for God knows what reason. Does he think he’s caught something? Does he think master will be pleased to see that he has not only managed to catch this elusive poop but that he is sustaining himself on it? Perhaps master would like to have some as well?
The specimen on my feet is soft, warm, and liquid. It trickles down the top of my foot, around to my soles, and into the foam of my flip-flops. The dog chose a fresh morsel this time, hot out of the pan.
Words children shouldn’t hear come out of my mouth, communicating to greater extents how worthless I think this dog is and how much I wish Izzy had lived. For all her general silliness, Izzy had been polite and comparatively hygienic. She may not have been a smart dog, but she didn’t do things like this. And this dumb dog, this horrible thing we keep in the backyard, gets enough food. He doesn’t have to resort to eating his own crap. In fact, I’ve recently started giving him an extra bowlful of food every night to try to deter him from eating his feces, but no, he still has to go grab whatever fresh and tasty log he sees and partake. But the grievous—nay, heinous—thing about this dog is that I never look out the window and see him doing this when we’re not there. I think he waits until we’re out here to dine on his dung; that way he can lick us with the manure fresh on his tongue, as if we needed some sort of guano treatment on our skin.
I grab his collar and jerk him along with me as I storm over to his chain. Now, I feel that Melody relies on this chain too much. We keep it wrapped around one of the chain-link fence poles and connect it to Charlie’s collar, but then he screeches and yelps the whole time we’re outside with him, heart-broken that he’s not allowed to come near our children so he can knock them over by swinging his butt into them, after which he stands proudly over them as they cry from the mistreatment. Melody puts Charlie on the chain as soon as the children set foot outside, regardless of how he’s behaving. I tell her Charlie won’t learn his boundaries if we chain him up every time we have the kids out there.
She says, “Tony, that useless dog is 9 years old. When do you think he’s ever going to get it?”
She’s 100 percent right, of course, but that doesn’t keep me from hoping, futilely. I used to watch The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic channel. I’ve tried his approach of sticking my fingers against Charlie’s neck to simulate the nip of the pack leader, keeping him in line. It never works. Charlie just thinks he’s being pet. In fact, you could kick Charlie’s teeth out, and his response would be, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” He’d probably bring you a healthy pile of crap he cooked the other day just to show his thanks for your love.
I chain him up, then step over to the faucet to hose off my foot. I’m still in his area, as we chain him up near his water bowl, so he’s not screeching and yelping just yet. Rather, he’s present right by my side, licking every exposed patch of skin he can reach with his brown-speckled tongue. I knock him away from me, but he comes back for more.
“Daddy, I—need—you—to—push—ME!” Ezra calls out. He says it like he’s repeated it a thousand times and gotten no response, even though it’s the first time he’s issued the command since I stepped away to chain the dog.
I rinse my foot off under the faucet, then the flip-flop. I turn it off and put my flip-flop back on, after which Charlie licks my foot and leaves more brown deposits where I just washed it.
“Charlie, you stupid dog! Knock it off!”
“Daddy, you said stupid.”
“I know, Ezra. Daddy’s sorry.”
“Charlie not stupid.”
“You’re absolutely right, buddy.”
It’s always better not to argue with Ezra when it’s not a life-or-death issue. I figure that when he’s four, he’ll start trusting my wisdom and experience a little better. I hope. Come to think of it, Daniel’s six and still sure he knows more at his age than I’ll ever learn.
I lunge at Charlie to scare him away. He grunts, ducks, and trots away a few steps. I rinse my foot off one more time, then beat a hasty retreat from the dog and his radius. The yelping begins immediately.
I need to qualify a few things about Charlie. I said that he is the most useless dog in the world most of the time, which is true, but when he’s useful, he’s very useful. We live in a safe neighborhood, but it is only a block or two away from a rough area. Just down the street are some housing projects. A cop is permanently stationed there just to keep the peace, which is reassuring. Nevertheless, I see occasional activity there, mostly domestic disputes, but sometimes the disturbances are drug related. I frequently run on the sidewalk along Newton Road, which passes in front of these projects, and I’ll meet some of the residents coming and going who seem to be in very heated conversations with themselves or an invisible other person. They usually leave me alone, but sometimes one or two will shout at me as I’m running by. They’re obviously out of their minds.
It’s because of our proximity to these folks that I’m glad we have Charlie. Yes, on the surface, he’s really stupid, but underneath it all is a smart dog with good instincts. A couple years ago, some group of delinquents was tearing through neighborhoods after dark, stripping air-conditioning wires and materials for their copper. The copper’s valuable, and addicts will sell it for money to buy drugs. It happens a lot in known meth hotspots in the area. When this crime wave happened, it hit every house around us that didn’t have a dog. The vandals never even got close to our house because Charlie sees all.
I hate his whining and yelping, but I love his actual bark. It means business. It begins with a deep, guttural growl that sounds more appropriate to a bigger, meaner dog like a pit bull or a Rottweiler. Then, it erupts. It’s startling but not necessarily noisy. He somehow knows that the whole world doesn’t need to hear his bark, just the individual creature that got his attention. He reserves it for things he sees outside our fence that just don’t seem right. This can include cats, squirrels, and birds that are causing a ruckus. Sometimes I’m sure it’s just a phantom disturbance that’s raised his hackles, but his vigilance kept the thieves far away from our place. I don’t know what he’ll ever do if he actually gets a hold of someone dangerous. He might just lick them to death like he does with us. Fortunately, we’ve never had to find out. The bark is enough, and it’s kept us safe.
The other good things about him are superfluous and more for entertainment value and bragging rights. I don’t take him on as many walks as I should, and when I do, I wonder why not. He’s incredible at it. Since he was a puppy, he has heeled without being taught. He gets a little excited at the beginning and jerks at the leash, but I only have to give it a couple of tugs for him to fall back in line and walk right beside my knee. He rarely even stops to sniff anything, and he only marks about a dozen places along the way. Most male dogs I’ve had pee all over everything, every time. Izzy actually peed on her walks more than Charlie does. She even tried to mount him a couple of times. The more I think about it, Izzy really might have been the dumb one.
