I never imagined I would inherit a kid. I always liked the idea of passing on my genes by some vague method, but for most of my life I was never in any place which looked as though it might lead to such an eventuality. I read Susan D. Blackmore's excellent The Meme Machine and told myself that I would instead pass on my ideas, my memes rather than my genes. In any case, it seemed to be the way we, as a society, were going.
I never expected to marry anyone, or to meet anyone I would want to marry within days of having met them, or that a marriage resting upon so seemingly tenuous a foundation ever stood a chance of working; and yet here we all are, complete with a son from my wife's previous spell of matrimony. The prospect of suddenly becoming a stepfather would have seemed daunting had I thought about it, which I didn't because I filed the thought away under the heading of bridges to be crossed when the time is right.
My first meeting with the boy, such as it was, was as a face looming up on a screen as Bess and I were attempting transatlantic communication by means of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam. He wanted to know what she was doing and so I was introduced as Mommy's friend, the one she'd met in England. He was six or maybe seven and seemed to enjoy the novelty, if not the diversion of attention away from himself. The first thing he said to me was:
This was followed by further strings of what the Futurist F.T. Marinetti once termed parole in libertá, in this instance spontaneously generated by a small fist hitting a laptop keyboard in preface to an animated fight with virtual water balloons. This was an additional feature of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam, one allowing users to season text not only with smiley faces and the like, but a button which delivers a smirking cartoon child to my screen, a bratty homeboy who hurls an animated water balloon at the viewer. The projectile grows as it approaches until it fills the screen and then appears to burst with an electronically sampled splash. It's probably funny if you're six or seven but soon becomes repetitive for anyone older.
Meeting the boy in person was different and somehow involved less direct interaction. He didn't seem to understand what I was or how he was expected to process my presence. It wasn't so much that he disliked me, or even resented the intrusion - which would at least have been understandable - but he seemed somehow in awe of me, which was weird, and this was combined with his having become unusually fixated upon his mother over the years. He wasn't shy. He simply didn't talk to me, or interact with me. He gabbled away about nothing to his mother and would seemingly ignore me when I spoke; but it always turned out that he simply hadn't heard the question, his focus having been on other matters, and he's the same even now at the age of thirteen so it's just the way he is. Also, he was weirdly pushy for such a small kid, somehow precocious and yet without either the vocabulary or social skills to quite excuse it as idiosyncratic charm. His apparent confidence seemed astonishing, almost obnoxious, but as I've learnt, none of it is born of malice or is intended in quite the way it can sometimes seem. It's just how he is.
Bess told me that as soon as he was old enough to be costumed and taken trick or treating, he'd insisted they go as a bat and a pirate, his mother in fake paper wings.
'Wait,' I asked, incredulous. 'How old did you say he was?'
'About three, and my Mom took his side.'
'So you let a three-year old tell you what to do?'
I no longer need to ask such questions, having experienced his weirdly single-minded sense of purpose first hand. It's not really coercion so much as just really knowing his own mind, and you get used to it eventually.
We went to San Antonio zoo. It was odd but not unpleasant. He knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to see, and once there he'd lecture us on whatever animal we were looking at. Did we know this? and Did we know that? but his speech was difficult to understand and some of his assertions were patently ridiculous, and anyway - shouldn't it be him asking the questions? What's that animal called, and so on? It was hard to even get a word in edgeways, not least because doing so would be to engage in a pissing contest with a small child, and we'd all end up feeling weird and bad and wishing we'd just kept our mouths shut.
'No, I'm pretty sure you'll find that elephants are from either Africa or India.'
He'd frown in thought and then announce, 'I don't think so,' like you'd asked him a question; but this came later, our first interaction beyond laptop screens and virtual water balloons occurred at the sand pit. Bess and I were exhausted with the novelty of this new world we were building and so we took the boy to the play area for a break from him lecturing us. He hit the sand pit and began making pyramids, but I could see his technique was pitiful.
'Screw it,' I told myself and went to join him. I sat on the wooden edging and started piling on sand, so he began directing me, making suggestions; and we opened negotiations. Later we collaborated on his latest Star Wars Lego piece, and I got the hang of how to tell him he's got it all wrong without it sounding like I'm calling him an idiot, after which I began to understand what made him tick a little better, if not why. We drove to Austin a few days later, which was tough with the continuous monologue coming from the rear, but I just had to go with it so I climbed over the back of my seat and submitted myself to an extended lecture on the numerous beasts of How to Train Your Dragon, illustrated with action figures and delivered as a seemingly endless series of lists. It would have been more entertaining had I been able to understand a few more of his words, but his enthusiasm made up for the shortfall. Much of the return journey was taken up with the animal guessing game. He wasn't very good at it but compensated by ignoring the rules with amusing abandon, finally defeating both Bess and I with the mystifying initials RB, which turned out to be rock buddy, which I suppose is what you call a rock who happens to be your buddy; which was the first time he made me laugh.
