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Seeing Things


ISSUE:  Spring 1991

At some point he realized that he knew more than they did, understood more. Not facts, but that he could, well, see more. He came to this understanding very explicitly during a discussion with his father. He had disagreed with his father about something, and his father looked up from the newspaper he read while they talked, folded the top half of it down from his face and said, “You think you understand it better than I do.”

The boy looked at him, lowered his eyes, said, “No.”

He felt his father’s gaze still on him. “There was a time, when I was a kid that I believed I understood things better than my father. I was just a skinny little kid like you, in fact I was a lot like you. You’re a lot like I was, I should say. So I know.”

The boy said nothing, but he could see that his father was bullying him, forcing him to choose between challenge and capitulation instead of explaining himself or allowing his son to explain further, either to profess that his father’s understanding was greater than his own or fight. And it was just this that made him see his own understanding was greater. Just because his father bullied him into agreeing by embarrassing him, by emphasizing his littleness and skinniness did not make his father’s understanding greater. On the contrary. The boy could see that. And he could see that his father could not see it. Or would not admit to it, which was perhaps not quite the same thing. He tried to speculate about the difference. If he knew that he was winning by bullying rather than by being right, then what would that mean about him? The thought was a touch beyond his grasp. He was not yet able to take hold of it, to turn it around in his mind, but he would remember it, think about it again later.

His father’s eyes still fixed him. There was no reason to argue further. He would get nowhere. He could see that, too. He felt a curious little shiver run down his back with that realization. He was on his own. So to signal a closure, to end the discussion formally, he said, “Yes, sir.”

“Are you being sarcastic with me?”

“No, sir.”

“Why’re you calling me “sir” then? I never called my father “sir,” although a lot of the other kids had to say that to their dads. And I most certainly will not have you calling me “sir.” You got that?”

“Yes, Dad.”

Still his father’s tea-brown eyes did not release him. “When I was a boy, kids were caned by their fathers. I remember once poking the kid in front of me in school to tell him something, poked him in his back, and he went white in the face, like I’d burnt him. I asked him, what’s the matter? He said, My father caned me last night.”

The boy shook his head to indicate his appreciation that this was an amazing experience, that he was aware how terrible the world of the past was compared to the world of today, how much more older people had had to live through and, therefore, how much more worthy they were.

“My father never caned me, and I would never lay a hand on you either.”

“Yes, Dad.” He wondered obliquely if his father could see all the secret threats in the things he said. He was not old enough to know the word “contradiction” yet. He was only eight or so. But he knew what a contradiction was, had grasped the concept, and found it curious that his father seemed not to understand that he was threatening his son with the possibility of violence, was informing him that what protected him from such violence was only the goodness of his father’s heart—which, carrying the message further, if pushed too far, might wear thin.

Later that day, or another day perhaps, he stood in front of one of the armchairs, the one opposite where his father sat to read the newspaper each evening before dinner. He spoke to the chair as though someone were sitting there, held out his empty hand in front of the empty chair and said, “What are you so afraid of? There’s no gun in my hand, is there? I don’t need a gun against a little nothing like you. Consider yourself warned.”

He heard the rustle of the newspaper folding downward, felt his father looking at him, waited, pretending not to know he was being observed. “Well?” the boy said to the empty chair and waited, but heard the rustle of the newspaper folding back up again.

In bed that night, he heard them talking out in the living room of the little apartment.

“He’s got some odd ideas,” the father said.

“He’s just a little boy.”

“Yeah. And little boys become big men. Sometimes he seems odd to me.”

“Oh, he’s all right. I think he’s very intelligent.”

“I don’t say he’s not intelligent. I’m just saying he has some odd ideas. There’s a difference you know.”

The mother’s answer was a kind of hum, a sound the boy knew to mean that she didn’t want to talk anymore and would not get her will unless she indicated abject willingness to subject her thoughts to his.

What they did not understand, it seemed, was the simple law of contradictions, something the boy had grasped very early on; before he could even speak, he could remember coming, if not to an understanding of it, then at least to an acquaintance with the fact that the real light was dark, the real dark light. Simple. Less simple had been for him to come to the understanding that the two giants who owned him were incapable of understanding this.