Charlie’s also an excellent natural hunter. He doesn’t chase every bird or squirrel he sees in the backyard, but the ones he goes after, he gets. He never misses. I usually have to pick up three or four carcasses a week, but I try not to chide him. The hunting comes in handy when it comes to moles. Any other dog I’ve had was horrible at catching moles and dug up the entire yard to get to them. Charlie only has to dig in two spots at the most before he nabs it, and even then the digs are shallow. He gets to them quickly, too. I’ve seen him get a mole before it even got five feet inside the fence. His instincts are incredible. As with his poop, he likes to share his kill with us, but at least that’s normal.
The trick is being able to wrest the animal away from him. That corresponds with his other natural talent, which is playing fetch. The mood strikes him occasionally to bring us a stick, ball, or rope so we’ll play fetch with him, and he’ll keep it up for a good half an hour before he tires. However, it has to be his idea, not ours. I’ve never been able to interest him in a game of fetch; thus, he’s never been “trained” to do it. He likes to play tug-of-war with the item he’s fetching. When he brings it back to us, he doesn’t drop it but rather waits for us to try to get it from his mouth. Then he playfully growls and tries to keep it from us. When he brings us his kill, he does the same thing. I’d rather not try to tug a dead animal from his mouth, however, so I wait for him to lose interest and walk away from it before I take care of it. That can take a while, as he follows me around the yard with the body in his mouth, occasionally clamping down to give the bones a nice, healthy crunch. Melody hates this as well, but I have no problem with him acting like an actual, normal dog every once in a while. I’m sure in more capable hands he’d be an awesome hunter.
When I return from chaining Charlie up, Jonah has joined Ezra in yelling at me for more pushes, although his shouts sound like this: “Day-ee, day-ee! Buh guh. Uh, haha! Dsyeah! Whoa!” I resume the routine—five pushes for Ezra, then five pushes for Jonah. Repeat ad infinitem.
The back door clatters and squeaks open and Daniel comes barreling through. He’s wearing nothing more than a pair of underwear. For him, this passes as reasonable attire around the house. He’s also put on a pair of sandals. Daniel’s about to hit a growth spurt. Usually he gets a little chunky before he shoots up another couple inches, so there’s some considerable jiggling and shaking as he sprints out.
“I want to swing, too!” he says.
I’m happy for his enthusiasm, but I can’t bear to have my large-and-in-charge six-year-old running around nearly naked in my backyard. The kid has always been tall and big for his age, and people frequently think he’s older than he is. When I tell them he’s only six, they don’t marvel at his size. Rather, they’re relieved because they were worried he was mentally challenged and had special needs. Somebody passing by right now would assume that I am letting my special needs ten-year-old run around the yard in his underwear and would likely turn me over to Child Protective Services.
“Daniel, you need to get dressed.”
“No Dad, I’m fine!”
“You are not, Daniel. You can’t run around out here like that. Besides, it’s still a little chilly.”
“I don’t care.” This is probably true; the kid is a furnace.
“Daniel, it’s inappropriate. You’re almost naked. Please go back inside and put on some clothes.”
“Fine, but I’m wearing shorts!”
His brothers are wearing shorts. I’m wearing shorts. Why does he think this is a fight?
“That’s fine. Just put something on.”
Daniel stomps, snorts, and pummels his way back through the back door, which closes behind him with a loud, metallic crash.
“Daddy, you said ‘naked’,” Ezra says, laughing. Jonah laughs as well. “Naked poopy farty butt.” He says “butt” like this: boo-uht. He laughs at his own comedic genius.
“Yes, Ezra, but let’s try not to talk about poop and farts.” As if we can help it in a house where that’s the dominant theme, I think to myself.
Less than a minute later, Daniel’s back. He has black gym shorts on and a t-shirt with Mario, Yoshi, and sundry other characters on it. When it’s his choice what to wear, he picks Mario every time.
He hops into the other big-boy swing, and all my boys are swinging together, all in a row. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is bright and brilliant and is starting to warm things up considerably. It’s supposed to be like this all day, just perfect. I’m hoping I can keep all three of them outside for the bulk of it, but that brings its own stresses. The dog’s yelps are deafening.
“Shut up, Charlie!” I yell. Daniel and Ezra both admonish me that “shut up” is a bad word. Jonah yells something indistinguishable to the dog, then laughs proudly.
“I know, guys. I’m sorry.
“So what do you want to do today?”
Daniel says, “Can we go to Silver Dollar City?”
“I want to go to Silver Dollar City,” Ezra says. His tone makes it sound like a foregone conclusion, and he just wants to make sure he’s included.
“Yuh!” Jonah shouts.
“No guys, we can’t. There’s no way I can handle the three of you at an amusement park by myself.”
“Mommy can come,” Daniel reasons.
“No she can’t. She’s out today.”
“We’ll go when she gets back.”
“She’s gone all day.”
“Daddy, where’s Mommy?” Ezra says.
“She’s at a Bible study, Ezra.”
“Oh, Mommy’s at work,” Ezra says. This is in reference to a part-time job she used to work at a comics shop. Melody hasn’t worked there in over a year, but Ezra still thinks that’s where she is every time she leaves the house, even if I’ve told him otherwise.
“That’s right, bud.” As always, it’s easier than arguing with him.
“But I really want to go to Silver Dollar City!” Daniel says. “We never, ever, ever go there. Ever! I’ve never been there in my whole life, and if we don’t go today, I’m going to be mad at you for the next thousand billion weeks!”
“You guys went there with Grandma and Grandpa on opening day. Quit making stuff up.”
“I don’t care. I’m still mad at you.”
“That’s fine, but you’re going to have to get over it and figure out how to have a good time. What else can we do?”
Daniel jumps up from his swing and runs to the middle of the yard. There among the tall grass and, I’m sure, sundry pieces of half-eaten cylindrical dog scat, is his favorite Frisbee.
“I want you to play catch with me,” he says.
It’s a bright green Frisbee that he got free from some bank’s pavilion at the county fair, meant mostly for advertising and not for a serious game of Frisbee. It’s cheap plastic, practically weightless, and impossible to throw for a distance greater than five feet. It’s also one of his most prized possessions and the only disc he’ll deign to play with. I have two other Frisbees that I used in college for serious games of ultimate Frisbee with my buddies. They’re heavier and fly smooth and long. Daniel refuses to touch them and instead makes me play with this piece of garbage. When I toss it with the proper standard Frisbee throw, it immediately turns sideways, falls to the ground, and rolls in random and aimless circles, spinning to an abrupt stop far away from my target. This Frisbee makes me look like an idiot.
