King Ralph or: Sympathy for the Father

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.

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Web (another really short story)

Nat stood in just his white underwear and began to dress. First, he pulled on his tights that were pink because his mother could not find red at Montgomery Ward’s. The four-year-old looked in the mirror, they were snug like the costume was supposed to be. Next were red-striped tube socks he yanked up close to his knees.

He looked at his reflection again, then grabbed a white t-shirt. On the chest, he’d drawn a black oval with four black lines on each side with a magic marker that he’d executed perfectly. Lastly, Nat opened his sock drawer and slipped another pair over each hand and arm and tugged them as far past the elbow as they’d go.

Staring into the vanity atop his dresser, he stepped back with his left leg, his right bent at the knee, and extended both arms with palms upward, pinky and index pointed straight forward. “Fftt, fftt,” he said.

“Nat? Natty?” His mom called from the living room. “Let’s see.”

He stuck his head out and looked right and left before pouncing into the corridor. “Nat,” Carrie started to yell again when her little boy bounded into view. “Fftt, fftt,” he went as he sprayed her with invisible strands. “Wow, you look awesome, buddy,” she said, even though his costume was ridiculous. The kid beamed.

“Here, let me get a picture,” his mom said. Natty dropped down into his Spider-man pose while she clicked away. She tried not to laugh–knew she shouldn’t–but couldn’t resist. Nat stood up straight and furrowed his brow.

As his mother stifled her chuckle he imagined a different scenario. There was a giant web, his mom in the middle of it struggling, in the far right corner was a little boy’s head with blonde bangs on a fat spider body. His mother writhed as he neared, sharpened teeth at the corners of his drooling mouth, a menacing leer. “Who’s laughing now?” the spider said to his prey.

“Nat. Nat?” Carrie asked. “Nat!” The boy broke out of his daydream and looked at his mom. She was still smiling at him. “Come here and give me a hug.” The web crawler slumped his shoulders and skulked over to her open arms. “You are so cute,” she said, as the spider devoured the bug.


Mama, Wont You Take My iPhone Away?

I was at some kind of gathering in the last week or two–the specifics are really failing me–and was standing next to another parent as our children played when they both started to do something cute. The mom pulled out her phone to film it. I already had mine in hand, ready to snap a shot when a familiar dynamic came into play. It’s a tension that exists almost all the time in the age of the iPhone: whether to watch what’s actually happening in front of your eyes or capture it on your electronic device.

It’s something I first experienced the day my first son was born. I was in the delivery room dressed in scrubs nervously waiting for doctors to extricate my as yet unseen boy. He was about to undergo a Caesarian birth and it was chaos in there but I had been prepped by nurses and the doctor on what seemed like the most important element, that I be sure and get a picture of it.

So I stood there, digital camera in hand, about ten feet behind her head and shoulders as a surgeon was digging his hands in my wife’s stomach. As he started to retrieve my son, suddenly there were shouts at me to click the camera–I’d swear the doctor even turned to tell me to take a photo. As a result, I actually missed my son being yanked out of his mother’s belly but I’ve got a great pic of it.

Since then, I’ve run up against this conflict over and over again. Whether to watch it all unfolding in front of me or record it on my digital device. I think I usually choose the latter but then regret it because I’ve missed out on experiencing the damn thing firsthand.

Perhaps my parents had similar regrets but it could no way have been similar. All I’ve got to remember my infancy is a shoe box of Polaroids. Right now at this exact moment I’ve got almost 300 photos of my two kids on my phone, and those are all from the last month or so.

Of course, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. I’ve done that here. Putting down the phone is next. That will be harder.