His mother, the more promising of the two, listened to him when he tried to explain about that and about the screen in his wall where he could see things. She listened at least. She wanted to understand. That he could see, in the furrows of her brow, her slitted gaze, as though she were trying to see something very far off in the distance. But he could also see the point at which she gave up trying to see it. Perhaps she was really incapable of seeing it. How hopeless that possibility seemed. If she could not see that, what could she see that was of any value?

His father was more difficult. The big, red-faced man frowned, smirked. “You have what in the wall of your bedroom?”

“It’s, like, a screen. Where you can see things.”

The father rose from his chair at once. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go. You’re going to take me right in there and show me the thing.”

The boy sighed, lowered his face. “Well you can’t see it now

“Oh? And why not, may I ask.”

“You can only see it in the dark, at night. In the light you can’t see it at all. It’s not even there in the light.” How old was he then? Eight probably. Not more than eight. After eight you lost the ability to communicate magic. He must have been eight. Wearing a brown and white striped polo shirt, horizontal stripes, the one he used when he played prisoner. And his father in a white shirt and tie of cinnamon red and blue, his jacket airing on a wire hanger in the open kitchen window.

“That’s nonsense, Brian,” his father said, bending down to get closer to the boy’s height, the big red face lowering and advancing, entering into the circle of the boy’s world. “That is pure and utter un-di-luted nonsense. Do you understand?”

“But it s . . . .”

“Nonsense! Where did you ever get such an idea?” The boy shrugged. His mother said, “Well, perhaps he can try and show us . . . .”

“I just asked him to show me. He says he can’t. You can only see it in the dark. You can’t see it in the light. It’s nonsense.”

“He just has an imagination. All children imagine things. It will pass.”

“When? Seems to me it gets worse.”

The mother stooped down on her haunches before the boy, so the flowered loose material of her dress formed a deep valley between her knees. She took his shoulders gently in her palms. “You don’t really mean that you’re seeing things, do you, honey?”

He shook his head, whispered, “No, mother.”

Still stooping, she looked up to the father. “See? He doesn’t really believe in it.”

“Yeah,” the father said. “Sure. Fine.” He sat in his chair again and reached for the newspaper, opened it with a snap before his face. Brian looked up from beneath lowered lids and before he could stop himself, before he even knew he would speak or what he would say, heard himself whisper, “You can’t hide from me, no, you can’t hide from me, Captain Redface.”

The mother, who had already started toward the kitchen, stopped and looked back over her shoulder at him and the father’s newspaper folded downward. Brian blushed. His father said, “What?” He pronounced the word very distinctly, so that you could hear the “h” followed by the “w” and the sharp cut of the “t”.

“Nothing,” the boy whispered, and in the silence that followed he could feel his heartbeat all the way up against the hollow of his throat and felt the wings of danger brushing all around him. Captain Redface was secret, as secret as a dirty word, not to be spoken here, not to be let loose. He lived in the screen. With their eyes at his back, he crossed the blue rug of the living room floor, ocean for his toy ships, lake for drownings, sky for space wanderers, down the little hall, past the chipped brown bathroom door and across the threshold into his little room where he sat in the dim light of the late fall afternoon, pulling at the pompons on his dark blue bedspread, staring.

There followed, he recalled later, a period of beneficent interrogation where his mother spent more time than usual with him at bedtime. She sat on the edge of the bed and lay her palm on his forehead, as if feeling for a fever, smoothed his cheeks, and posed odd questions. Did he think she was a bad mother? Did he think his father was too hard with him, shouted too much at him? Did he know that both she and Father loved him very much? Did he feel that their life was not a good life? Had he forgotten all the good things? Christmas, his birthday, the two weeks in the bungalow at Bayville every summer, the times they laughed and played cards and monopoly and Parcheesi and checkers, watched television, when they painted hardboiled eggs every Easter, the chocolate bunnies, chocolate Santas, chocolate turkeys, Halloween candies. Did he feel he had less than other boys in his class? Were the other boys’ parents kinder, more generous, more handsome? Was it because their television screen was so small and only black and white? Did that make him feel inferior? Because they lived in an apartment instead of a house? Did his friends have larger rooms? Wasn’t he happy to have his own room, even if it was small, his own closet, his own desk? Wasn’t it a wonderful map of the world that Dad had bought for him and mounted on his wall.