I sigh and roll my eyes, which he’s too preoccupied to see.
“Okay, just let me give your brothers an extra push.”
I give Ezra and Jonah both underdogs, making them both laugh and say, “Whee!”
Daniel tosses me the Frisbee. There’s about ten feet between us. It glides perfectly through the air. The kid’s a natural with this stupid thing, which doesn’t make me feel any better about my own inability to toss it properly.
When I catch it, it feels like I’m holding on to a piece of paper. Throwing it feels much the same, and as predicted, it flies through the air like a flat piece of paper flitting awkwardly to the ground.
Daniel laughs. “Daddy, you can do it better than that!” This is his standard response every time I try and fail to throw this Frisbee.
“I could do better than that if you’d just let us play with my Frisbees.”
“I don’t like your Frisbees. They hurt.”
“I won’t throw them hard.”
“Just…Daddy, we’ll play with your Frisbees later.” He adopted this turn of phrase from me. It translates as, “We’ll never get around to doing that thing you want to do.”
We toss the Frisbee for several minutes. I push the little boys every so often, usually after Ezra’s every third reminder to “push…me…now!”
As I’m pushing them, Daniel gets impatient with the mere seconds it occupies me and says, “Daddy, you need to play catch with me or I’m going to be mad at you for the rest of my life.” This is all standard procedure.
Ezra hops off after a while and goes exploring around the yard. Ezra doesn’t simply walk from one place to another. His pattern of movement is to take a couple of steps, then skip and hop back and forth and side to side, as if he’s hearing some music in his head the rest of us don’t. He also waves his arms as if he’s conducting an orchestra. Watching it never gets old. He’s been doing it since he was 18 months old. Before that, he didn’t do much of anything but cry and scream day and night due to severe gastrointestinal distress from food allergies and intolerances.
Charlie’s still yelping, screeching, and hacking as he tugs at his chain. It’s too much for him that Ezra’s suddenly on the move like this.
“Daddy, you should let Charlie off the chain. He doesn’t want to be chained up,” Daniel says.
“I know, but he keeps eating his poop and then licking everybody.”
“Charlie’s gross!” Ezra calls out from behind the shed in the corner of the yard.
“He’s hurting my ears,” Daniel says. “I’m going inside.” He drops the Frisbee to the ground and heads inside, the storm door on the porch smashing shut behind him.
I check the time on my phone. It’s 11:45. I estimate that Daniel spent 15 minutes outside. That’s actually a long time for him. He usually finds something devastating to complain about within the first five minutes, some tragic deal-breaker that brooks no argument: “There’s flies out here!” “A mosquito bit me!” “The grass it too tall!” “There’s a cloud; it’s going to rain!” I’m proud of the kid.
I can vaguely see him through the back door to the sunporch. He’s hopped back into the computer chair. I’m sure he’s about to start another episode of Stick in the Mud. I believe he was getting close to the season finale “Tournament of Diarrhetics.” I remember the first time I heard that term I was impressed that the show would teach my kid a brand new word, a big word, a more clinical word. That feeling has waned, though, especially since Daniel has recently taken to calling his mom and me “diarrhea-headaches,” which is how he translates the word.
Jonah begins fussing in his baby swing. I undo his buckle and lift him out. He begins grunting and kicking to be set down. A couple of kicks land square in my crotch, still smarting from the injuries he’s been inflicting all morning. The nausea washes over me, and after setting him down I have to collect myself for a moment.
Charlie takes a moment from his yelping to vomit, the sight of which strangely makes my own nausea dissipate. I decide things will likely be fine if I let him off. My prime directive now is just to keep an eye on things. This will mostly consist of keeping Charlie a respectable distance away from the kids, which is far less annoying than listening to him try to wake the dead.
When I let him off, he makes a tear for the back door and begins hopping and dancing around it, tail thumping hard against the metal. He thinks there’s a treat coming. We have never given him treats after taking him off the chain. The chain is a form of punishment. We put him on it because he sucks, hard. Why he thinks he should now be rewarded I have no idea.
I ignore him and just begin following Jonah around the yard. We have various toys and attractions that he and Ezra both enjoy: a foot-powered car they can sit in, a tractor with a shovel, a wagon, and a sandbox. There is also a toy lawn mower they like to take turns pushing around as I mow the yard and a small rake they use to help me gather up leaves and gumballs. Jonah and Ezra take turns playing with each toy and rarely fight over them. They keep the peace very well back here. If it weren’t for Charlie’s nonsense, we could just throw the both of them in the backyard unsupervised and trust that all is well.
Eventually Jonah makes his way over to the sandbox. It’s shaped like a turtle and has a lid on it. He points at the lid, grunts, and says “okay” over and over. “Okay” has become an all-purpose word for him. He does use it for its intended meaning, but usually it means that he wants whatever he’s pointing at. I take the lid off, and he carefully steps over into the box.
“Okay!” he says pleasantly, a big smile on his face.
Every spring, I put three new 50-pound bags of sand in it. This is in May, when the weather starts getting consistently warm. By the first of July, the box is empty. This is because each boy, until he turns four, makes it his mission to methodically dump toy shovels full of sand out of the box for the duration of his time in it. We have buckets, boxes for shaping sand castles, and plastic molds for shaping the sand into various animals like a seahorse or an octopus. We even have one of those rock strainers in case the kids want to prospect the sand for gold. All useless. All they care about are the shovels and using them to dump sand out onto the grass. They scoop, then slowly pour the sand out into the grass, where it quickly loses its quality. I tried once to scoop the sand back into the box after Ezra was done for the day, but the sand was already mixed in with dirt, grass clippings, pill bugs, etc. Once it leaves the box, it’s useless.
I remember Daniel starting this trend when he was little. It drove me crazy. I tried to keep him from doing it, moving his shovel hand back over the sandbox every time he tried to dump a scoop. It was pointless. Emptying that sandbox one shovel-full at a time was his great joy in life. He was going to do it regardless of all my pitching and moaning. Still, I thought this meant he was a total screw-up. It would be a small step between this and selling crack. I needed to intervene in his life. Melody finally started sending me inside when Daniel was in the sandbox, just until I could grow some nerves and get over it.
