The boy’s father was initially terrified. At first, he thought the cheetah was looking in at his son and that horrified him. Even if it was not full-grown, it was still a killer of men. What should he do? This was not the same as chasing off a rodent. If it were, he would merely have turned on the outside light and popped the door open and shook his fist at the filthy beast.
He wasn’t going to throw the door open on a cheetah, unless he was ready to fight to the death. Maybe he should grab his shotgun, the one he kept in the attic along with a box of shells, exactly for an occasion like this. Except he hadn’t shot that thing in almost twenty years, when he wasn’t much older than his son and he and his father decided to go hunting. All they’d done then was sit in a stand among the treetops eating dried meat and drinking cold hot chocolate until they decided they didn’t want to shoot any animals anyway. Instead, they’d just fired a few shots into a paper target on the side of a tree and then gone home.
Recalling these fond memories gave the present scene a faintly fond sheen. The father looked above the cheetah’s head and through the window to the side profile of his son who sat fascinated and then back to the cheetah who wasn’t looking at his son at all, but the same show. A realization washed across his mind, but seemed too incredible to fully accept. Was this young cheetah watching Chima? How old was this cheetah anyway? Was it possible that he was the same age as his son but in cheetah years? What were cheetah years anyway?
Whatever. The father decided to stand there and watch and sure enough when the show was over the cheetah returned to all fours and jogged away. “I’ll be damned,” the man said to himself. The next night the same, and the same the night after that. The cheetah loved Chima.
On the fourth night, the cheetah took in the show but when he turned to leave detected the figure behind the glass door. The cheetah reflexively cringed and shrunk back into itself. The father sucked in his breath. Neither could move, until the boy called out. “Dad? Dad?” With his eyes on the cheetah the father answered and when he turned his head toward his son, the cheetah shot off into the night. “What are you doing, dad?” The father could not truthfully answer. “Oh, watching a cheetah watch Chima with you.” That would be a hard one to explain, so he merely said, “Nothing. You ready for bed?” as he followed his son back to his bedroom.
The next two nights the father slowly shuffled to the door to disappointment. The cheetah was nowhere, and by the third time he checked the father gave up. That’s when the cheetah tentatively made his way out of the thicket and up to the window where he dared to take in Chima once again. There was the boy as usual, but the father had joined him. The cheetah considered his options. He could obey his instinct for preservation or give in to this pure pleasure. Chima was like a piece of candy, and he surrendered to his sweet tooth. As he settled in for another episode, the father suddenly turned his head and looked straight at him, giving him a wink.
The cheetah flinched. Should he flee? The father had already turned back around to the TV and the jungle cat drifted to the screen, too. The lion, his favorite, was talking with the gorilla as they rode on some land cruisers. The two cartoon animals laughed, and so did the boy. The cheetah just smiled.
Drawn by B–inspired by a Skylander of the same name–and colored by me, this is the first in a series of mutual collaborations.
The boy sat on the far edge of the couch and stared into the TV. A yellow bowl of pretzels was in his lap and he would occasionally dig his hand in and retrieve one but his gaze never left the screen. His favorite show was playing, Chima, and he would watch it every night on Netflix after dinner, delighted by the adventures of Laval, Cragger, Eris, and the like. Laval the lion was his favorite and when he was on-screen the boy’s attention could not be diverted, even if his father stood to the side chanting his name like a mantra. His father would eventually sigh and move back into the living room, unable to share in his son’s obsession.
Behind the leather couch was a large picture window that gave way to the African pasture. Out in the dark, there in two foot tall grass, crouched a young cheetah, entranced by the light that drifted from the house. He could hear the faint sound of the TV and, intrigued, crept over to the edge of the house where he stood on his hind legs and peered in through the window.
The cheetah’s mouth fell open. On the screen, animals talked and walked like humans. As the characters on the TV interacted, the cheetah and the boy gawked nearly side by side, separated only by glass. When the show ended the boy moved to stand, and the cheetah–noticing his surroundings–came back to his senses. Terrified, he turned and ran, too young to reach the ideal speed of 70mph, but fast enough that he was back home with his mother and brothers within a few minutes.
That night, he dreamed of the lion, croc, and eagle he’d seen the night before, and when he woke, resolved to seek out the boy and his amazing box of light. Once it was dark, he slid to the window and watched with his new friend. He was almost as absorbed as the little boy until he noticed the boy’s father out of the corner of his eye as the man drifted into the room. The cheetah frantically dipped down below the window. He knew better than to attract any attention from the humans. His father was killed by one of them.