“That’s where the screen is,” Brian said, lulled into a sense of safety by the cool soft palm of his mother on his cheek, across his closed eyes, his forehead, smoothing his hair. No sooner were the words out his mouth than he realized he had been tricked. No, he tricked himself, gave information that he needn’t have given, shouldn’t have given, information that she was unable to deal with.

He felt her body tense, felt the mattress and springs of his bed tense beneath her thighs, felt her palm stiffen against his face. His own thigh flexed so sharply that a spasm knotted into the muscle and it was all he could do to keep from crying out. Instead he spoke, took the offensive. He told her that he had never denied any of those good things she spoke of. Nothing was wrong. He had no complaints. He was content. “After all,” he said, “I was not the one who started this, Mom. Nothing was bothering me. You and Dad were unhappy with me. It’s not my fault if I can see things that you can’t see.” Again he could have bit his tongue for turning against him, spilling out information.

He had been speaking with his eyelids shut lightly, but on the last words he lifted them to look at his mother’s face, to sound the reaction. He saw a funny little smile on her mouth, her eyes wide open and bright and a little smile on her mouth, which, for a moment, made him feel powerful and pleased with himself. But slowly the expression changed, transformed, seemed to turn into a mask of fright. Abruptly she rose, tucked in his blanket all around the three edges of the bed, drawing it tight across his chest, as if she were binding him. Then her face loomed right over his with a horrible smile, like the smile of some Halloween mask, and she hurried out of the room, snapping off the light after her.

He heard their voices in the living room, but too low to make out the words. He heard only emotions, fright, anger, an accusation, silence. He sighed deeply, hands behind his head. If only he could keep his mouth shut, nothing would be wrong, nothing would matter. The things he saw were troubling sometimes, but not always. Sometimes they were amusing, very amusing. Better than Charlie Chaplin or any of the cartoons on TV. As he lay there, staring across the room in the dark, he realized that the screen had appeared on the wall. The night before, after supper, he had been sent to bed while the taste of corned beef still filled his mouth, red strings of taste, and on the screen, he saw a devil with three tails, each of which ended in a utensil, knife, fork and spoon. Growing on a slender stalk from the devil’s head was a meat-eating flower that smiled at him, yellow in the darkness. He was a little afraid it might appear again now and hesitated to look at it, kept his eyes shut lightly, pretending to be unconcerned.

The thing was, he knew now it was not a screen. For so long he believed it to be a screen, a private television where he saw characters like Captain Redface, a tall clown who wore suit and tie and spoke very seriously, but every so often instead of words, a fart would come out of his mouth. This always made Brian laugh merrily, and sometimes his parents would come and turn on his light, their faces eager to find pleasure in his laughter, but edged all round with concern that it was sick laughter, like the time he had the hundred and five fever and had giggled that the bats were tickling him and even sick as he was could see that they were really scared of the bats, as if the bats were really there, but they weren’t, they were only in the sky, and he tried to explain that, but they pretended not to hear what he said, only wet the cloth in the bucket water and wrung it out and lay it on his forehead and shushed him.

The new secret was that it was not a screen at all. It was a window you would be able to reach into. Instead of just seeing them then, you could get your hand in and touch them, lift them out and let them into the room, play with them. You could have a whole life for yourself every night that nobody else knew about.

There was a tap at the door. He tightened his eyes, breathed more loudly to prove he was asleep, heard the doorknob squeak the way it did, heard the click of the switch, saw the dark behind his eyelids turn black-red so he knew the light was on, felt the side of his bed sink under the weight of an adult. It sank deeper than it did under his mother, so he knew his dad was sitting there.