I didn’t know it was just what all kids did. There wasn’t a primer on all the stuff your kids would do the wrong way. I still couldn’t bear it when Ezra started doing it. Now, I just have to look away and let it happen, knowing that these years are as dust in the wind. Or sand, rather. Ezra is on the cusp of growing out of it. I’ve discovered that the age at which kids stop dumping out the sand is also the exact age they lose interest in the sandbox entirely. I’m telling you now, if your kids start doing this, don’t freak out. This is apparently what they’re supposed to do with a sandbox, but nobody ever told you. They should write this into the instructions:
- Fill the sandbox with three 50-pound bags. Cheap sand. It won’t last, and your kids won’t care.
- Buy a couple shovels, but no other toys unless you’re just trying to give your dog something to chew so hopefully he won’t lick your kids with his poopy tongue.
- Watch as the level of the sand in the box diminishes at a medium pace for a month to a month and a half. By the end of that period, you should have a clean and empty sandbox, ready for your kids to start throwing random crap from around the yard in there.
Jonah finds a shovel and goes to work. I sigh and turn away. I find a lawn chair and settle down into it.
“Dad!” Ezra calls out from behind the shed.
“Dad, where are you?”
“Where are you?”
“I’m by the sandbox!”
“Oh! Are you by the sandbox?”
“Is Jonah playing in the sandbox?”
“Okay. Is Mommy at work?”
“No, she went to Bible study.”
“Is she at Bible study?”
“Okay. Mommy be back later.”
“I found a bug.”
Throughout this pointless, yet typical, conversation, I’ve just been browsing Facebook on my phone. One of Melody’s friends, Mandy, has posted a picture of her twins, a boy and a girl, playing in a turtle sandbox like ours. They’re about 2. The sandbox is full. The grass around it is perfectly clipped and groomed, a deep verdant green, the kind of lawn that makes a dad like me feel inadequate. The caption below the picture says, “Springtime fun!” Barf. It’s that sepia-toned Instagram nonsense, too. Mandy’s one of those Facebookers who posts pictures that make it look like everybody in her house fell out of bed and straight into a stock photo they use on banking and home-lending promotions. I have no doubt her sandbox is freshly filled, as is mine, it being the beginning of the season. In just a few days, that perfect circle of grass around her sandbox will be a mess, too. And her husband will be cursing the day they put the sandbox out there as he, like me, is weed-eating around it and feeling the agony of his shins shredded by microscopic bits of sand blasted into his skin at the speed of sound.
I think it would be funny to wait until mid-June, take a picture of what our kids have done to the sandbox, and post it in the comments to her post. I’ll say, “Mandy, your kids are doing it wrong.” This comment will be sandwiched between, “Oh wow! Their [sic] getting SO big!!!” and “You’re [sic] kids are beautiful!!!.1! [sic].” I’m sure by then I won’t even remember her posting this pic, however.
“Daddy, come see this bug!” Ezra calls out.
I consider blowing him off and telling him I have to watch Jonah. Melody and I call this “pleading baby.” Jonah does need a lot of supervision, so we’re not lying completely when we beg off of doing something for the sake of watching over him. However, watching him often beats a lot of mundane, terminally boring stuff the big boys want us to do with them and for them. My better nature takes over, though, and I get up to go see what Ezra’s found. Jonah’s pretty well distracted with his sand dumping. Charlie is mostly leaving the kids alone. Things should be okay for the moment.
When I get there, Ezra is pointing at a pincer beetle on the wall of the shed. I’ve never seen one in our backyard. We used to get them occasionally in my backyard at my childhood home. Just beyond my yard was the edge of a sizable forest. Little creepy crawlies like pincer beetles, ticks, centipedes, and so on weren’t out of the question. We’d even get some rare furry animals. Our black lab, Jake, cornered a porcupine once. (Thankfully, Jake escaped unquilled from the encounter.) That was fun. I didn’t know porcupines hissed and spit, but this one sure did.
“Wow, that’s cool, Ezra!” I say. I’m glad he didn’t try to pick it up. Jake had one latch on to his nose once, and he howled from the pain. I didn’t know if they really hurt all that bad, but at this point I really don’t want to comfort any more crying, screaming, snotty children.
“Yeah. It’s a big bug,” he observes.
“It’s called a pincer beetle,” I tell him.
“No, it’s a bug.”
“I know it’s a bug, but it’s a special kind of bug called a pincer beetle.”
He laughs and smacks his forehead. “Daddy, you’re being silly. It’s a bug.”
I just smile at him and agree with his conclusion. At some later point, Ezra will likely talk about his discovery, perhaps to Melody, and call the pincer beetle by name. This always happens. Everything is a debate, and he usually wins by his own logic. However, he will change his mind later in some subtle way that will concede the victory to me while also saving him face. His is a very sneaky, underhanded cleverness.
“Well I think it’s really cool you found this,” I tell him.
“Kill it, Daddy.”
“No, we don’t need to kill it,” I say. “It’s not doing anything wrong.”
He snorts and says, “Daddy! You have to kill bugs.”
“Only if they’re in our house or if they’re bothering us.”
“I don’t wike ‘dat bug. He’s barring me. Kill it.”
“Barring” is how he says “bothering.” Ezra is never easily deterred from a chosen course of action. The trick is not to win an argument with him because it’s futile. First, because he’s the typical three-year-old. Second, it’s because he’s already figured out he’s smarter than we are. The trick, then, is to convince Ezra that your better idea is actually his better idea, so I begin thinking how to change his mind for him. It’s like the movie Inception, only somehow more convoluted because it involves a three-year-old.
As I’m pondering, I hear a familiar, “Dsyuh!” Then clapping and “yay!”
In the split second before it happens, I think, Oh good Lord what is it this time? My body begins to flinch, but my involuntary nerve reactions are no match for the speed of Jonah’s pitch. Someday, he could be an intimidating hurler to rival Bob Gipson, Randy Johnson, or Nolan Ryan. This will be the last positive thought I have about Jonah’s throwing talent for the day, and perhaps for the foreseeable future.