Still, the danger was not enough to deter him from Chima and even as he stealthily made his way back home he resolved to return. The boy’s father had not seen the cheetah–it was pitch black outside the window–but the next morning he detected paw prints on the white siding of the house. His immediate thoughts were of his boy’s safety. He could never have known that a young jungle cat was creeping up to watch his son’s favorite show with him, he assumed a more sinister reality, and he decided to catch the interloper that evening.
The cheetah knew better when he stepped out of the camouflage of the grass that night, but the lure of the glow was too much. He snaked up to the side of the house and, rising up, looked through the window. The boy was in his usual spot, transfixed, as the cheetah soon was, so much so, that he failed to notice the shape standing behind the glassed-in screen door at the side of the house. To be continued…
Somewhere, my 3YO son G picked up the word “whatever.” At first, it was funny, this miniature person with big blue eyes and blonde bangs uttering a totally adult and world-weary word. Whatever. Then came the repetition, of course, and the misuse of the word, although it could still be funny when he accidentally got the right context. Then his mother made the mistake of telling him what it actually meant. I was caught blindsided.
“I love you,” I told him, casually and offhand, on a recent afternoon. “Whatever,” he said, drawing out the last syllable. “That means I don’t care, and I don’t care.”
I try not to let these slights bother me, but they always sting just a little. I should be numb to them by now, as often as G hands them out. In addition to “whatever,” his most used insult is the word “boring.” This morning, around 5am, as we laid in bed he shifted and the bed creaked when the toddler started to talk. “Daddy, I don’t like you,” he said. “You’re boring.” Like a slap in the face, not too hard, just enough to chastise. He went back to snoring as I shook my head and rolled over. Whatever.
Saturday night and me and my little brother were arguing again. I was probably getting on him for chewing his nails, one of my all time pet peeves. It still is. My wife and oldest son both chew their nails now and it keeps me pretty busy telling them to stop. They have nothing on my brother. He was a champion nail chewer. Not only would he routinely take them down to the nubs but he’d turn his hand sideways so he could get in there and finish the last little bits. “Stop it,” I’d yell and if that didn’t work and I was within arm’s reach I’d smack his hand out of his mouth. That would lead to all sorts of pushing and yelling.
If it wasn’t about fingernails then it might be about the way he snorted through his nose or the way he continually ran his index finger down his proboscis. Let’s face it, I was a little high-strung and he a little annoying. Either way, like I said, we were once again fighting, but this time we were in a hotel in Marion, Indiana. This was 1991 and we’d driven all the way from the middle of Virginia to pay homage to James Dean who went to high school in nearby Fairmount and where they operated a museum in his honor.
I don’t know why our dad was so obsessed with Dean. In his mid-40s, he was a little old for something like that, but as usual his preoccupations became ours so I’d taken to combing my hair into a tousled pompadour and acting the disgruntled juvenile which was not too much of a stretch considering I was both a juvenile and generally disgruntled. Anyway, back to the fighting: our father was a little high-strung himself and known for flying off the handle. He could snap at any point but to his credit had thus far not lost it on the trip even though my brother and I quarreled all the time.
That night however was destined for a blow-up. Having arrived at our room after a day of driving and fighting, we switched on the TV and to a favorite movie of our father’s, King Ralph. A riff on an everyday American who somehow becomes the king of England and thus offends the effete British with his crude ways, it was not that great of a flick but it starred the sizeable and affable John Goodman and had its moments I guess. Our father loved it and was settling down for a relaxing night of chuckling when my brother and I started tussling again. Suddenly our father yelled out, “Stop it, stop it, stop it,” exasperation in his voice, as we continued to grapple. “Stop it,” he screamed once more and we paused. “C’mon, I’m just trying to watch my King Ralph,” he whimpered, his voice reaching a falsetto, and then it cracked as he almost sobbed.
For a moment (really no more than a second or two) I thought about standing up and walking over and slapping him across the face. What if I had? As he got over the immediate shock and the sting on his cheek, I would have run out the door and down the hall as I heard him yell for me, then through the lobby and out into the dark street. Which way was Fairmount? A sign would have pointed me to the West and I would have had to run the 20 or so miles to the refuge of Dean’s ghost. Surely, he’d understand what I was going through.
Of course, I never hit my father, but I didn’t really need to–we’d already broken him, and this satisfaction and perhaps the chance that he might resort to physically attacking us stopped us dead in our tracks. I don’t think I’d ever seen my father cry before and not since but his eyes were wet as we dropped to dead silence and just stared at him and then each other.
