It's taken a while, but I finally seem to have achieved some kind of communicative syncretism with the child, the fruit of my wife's previous marriage, my stepson. He was six and puzzling when I first showed up, although even then it was already clear that his sense of humour lay at a healthy tangent to that of everyone else in the universe. All that he lacked was the means by which to communicate it. Here's the first joke he ever told me, one of his own compositions:
The joke had the cadence of something proposed by one who has not yet grasped what humour is or how a joke is supposed to work, but as time has passed I've come to realise that Junior knew exactly what he was doing. It's an unfunny joke, specifically a joke which relies upon defying audience expectation of the punchline making sense or being conventionally amusing. I too went through an unfunny joke phase, as did a number of my friends at school, the apotheosis of which would probably have been the block of wood joke cycle pioneered by Jason Roberts.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because he was glued to the block of wood.
You probably had to be there. We were about fourteen, so it could be argued that Junior has been ahead of the developmental curve in this respect.
The timeshare jokes started a couple of years ago, beginning with him asking friends, relatives, and occasionally random strangers whether they would like to buy a timeshare. None of us really found it particularly entertaining, which is probably what made it funny for him, so he continued. In fact he really hammered that thing into the ground, so much so that it eventually became funny. My wife paid for and built him a sarcastic website for his last birthday. Subsequent gift-giving occasions have further furnished him with timeshare-themed business cards and custom printed promotional pens which he gives out to other kids whilst savouring their utter confusion. My biggest fear was once that I might be stepfather to some drooling games-addict man-child who can name four-thousand different species of Pokémon but never quite got the hang of wiping his own arse; but happily it turns out that I'm stepfather to Chris Morris. My adopted child is a living Swiftian satire on late capitalism.
Now it's his fourteenth birthday. It's morning and my wife is headed off, first to collect the boy from his father's house and convey him to zoo camp, and then to work.
'Wait!' I say. I'm washing dishes. I pull the plastic lid of a Land O'Lakes butter carton from the water, swipe it clean, dry it off and hand it to her.
'Here. Give him this and tell him happy birthday from me.'
'He'll be thrilled,' my wife chuckles.
I haven't bought him anything because it's difficult to buy for him, so many of his interests being in non-corporeal things inhabiting screens of one kind or another; which leaves us just with the thoughts which supposedly count. The thoughts which count for me are that I've bought him nearly everything he's eaten under this roof for the last six years, and kept his room clean, and that he's surrounded by relatives forever throwing money at him, so he gets a butter lid and he'll be glad of it. I have a hunch that this kind of useless gift will appeal to his sense of humour, and it's given as an homage to the relatives of my friend Carl, specifically his grandfather and sister. The two of them never saw eye to eye and would present each other with cheap passive-aggressive gifts at Christmas, a newspaper one year, a packet of crisps the next.
We formally celebrate the boy's birthday in the evening with a meal at Magic Time Machine, a themed restaurant. The theme is vague, depending upon who the waiters and waitresses feel like impersonating from the worlds of film, television, comic books, showbusiness, or whatever else the dressing-up box has coughed up. They're mostly pretty good, staying in ludicrously exaggerated character as Jack Sparrow, Batman, or Lara Croft whilst taking our order; and best of all, it's mostly amateurish, enthusiastic, and aware of its own absurdity as opposed to slick and corporate, more Rocky Horror than Magic Kingdom. I guess the waiters and waitresses get to pick which character they play based on how well they feel able to pull off a convincing Spiderman or Marge Simpson or whoever. This means that our own table is attended by Miranda.
Miranda wears a striped shirt, too much lipstick, baggy pants with the message haters back off inscribed on the ass, and we haven't heard of her either.
'I have a series on Netflix,' she explains in a weird voice, patently an impersonation of someone none of us recognise. 'You should really watch it.'
I suppose this at least means that should I ever apply for work at Magic Time Machine, I'll be free to bypass Robocop or Shrek or whoever and just go with what I know best, waiting tables as a former ruler of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. The hardest thing to decide will be whether I'm Itzcoatl (1427-1440) or Ahuizotl (1486-1502). I never could decide which of those guys I liked the more. Anyway, it will be hilarious, I promise.
Junior, so it turns out, is very happy with the butter lid I gave him. He's been showing it to all the other kids at zoo camp, incurring their admiration and jealousy.
His father is with us, aided by a walking frame following major surgery just yesterday; and also Jay and Courtlandt, respectively our boy's uncle and cousin. Miranda crams us all into a corner where the edge of the table intrudes upon the bellies of at least four of us, this being Texas and all. I complain so she moves us to another table, still twittering away in bewildering fashion and delivering catchphrases none of us have heard before.
There's Byron, one day after surgery and all on the day of his own father passing; so two of our group have lost their dad, and two have lost their grandfather, and the occasion is strange and a little subdued.
Junior opens presents as we wait for drinks to arrive. As well as the butter lid, he also receives a Swiss army spade from his father, a high-tech shovel which can be disassembled and repurposed for all manner of esoteric survivalist requirements. He plays with the shovel for a while, taking it apart, showing us the blade, the components one might use to start a fire and so on.
We pass around his birthday cards and read them.
One is from his grandfather, no longer with us.
It tears my heart out, just for a moment, seeing the signature.
Happy birthday, kiddo - your Granddad's dead, I think.
Drinks come, iced tea, beer, and something green with waves of dry ice frothing over the brim for Junior, all part of the service at Magic Time Machine. A minute later, he accidentally knocks it over whilst demonstrating some function of the Swiss army spade.
Courtlandt grabs the butter lid and uses it to scoop frothing liquid across the table into the now empty glass.
'See! I told you it had a use!'
We all agree what a great present the butter lid has been as Miranda brings us another green drink with dry ice.
We eat. Jay and I discuss our favourite Police albums. He likes Synchronicity, but I prefer Zenyatta Mondatta.
Everyone is a little subdued. It's impossible to imagine what must be going through the heads of the two boys. I still remember how hard the death of my own grandfather hit me at roughly their age.
Miranda fetches a to go box so I can take the leftover fries and make chip butties with them. She draws a pair of pants with haters back off written across the seat on the polystyrene box, then a pair of lips and an arrow pointing to the name Netflix, so we'll be able to find out about the character she's been playing and decide whether it's funny or not.
Next morning, Junior screws his Swiss army spade together and announces that he'll be taking it with him to zoo camp.
'Are you sure?' I ask, sharing a quizzical glance with my wife. 'I mean with great power comes great responsibility, and you know that thing cost your father a lot...'
He whisks out the butter lid, flashing it at me like a cop showing his badge.
'Well, all right then,' I say. 'I guess you know what you're doing,' and I'm secretly impressed, perhaps even proud.