Bess and I were married and we all settled into a routine. The boy's personality remained forceful, unusually focussed, and occasionally a little abrasive. I'd ask him to do things and he wouldn't, or I'd ask him to stop doing things which he'd keep on doing regardless, and all because he's a kid and that's how they are so there's no point in taking it personally. I began to turn our yard into a garden by digging the whole thing up. This yielded huge mounds of large stones and so I made borders for flower beds, packing the stones tight as though making a drystone wall.
'I need bugs,' the boy tells me, and so I point to the borders I've made. 'There were quite a lot out there. Look under the stones, but put them back in the same places when you're done,' and he does this, but his interpretation of the same places means roughly within three or four feet of the original position. I am displeased, and my displeasure will be referenced each time I mention how the boy never goes out into the garden. It's because he's afraid of you, I will be told, and there'll be nothing more to say; but right now I've dug sixty-five paving slabs of red porous stone up from a corner of the garden and am planning to relocate them in a more practical setting at the rear of the porch. I've excavated a large rectangle of earth, levelled it as best I can with sand, and now the boy comes out to help me. He likes the look of the digging. I give him the other spade and he gets to work on a hole of his own, one which has more to do with art than landscaping.
'You realise I'm going to be covering this whole patch over with paving slabs?' I tell him.
He looks around. 'But what about the hole?'
'Well, that's where I was hoping to put the slabs down, so it will be covered over.' I'm silently kicking myself for my failure to deliver the cruel truth, that the hole he has dug is without purpose.
He considers this a little, then makes an announcement. 'I do have an idea.'
This is a really odd tick of his, the I do statements delivered as though in answer to a question we've all been asking ourselves.
'Go on,' I suggest.
He explains how we can finish the hole he's been digging, and how we can then lay down the slabs as I've proposed with the hole left intact. Therefore whenever we need to access the hole again, we can just lift the slabs and it will be there. I don't know why he thinks we will need to revisit the hole unless in the interests of nostalgia. There is a dreamlike logic to many of his suggestions.
We're out walking and we pass a fallen section of tree trunk. He'll run to it, climb over, start jumping up and down on it and looking for bugs, all inevitably leading up to, 'can we take it home?'
'It's five foot long and is too heavy and we couldn't fit it in the car if we tried,' we tell him; which is true, but we don't want to crush his dreams with the more honest there is no good reason why we should take that tree trunk to our home. We silently think of the other crap he's found now living in his room because no-one could come up with any good philosophical argument against his taking possession of a three foot length of telephone cable or the rusting hub cap from a truck.
We walk on and then it comes.
'I do know a way we could take the tree trunk home with us,' because he thinks we've been puzzling it over, trying to come up with a solution.
How can we make this happen?
He does know a way, and it's always something ridiculous which wouldn't work but nevertheless has its own internal logic of sorts. I do know a way has been applied to everything from abandoned cars to actual fully grown deer which he's already given a name and added to our expanding roster of household pets. He acquires things, or aspires to them because he likes the look of them and for no other reason that either of us can fathom. Trips around Lowes or Home Depot were once characterised by the boy asking for purchase of something he would have no justification for owning - as though we're in a toy store - a length of plastic pipe, a sink plunger, a box with holes by which one may sort different sizes of nails and screws. My wife and I now have a game between ourselves, what would Junior want based on who can pick the most esoteric item in the store, the thing the kid would ask us to buy him for no sane reason.
Six years down the line, it has become easier - no less weird, but at least somehow more familiar. His voice has broken and his vocabulary expands into increasingly baroque realms by which every other sentence is qualified with if I'm not mistaken or if I remember correctly, but it's easier to understand what he's saying if not why he's saying it. Every thing is still an announcement, often prefixed with a question - 'I do know [general outline of subject],' followed by 'would you like me to tell you about it?', and then a series of hesitations and bullet points. 'Well... wait... let me see... number one: the thing you really need to know about sharks is that...'
Six years down the line and it's more funny than annoying. He's weird, but not in a bad way, and we're probably all weird by one definition or another. The three of us have taken to family walks each Sunday afternoon, based on Danny Trejo suggesting that a good parent will make memories by dragging their kid away from the iPad whether they like it or not. The boy is still operating from a position of peculiar focus, and he'll probably never grow out of delivering long, long lists of fascinating facts to an audience which may not even be particularly interested, and occasionally he'll still find some object which we're not bringing home under any circumstances, and yet it will turn out that he does know a way...
It's been exhausting, but educational, and thankfully some of it has been fun. I'm not sure I'll be passing on an inheritance of any of my ideas after all, but maybe it doesn't matter.