I haven’t talked about this episode with my brother in years–we kind of wore out the joke and our dad kind of wore us out–but I think of it sometimes when my kids break me. They fight a lot, usually over each other’s toys, and I lose it when one of them starts screaming and crying. Of course, I don’t help the situation by yelling for them to stop but I do it anyway. One time, I even whipped my cellphone across the room and at the wall which wasn’t too smart. I could have broken my phone and I put a nice dent in the plaster.
I’ve felt myself almost descend into tears as well. It’s truly exasperating when your children are fighting over something so insignificant and they do it as if it’s a ritual which maybe it is for brothers. I’ve seen the older one who is five look at me with an expression that says he is merely waiting for me to calm down before it will all start again. It gives me the impression that they both view me as an overreacting fool which is how we saw my father I guess.
That night, we eventually let our poor whimpering dad have his King Ralph, but I know for a fact that my brother and I fought the next day and the day after most likely. No amount of crying or yelling on the part of our father would have stopped that, nor will it ever. Brothers will fight and only realize how wrong it is when they have their own kids and then almost cry themselves.
I laid down in the mud. It was cool and gritty and I could already feel it seeping through my pants and shirt, each growing soggy. Then I let my head fall back. A quiet sploosh followed as the wet and grime slid through the neck of my sweatshirt. The cold was a shock but then came relief as it cooled the back of my head and entered my ear holes. No more noise, just muffled shouts and finally silence as everyone around me stopped.
Or at least I assumed they’d stopped because I’d lost track of the outside world, all the yelling and arguing, the traffic, the endless search for a parking space, all of it gone, as I let the brown muck sooth the tightness in my neck. Letting my arms down into the wet on either side, I grabbed handfuls and ran it through my hair and applied it to my cheeks and forehead, the grit scraping across my skin.
I closed my eyes, and could hear nothing but the sound of my breathing and meditated on the vibration inside my skull. Exhaling out of my nostrils, I sunk deeper into the mire. I was slipping down into the earth until a voice, as if it was slithering through a cardboard tube broke through my frail cocoon.
Opening my eyes, I saw my wife leaning over me, she was saying something I couldn’t quite get so I pushed myself up with my elbows as water trickled out of my ears. “… you doing?” she asked, looking at me with incredulous frustration. I sat all the way up. Cars were still scrambling for that elusive slot, regardless of our spot in the corner median.
My children stared at me–more amused than alarmed–until my youngest smiled and said, “What are you doing, daddy?” Before I could answer–what would I have said?–his older brother punched him in the arm. Continuing to search my face for some sort of explanation, my wife finally sighed and went to separate the howling kids. “Stop it,” she tried not to yell.
I ran my fingers through my hair. The mud had caked up. I think it was time to leave.
The tree hid the child. Enveloped in its green oval leaves, he sat on one of its branches. No one could see him, not his father or his friend, but he could vaguely make them out if he tilted his head the right way. He could also hear them, their laughing and loud voices. A stereo played something that sounded familiar but was too faint for him to tell.
He’d only been out here for a few minutes, seeking solace and sympathy in the foliage after his dad had told him to leave him alone, “just for a second.” The child was only trying to ask for a drink of water, but if he was really being honest he’d admit to being jealous of his father’s affection for someone the child had never even met.
“An old friend,” his dad said, which seemed fine enough in the car. He was always intrigued by his father’s interest, but when they’d entered and his dad drifted to this old friend, the child felt abandoned and compelled to assert his place in the order of things. Rebuffed, he slunk out to this tree that stood by itself in the side of the yard, as neglected as he felt.
Behind the leaves, the child hugged the tree’s trunk as he heard his father call for him. He stayed on his perch, content to be by himself and make his dad search him out, at least for a second, just like he’d said.
His father yelled for him again. The child watched his dad twist his head, scanning the backyard for any sign until he spotted some color through the leaves–some red and blue, a Captain America shirt?–that didn’t belong in a tree. The child pulled his legs up, as his father stomped toward him.
“Get down right now,” he nearly shouted, and his son eased down. Grabbing him by the waist, the father planted him firmly on the ground. “What were you doing up there?”
The child looked down as his father stared into his face. “Huh?!” His eyes met his dad’s.
“You told me to leave you alone,” the child said in a calm, reasoned voice. Chastened, the father’s anger evaporated. He picked his son up and carried him inside where he sat him down on the kitchen counter. He asked his friend for a cup, filled it with water, and handed it to the child who took a long drink. The father watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall, grabbed his own glass, then turned to his friend. “So, what were we talking about?”