I hear a whoosh, then the flying object smacks me in the midst of my fleeting daydream about his chances in the major leagues. It’s big, spongy-soft, and wet, and it seems to explode on impact or at least burst open. I have my eyes shut against it. After the impact, I can only open one eye because something is on my left eye. It feels both cool and disturbingly warm, and it’s moving. Whatever it is, it’s alive.
When I crack open my right eye, I see feathers drifting down through the air, slowly, sweetly, liltingly. Subtle oranges tell me they are robin’s feathers.
“Daddy, Jonah threw the dead bird,” Ezra says.
“The” dead bird. Why “the”? Did Ezra know about this dead bird? Did others know about this bird Jonah just threw? Was I informed and just had forgotten about it? In those first few hundredths of a second, my mind is racing, and it registers this insult that there was some bird in our yard that everyone but me was privy to, perhaps even Melody.
I then hear the buzzing. Oh, the horror of the buzzing. Flies, at least two dozen of them, agitated, distressed. We have the traditional house fly and the more nefarious common green bottle fly, its coloring brilliant and metallic. I can hear their loud buzzing. They’re huge. They’re the ones who show up for the choicest excrement and decomposing corpse, to feast and to deposit eggs. They’re all around me, some even landing on me. I can feel their feet against the skin of my legs, perhaps buzzing around the robin carcass that landed there after striking me. I can picture them vomiting after they land on me; I once watched a nature documentary that said they did that.
The crowd of flies and the bustle of activity tell me this bird has been decomposing perhaps for a couple of days in our very moist spring climate. The thing crawling on my eyelid, the thing both cool and warm to the touch, is a maggot. When this realization hits me, I panic and swat the thing off, then wipe furiously at the side of my face. There are wet things there. I don’t look at my hand. I dare not take inventory. I hope that it’s mostly dew, as the grass is still saturated with the stuff this morning. However, I know that’s probably not true. I feel my hair shift and move in a few places, and I go on another frenzy swatting and shaking the maggots out. This makes Jonah and Ezra laugh.
“Daddy! Why are you dancing?” Ezra asks.
Then the smell hits me. The smell of small dead animals is not unfamiliar to me. I hate it as much as anyone else, but it’s tolerable because you can hold your breath as you dispose of the offending corpse. It’s strong, but it’s not like coming across, say, a dead deer or cow. You can hold the thing away from your nose, and the distance mitigates the problem. However, wearing decomposing flesh is quite another matter, perhaps much like being sprayed by a skunk … from hell. A demon skunk.
I begin retching. This makes Ezra laugh and then begin to imitate me, then Jonah laughs. But I hold my pancakes in. Now is not the time to lose it. The baby’s health is at risk. He’s quite proud of his throw, as he has been all morning. I see that the flies are buzzing around him a little. Not nearly so much as around me. I’ve had more direct contact with the meat they’re looking for. Jonah has turned his attention away from my gagging to his own hands, which have a few maggots hanging off of them.
History has told me well what is bound to happen next, and sure enough he picks off a maggot, observes it, and begins to put it in his mouth.
“Jonah, no!” I shout.
He’s startled. He drops the curiosity and begins crying.
“Dad, Jonah’s crying,” Ezra says.
I step around the bird. Jonah’s crying is ear-splitting even outside, but again, when he cries he can’t do anything else, and I need him to stand there and make no further moves.
“The bird is gross, Dad,” Ezra says, but he’s bent over it, watching the bird’s chest pulsate with the maggots feasting inside and the flies that are burrowing in to lay more eggs.
“Don’t touch it!” I say over my shoulder.
“I not, Dad.”
Still, he’s close enough to touch it should the mood strike him. I rely on the power of the white lie in parenting: “If you touch it, you’ll get sick and die.”
Ezra jumps back from it as if it burned him. It doesn’t occur to him that by my logic, Jonah and I are doomed. I think the powers of debate don’t really kick in until age four. At least, that’s how it was with Daniel.
I brush the maggots off of Jonah’s hands and look him over really well to make sure he doesn’t have anything else on him I should know about. I scoop him up and rush him to the faucet on the southwest corner of the house, where we keep Charlie’s food and water bowl. Charlie is chained up over here. He sees us approaching and begins yanking against his chain, choking himself and putting himself into a horrendous coughing fit. He stops from his yelping and coughing here and there to spit something up.
When we arrive, Charlie begins licking at us furiously. Jonah takes a break from his crying to laugh at the dog. The dog follows us to the faucet, licking and jumping without putting his paws on us. I first rinse Jonah’s hands in the faucet. The water comes on way too strong and splashes up from his hands into his face, but he loves it.
Once I’m sure he’s thoroughly rinsed, I pick him up again, carry him to the back door, and toss him onto the sun porch. This sets off his waterworks again, and as expected, the walls and windows of the porch do virtually nothing to mitigate the noise. I then take my own turn at the faucet, scooping the water onto my face and rubbing liberally. I also get a few handfuls through my hair. A full shower would be preferable, but I doubt that Mr. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (once known as Jonah) would let me do that while he continued in his effort to watch the world burn.
Ezra has come over to join me, doing his walk-hop-skip routine. Even from my standpoint in hell, I find it cute. The moment he gets within the dog’s radius, Charlie sweeps his butt into Ezra, knocking him down. He then stands victoriously over the boy, looking to me out of the corner of his eye to see if I’m proud of him for conquering my child.
Ezra screams in frustration, stands up, and commences to kick the dog and rain punches down on him.
Ezra pauses, fist raised. Jonah’s beating on the windows, screaming at me in indignation for whatever reason. I have dead stuff on my skin. I’ve had half-eaten poop dribbled onto my bare foot. Ezra’s been knocked over and humiliated just for being where the dog could reach him. And this useless animal is the cause of all of it.
“You know what, son? Knock yourself out.”
Ezra recommences his assault on the dog (and his campaign for my father of the year award). I return to my cold-water rinse. My clothes are soaked through by the time I’m finished, but it’s good to know that the remnants of what used to be a bird on my skin are much diminished.
“All right, then,” I announce to the unseen world of imps and djinns that are wreaking havoc on my day. “Let’s fix this.”