His father’s voice surprised him with its softness. He heard fear in it. For the first time in his life. Fear. “Brian?” he whispered. “Brian, little buddy?” Questions. What did the question mean? It meant Brian are you awake? That’s what it pretended to say, but what it really said was, Brian wake up now I want to talk to you.

The boy opened his eyes.

“Hi, Brian, did I wake you?”

“No,” Brian said and knew that it would sound like the lie you usually told when you pretended that somebody didn’t wake you when they really did.

“Hey, Bri, your mom told me about the screen on the wall. I guess I didn’t really listen last time when you told me about that. I’m real interested in the screen. How about showing it to me ?”

“You can’t see it in the light.”

“Well, maybe you could just sort of show me where it is that you see when it’s dark, so I could just get an idea.”

“It’s in the middle of the pork chop,” Brian said.

“The pork chop? You’re kidding your old man, right, son?”

Brian shook his head. Two could play this game. “Uh-uh,” he said.

“No, huh? Well, son, suppose you tell me where the porkchop is then.”

Brian had never heard his father so afraid before. It seemed sort of amusing to him that he was able to frighten his father so easily by telling him things that he had the power to understand, but was too afraid to catch. He said, “The pork chop is in Africa.”

Brian felt a palm on his forehead, his mother’s. She was standing up alongside of his father. “He doesn’t feel warm at all,” she whispered.

“Well he’s definitely delirious, though,” the father said out of the side of his mouth. Then, to the boy, “It’s okay now, son, you just try and go on back to sleep. We can talk in the morning. But Brian, I want you to listen to what I say now, listen very carefully and remember it, keep it in your mind. There is no screen in here. None at all. Not here, not in Africa. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

Brian nodded.

“And do you promise to remember it so that if you get frightened again, if you start. . .seeing things, you can say to yourself that it’s only in your head, that it’s not real, so you don’t have to be frightened of it. Promise?”

Brian nodded. He decided that he would not explain the words to them. He would let them figure it out for themselves, just as his father sometimes answered one of Brian’s questions by saying, “You’re a bright kid. You figure it out.”

You’re a bright Dad, he thought, now watching them move to the door. You figure it out. He turned his eyes to the world-map, to the place where Africa was, held his gaze fixed there while the light-switch was snapped off again and the light from the streetlight outside illuminated the screen-like rectangle over the pork chop shape of Africa.

The window was too small to crawl through, but he was certain he could reach in and lift out the figures that were inside it and study them and see how they behaved and come to an understanding of them.

Uncertain which figures might be there waiting for him tonight, he peered cautiously into the screen and saw at once that it was not the devil, but something else again. It was, in fact, his parents there, only they looked considerably different. He could hardly suppress a giggle when he saw what they were in there, both of them.

They were very small with tiny little heads, no thicker than a pin, and great big giant backsides. Then he heard a sound from out in the living room and became confused. He realized that the sound was the television set. He heard his father’s voice ask, “Anything on?” And his mother answered, “There’s What’s My Line in ten minutes.”

“Anything else?”

“Just the Sunday night news.”

“Well, let’s see What’s My Line then.”

Brian puzzled for a moment over how it was possible that they were in the living room watching television while at the same time he had them in here on his own screen in this special shape, with their great big keisters and tiny pinheads. They were in fact nothing but keister and pinhead. “Attack of the giant keister people!” he whispered and reached in to take hold of his father around his middle. The man scrabbled away, his face red with indignation, protests boiling out of his mouth, but Brian reached in and scooped him out, then got hold of his mother, and he sat there on the floor of his bedroom, with his mother in one hand and his father in the other, puzzling over them. His father kicked and squawked in Brian’s grip. Brian had to laugh at the man’s impotent rage. He felt guilty about that for a moment, but then he heard the sound of his father’s voice inside again, and all at once he realized that this was not his father at all in his hand. This was something else. Something else completely. He put the two little creatures carefully down onto his carpet to see what they would do, and sure enough they pulled up tiny chairs and sat down in front of a tiny TV set and the little pinhead man sitting on his giant keister said to the little pinhead woman, “Anything on?”

Brian giggled. This was better than TV. He pulled the cool white sheet up over his head and settled in to watch the rest of the show.

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