For the next hour, I go on a tear and pick up every last item this kid has thrown, thought of throwing, or will throw before the day is out, and get it out of his reach (minus the bird, of course—I’ll dispose of that properly). The first task is to do something I had always intended to do but never got around to: pick up every last pile of dog poop and dead animal from the yard and toss it in the garbage. Back when we had both dogs, Melody had bought a pooper scooper. It’s not very high-tech, just small shovel with tines on the end of it—I suppose for spearing poop. I have no idea why the thing had tines on it. I never use the thing and she rarely does, but suddenly it looks like my best friend.
Jonah continues to cry, so I know he’s occupied with something nondestructive. I retrieve the scooper from the shed. Ezra sees I’m doing something interesting and begins asking me questions and making his own observations. He skips and walks behind me as I scoop up poop and the dead bird and place it in a garbage bag. I pay the closest attention to the northeast corner of the yard where Charlie does most of his business.
“We’ve got Charlie all over the place,” I like to quip to Melody. I suppose I’m rather fond of this phrase, having found multiple uses for it throughout the morning’s activities. We didn’t know when we named Charlie that Vietnam jokes were going to be all the rage in our household.
One pile after another is scooped. Many of them are half-eaten. Off in his corner, Charlie yelps, gags, and coughs. I wonder if he’s upset I’m taking his meal ticket. I picture him getting desperate enough to begin trying to catch it as it leaves his body, before I can get to it. The dog has a real fetish. Good gosh, he’s horrible.
Before too long, I’ve picked up every last dropping I could find. The grass is always very thick during the growing season, regardless of how often and how short I cut it. It’s well-nourished by all the fertilizer the dog is laying down. Many of the piles, in addition to being partially eaten, are also tread well into the grass, so I dig up a good tangle of grass along with the pile when I scoop it up with the tines. In a few cases, I have to pull up extra hard, but carefully, as the plastic of the tined scoop is easily cracked.
I encounter an especially grievous specimen near the fence-line. Ezra stands at my side, cheering me on. I have to really dig the scoop under it, snagging a good tangle of various fescues in the process. Once I’m sure I’ve captured the whole of it, I do my strategic jerk and tug to extract the poop without breaking the scoop. After a few seconds, I just about have it. I can feel the imminent release, and I prepare myself to stop the momentum once it happens. No such luck, though. With the wet, stretching sound of tearing grass, the scoop comes free, and I hit myself in the head with it. Poop goes flying. Some of it hits me in the face, and I catch a good whiff of that acrid, sharp odor of a broken dog turd when the air trapped inside it is released.
Fortunately at this point I have my eyes and mouth shut, prepared for the worst-case scenario that I did, indeed, encounter.
“Charlie, you stupid, stupid dog!” I yell in between a fresh set of gags.
“Daddy! Don’t say stupid. That’s a bad word,” Ezra admonishes.
“Ezra, just don’t.”
“Ugh, Daddy!” he chuckles. “You have to put the poop in the bag.” He points at the bag for clarification.
The poop is mostly dry and mercifully doesn’t smear on my face like every other bodily fluid and waste product I’ve encountered today. The smell is still there, though. I will definitely be scrubbing the moment I get back inside.
This is the last pile of excrement in the yard. I scoop up the turd fragments I can find, cinch the bag shut, and set it over the fence by the dumpster. This is that same southwest corner where Charlie is chained up. He can smell the bag, tantalizingly out of his reach. He sniffs the air and whines mournfully for all of the fallen soldiers he holds so dear.
“I need to go inside and clean up, Ezra.”
“I’m not dirty,” he says, hopping and dancing in place as he does.
“I know. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about me. I have dog poop on my face.”
“Ugh, Daddy!” He covers his giggling mouth with his hands. “You said ‘poop’ again.”
I leave him outside to play. I love his age, when we can leave him in the backyard to do what he wants. He usually doesn’t cause too much irreversible damage. Short of ripping the siding off the house—which none of the kids have ever attempted, probably because they didn’t know it was possible—there’s nothing he could do that couldn’t be undone. At the age of three, both Daniel and Ezra seemed to finally understand they are not to touch, eat, play with, or otherwise engage with the dog’s excrement or kills. That is our biggest concern for the backyard.
Unfortunately, by the age of four they begin to find the safety of the backyard incredibly boring, if Daniel is any indication. In spite of attractions like the swing-set, the turtle sandbox, the small trampoline, the dog, the wide-open space in general, and the toy vehicles we bring out there for them to ride, like the tractor and the foot-powered car, Daniel finds the backyard to be mind-numbingly dull. This is why he goes back inside so shortly after going out there, using any excuse he can.
The front yard is where he’d rather be, although I’m not sure why. We have a basketball goal in the driveway, lowered to the level he’s used to playing with his Upwards basketball team at church. I have to force him to play with it, and usually he’s only good for about ten to twenty shots. And God forbid I ever challenge him with a bit of good-natured defense. That’s a deal-breaker. He screams at me for being unfair, then heads right back inside for more Stick in the Mud (or his favorite anime series Sukablo Slam!!—yes, two exclamation points).
He also has a bicycle he can ride around the cul-de-sac, and even though it has training wheels, he prefers to ride the hot wheels, a three-wheeled plastic contraption that sits low to the ground. The hot wheels is more suited to Ezra now, so it’s officially his, and Ezra is quick to exercise his rights over it when Daniel’s not using it. This makes Daniel mad, and he stomps back into the house, exclaiming over his shoulder, “Ezra, you’re making me mad, and I’m not going to be your friend anymore. I’m not going to look at you for the next hundred minutes!” That one especially amuses me because he doesn’t realize that a hundred minutes is not even two hours and is therefore an empty threat. Also, why would we care if he doesn’t look at us? Why Daniel considers this a punishment or revenge is beyond me.
All of the bubble wands and soap are in the garage, so we could sit out front and blow bubbles, but this becomes frustrating as well. Ezra and Jonah both seem to think it’s a productive use of resources to pour all of the bubble soap right onto the ground, immediately. This makes both Daniel and me crazy. Jonah will then pass his wand through the drying puddle a couple of times and stick the wand directly in his mouth. This is how he thinks it’s done.
Daniel also begs for us to toss the Frisbee in the front yard, even though there is much less space for it than in the backyard. More than that, however, is the fact that Jonah walks off constantly, and I have to keep my eye on him every second. The moment his feet step outside, he makes a beeline down the street. I haven’t yet found a project that’s worthy of his attention. We have sidewalk chalk he could draw with. He usually scribbles with it for a minute, then tries to eat it. When I take the chalk out of his mouth, he gets mad, throws the chalk down, then heads off down the street because that was what he really wanted to do in the first place.
It upsets Daniel when I have to chase Jonah down. He begins suggesting solutions: “Can’t you just strap him in the carseat?”
“No, Daniel. He won’t go for it. He wants to move around. And besides, it gets really hot in the car. It’s dangerous for him.”
“Dad, you can roll the windows down.”
“It will still get too hot.”
At this point, he will shake his head and throw up his hands in exasperation, looking off in some other direction like he can’t believe Dad is so stupid. “Then just put him inside the house!”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Because he gets into things. We have to watch him constantly.”
By this point in the conversation, I’m usually breaking away to chase Jonah down. Daniel will then say, “Fine, if you’re not going to play with me, I’m going inside for the rest of my life.”
When Melody and I are both home and she can watch the little terror so Daniel and I can finally have some uninterrupted father-son time outside, it doesn’t come up roses. Daniel is also on a baseball team. It’s now a few weeks into the spring season. We hope to do a summer session as well, so long as he enjoys it. I try to get Daniel to play baseball with me whenever I can. Again, he prefers the front yard, where apparently all his dreams come true and the magic really happens. We have an array of windows on the front of the house, about twice as many as on the back, and our next-door neighbors’ windows are also easily within range. The danger is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Daniel exclusively prefers to play with a plastic bat and a wiffle ball. He will not let me play with a baseball. Here’s how that conversation usually goes:
“Hey Daniel, what say we go outside and play some baseball?”
“Sure Dad!” He then runs and finds Melody. “Mom, you watch Jonah. Make sure he doesn’t come outside and make Dad watch him. We’re going to play baseball.”
I tell him, “She knows, bud. You grab the gear while I put my shoes on.”
After getting shod, I go into the backyard to join him, only to find he isn’t there. This despite me telling him, constantly, that the backyard is better for baseball, that we can throw and hit the ball farther back there.
“No Dad, Charlie gets in the way!” Daniel will say, which is true. And I know that if I tie him up, he’s just going to yelp at us and choke himself the whole time.
So I go into the front yard to find him holding a wiffle ball and a big red bat, every time, without fail, even though I’ve expressed to him repeatedly the importance that we now begin to practice with a real baseball. Also, he does not have his glove on him. For Daniel, “baseball” consists of me pitching the ball to him and him swinging, or rather chopping downward, at every single pitch. He yells at me when I don’t pitch it in the strike zone, which for him consists of any pitch he misses. I tell him not to swing at the ones he can’t hit. He tells me to throw it better. My discussion of balls and walks falls on deaf ears, which I suppose makes sense, as they don’t count strikes and balls in his age group coach-pitch league anyway.
Insisting upon using a real baseball is another deal-breaker that sends Daniel right back inside to Stick in the Mud or Sukablo Slam!!. It goes like this: I’ll see him standing out in the front yard with the giant red plastic bat and his wiffle ball and say, “That’s not baseball, Daniel. Let’s go get your gear.”
“No! You’re going to make me play catch, and that’s boring! You always do it wrong and never play by my rules. Just throw the ball, and I’ll hit it, and you go get it.”
“Daniel, you’ll never get better if you’re not practicing the way you play with your team.”
“No! The baseball’s going to hit me, and it’s going to hurt.” He throws down the bat and ball in disgust and stomps back in. Thus ends this father-son experience of practicing and enjoying the nation’s great pastime.
I once made the mistake of posting about this interminable battle on Facebook. It was meant to be humorous, but of course people take it and run with it in their own biased directions.
The first response was from Melody: “Haha, this happens every time. Poor Daddy.” That one was okay, but it fed others’ flames. Tell me if any of these comments are helpful to anyone:
“Ugh, I hate baseball. It’s so boring.”
“Man, that’s so weird. My little Holden loves baseball. He’s been swinging a bat ever since he could walk. Last week in coach-pitch, he hit it over the fence. They spent about a half-hour looking for the ball out there but never found it. He’s a golf prodigy, too. Plus, he was potty-trained at eight months.”
“Soren and Indigo were never into sports, and we decided not to push them. I’m glad I didn’t. Soren is now dungeon master for his D&D club and couldn’t be happier. Indigo now plays penny-whistle for her traveling madrigal choir. Adam, I say if he doesn’t want to play, don’t push him. You can do a lot of damage that way.”
What nobody realizes (and what I didn’t bother to post in response because seriously, why feed these people? Why are they so invested in telling me how to raise my kid as if he’s like theirs?) is that Daniel is probably the happiest kid I’ve ever seen on a baseball diamond. He loves his teammates. His coaches push him, but just the right way. They allow the kids to have a good time out there, but the coaches are also there to build discipline and teamwork. They hold Daniel accountable. They correct his batting stance to the minutest detail each time he’s up to bat, and doggone if that kid doesn’t hold his posture. He usually connects when the pitch is right (there, as here, he swings at everything he sees), and he’s happy as a clam, pumping his fist as he trots down to first base. He’s never seen video of the famous Kirk Gibson home run in the 1987 World Series, but he looks just like him when he does that. He also runs about as slow, not because he’s injured like Gibson was but because for Daniel, running is about style, not speed. He wants to look good doing it.
Not only does he want to look good, though, but Daniel seems not to want to get to first base before the ball does. Daniel watches the ball closely, and the person handling it. If it looks like it’s taking a while to get a hold of the ball and throw it to first—which it usually does because they’re all four- to six-year-olds—Daniel slows up his run even further than what it is. Melody or I, whoever’s not currently chasing down a toddler, is screaming at him just to run faster. His coaches are a bit more encouraging, but we sound as if he’s about to be eaten by a shark and needs to get out of the water. It makes no difference. He’s giggling all the way, arms raised, fist pumping, whatever. Through the usual mishandling of the ball, Daniel makes it more often than not, in spite of his best efforts to be a gentleman and let the ball beat him to the base. Occasionally, by some miracle, he makes it all the way home, and that already beaming smile splits his face wide open. And I realize that his smile is what this experience is all about.
He concentrates more than most of his teammates as well. Daniel is part of a co-ed team. It’s still that magical era when girls are told they can play baseball with the boys and compete with them, before people start teaching them not to play so well and try softball instead, relegating them to the overgrown, weed infested, unmaintained old diamond tucked away in the corner that time forgot on their school’s property. For now, the girls are the best part of the team. They hit more consistently and farther, run faster, and field the ball better than any of the boys. They also concentrate and never cry when they get hurt. They’re incredible, but they’re the only players who take the game more seriously than Daniel. Most of the other boys on his team spend their time in the field putting dirt in their hats and gloves and pouring it out all over themselves or their teammates, picking wedgies and their noses, watching bugs crawl around in front of them, etc. In the dugout, they like to climb the chain-link fence on the back, seeing if they can get all the way to the roof before one of the coaches’ wives catches them. They spit water all over each other, too. Daniel occasionally gives in to the temptation to do the same, but for the most part, the kid is thinking about the game. He’s transfixed by it.
He is a little easily distracted in the dugout, but not like the other kids are. He doesn’t climb the fence or spit water. He instead tries to engage other kids in conversation, usually about his favorite TV shows or games like Minecraft. However, when the coaches or their wives, who are there just to rein the kids in and keep them grounded in both body and mind, tell the kids to focus and to cheer each other on, Daniel’s the first to snap to attention, and he quickly admonishes the others to do the same, usually to no avail.
On the diamond, the kid is full-on engaged and needs no admonishment. He’s frequently positioned next to his two best friends, somewhere between the bases (the kids don’t use the outfield because it’s understood that most of them can’t hit that far). When we first saw the coaches place them together, we thought it wouldn’t work and considered telling the coaches to put Daniel with kids he didn’t know. And then we saw Daniel lock in. He pounded his fist into his glove and bent over, hands on his knees, poised to leap at any line drive that came his way. He didn’t hold this position for more than a few minutes. What kid could, when innings stretch out interminably as each team bats through the order? Each kid gets five pitches and usually needs that many just to make contact with the ball, if he or she ever makes contact. Still, it’s such a serious posture, and he does it every time he takes the field. The kid doesn’t much like watching baseball on TV but loves watching it live, as I saw the first time I took him to a Springfield Cardinals came (our local double-A minor league affiliate). He was four years old and was spellbound at least until the sixth inning. This seems to have fed his locked-in concentration. And the coaches were smart to place him next to his friends. Rather than get distracted by his buddies, Daniel was actually a stabilizing influence on them. They played with and sat down in the dirt, picked at wedgies, talked to each other, wandered off, etc., like every other kid—at first. Then they noticed Daniel; they noticed him noticing there was a game in front of him. Over time, they started to pay attention as well. We call them “the big three” because at any moment when our little players are on the field, those guys are typically locked in.
Of course, they still have a ways to go. When the ball is knocked their way, nine times out of ten they’ll totally miff the play. This is expected, though. The ball goes through their legs or they watch it as it passes them by, then they go running toward it all together, like a small convent of pigeons pouncing on bread crumbs. They’ve almost come to blows over who gets to pick up the ball and make the play. Daniel tends to want to pick up the ball with his glove rather than his bare hand because that means he officially caught the ball. We’re still teaching him that one. When one of them finally has possession of the ball, he has no idea where to throw it, even amid the coaches’ frantic shouting and gesticulating. When he does throw it, it goes wide, too high, or straight on the ground three feet in front of him, depending on which boy it is. Daniel’s is too high, for the record. I’m really glad I’m not the father of the kid who throws the ball on the ground, although that boy is a fantastic runner. In short, don’t tell me sports are not his thing. Practicing with his dad is not his thing.
So baseball doesn’t work at home—at least, not the commonly accepted version of it. I will sometimes deign to let him use the wiffle ball and the big plastic bat, provided I haven’t already eternally offended him by begging to differ with his equipment. Another thing we try sometimes is football. I have a regulation-sized ball that I try to interest him in. He’s never so much as held it.
The first time he saw it, he cried, “No! That’s going to hurt me! I don’t want to play with it!”
Fair enough. I’ve had the thing since I was 11, and even then it was too big and unwieldy for a small guy like me. We purchased a Nerf football a few years ago, and he seems to enjoy that one every once in a while. We’re good for two or three tosses before he decides a) he’s bored and needs to go inside to watch poopy game shows or screaming anime; b) it’s hot outside, and he needs to go inside to cool down and watch poopy game shows or screaming anime; or c) he’d rather play Frisbee, and if I don’t let him, he’s going inside to watch poopy game shows or screaming anime. Another deal-breaker on the Nerf football these days is that Ezra bit off the end of it two weeks ago. Why? I don’t know. Ezra’s not a biter or a chewer, especially not at three and a half years old. When Daniel wants to lawyer me away from the football and toward the Frisbee, he claims that he can’t play with the football because of the missing chunk. True, it doesn’t spiral, but otherwise the thing throws fine. Daniel argues that the edges of the missing section are sharp and will cut him when he catches the ball. I’ve never known a Nerf ball to cut someone, but Daniel could cook up a story about how it happened to him one time, a story that would be outlandish to a rational mind but would make perfect sense to his.
So the front yard is an exhausting thought considering the turmoil this morning, but I reckon we’ll find ourselves out there eventually. It’s inevitable. It’s where dreams come true, hearts are broken, and brotherly love turns to hate. Meanwhile, I have Jonah to deal with.
I take Charlie off his chain before I come in. By this point, Ezra has kicked and punched him enough that Charlie wants nothing to do with him for the moment. I imagine once Ezra’s attention turns to something else, Charlie will be right back by his side, ready to butt-sweep him to the ground again. I’m just glad not to hear the screeching, yelping, and choking for a while.
Jonah’s still a bit of a mess when I find him on the porch, but he’s a happy mess now. Boogers and snot are drying and caking around his nose and across his cheeks. He’s oblivious to this, and he has happily begun playing with balls, puzzles, and toys he finds around him.
“Doing better?” I ask him.
He looks up at me and makes what we call his “funny face.” He scrunches up his nose, squints his eyes until they’re almost shut, and smiles real big. This is something I taught him to do at dinner a month ago, one of the highlights of my life. He does it when he wants to get a laugh, and when Jonah’s not crying, he pretty much always wants to get a laugh.
It evokes the response he was looking for, and he laughs back at me.