I’m almost glad that I’ll be dead relatively soon. By “relatively” I mean a hell of a lot sooner than the kids shrieking through the grocery store, pawing the fruit roll-up boxes and licking apples that I might unknowingly purchase and eat. They walk around with wires stuck in their ears like defective Frankenstein’s Monsters. They text and tweet with astounding virtuosity, yet I could get more articulate speech from a raccoon. If they will inherit the Earth, I want to first vacate the premises.
My thoughts on this topic recently crystallized when I kept my great-nephew Alex for three days. His parents had planned a second honeymoon at the Chocktaw Casino in Oklahoma, and I am a closet romantic. When I told my wife I’d agreed to harbor this eight year old being for the weekend, she looked at me without expression for a dozen heartbeats, smiled, and told me about the business conference in Orlando that she’d completely forgotten to mention. She left for the airport at 3:00 Friday afternoon, and Alex arrived at 3:30.
I looked at Alex and admitted that he appeared to be a pretty good kid. He was clean at least, his sneakers were tied, and his blue jeans covered his underwear. An iPod stuck out of his pocket, and he clutched a Gameboy in his left hand. Yes, he had ear buds jammed into his ears. I wasn’t sure what to do now, although I had a vague urge to make a grilled cheese sandwich and watch the “A-Team.” Instead I asked, “Anything you want to do?”
Alex looked around my living room. He might have looked around his prison cell at Attica precisely the same way. He shrugged at me and said, “Dunno. Watch TV maybe?”
His folks had directed me not to let him watch TV, since he was grounded for some infraction they wouldn’t explain, other than to say they were showering at the neighbors’ for a while. “Sorry, no TV. You know the rule.”
He nodded without ill will. “You got a Wii or X-Box?” I shook my head, wondering why I felt less manly for not having a Wii. “Do you have anything fun on your computer?”
I frowned. “Not unless you really like Excel.”
“Nah. I just track my baseball team’s stats with it.”
We both stopped talking and stood uselessly. He looked at me like I was a gorilla in the zoo and he was wondering what it would do next. I gazed around at various things that weren’t him. It seemed wrong that he was a kid staying in my home yet I felt put on the spot.
The iPod in Alex’s pocket inspired me. “What kind of music do you listen to?”
He straightened a bit and said, “Lady Gaga.”
I had heard of this person, but I didn’t know much about her. “What’s the name of one of her songs that you like?”
He paused. “Highway Unicorn.”
I managed not to say, “You’re kidding, right?” Instead I spoke like a responsible adult. “Don’t you think that the names ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘Highway Unicorn’ are kind of silly?”
Alex shrugged. “Who’d you like when you were a kid?”
“Meatloaf,” I said.
“What’s one of his good songs?”
Now I saw the trap, but I couldn’t escape. I grimaced. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
Alex raised his eyebrows.
I sighed and wondered if my wife would be going to Magic Kingdom or Epcot first. I said, “So, do you want to watch TV?”
The television and the Gameboy saved me until Saturday afternoon. Alex’s iPod and iPhone were irrelevant to the situation. He listened to music and texted simultaneously with anything else that was going on. They seemed to be some sort of fundamental technology, necessary but not sufficient for entertaining the higher brain functions. But Saturday afternoon we engaged in an analog activity that proved challenging. We made sandwiches.
I could tell Alex had made sandwiches before. He foraged in my refrigerator with efficiency and gusto. He examined every bag of lunch meat and jar of condiment in detail, providing commentary on the merits of each. If he had dropped the mustard or the ketchup then no difficulty would have followed. But he dropped the pickles, which come in a glass jar. That jar plunged to my red tile floor that’s about as hard as the side of a battleship. Then pickles, juice, and glass shards showered my kitchen.
I recognized this as the moment to be an adult. I looked down at the boy and said in stern but calm tones, “You need to be more careful. Pay attention to what you’re doing. If you don’t then accidents will happen, and you might hurt somebody or yourself.”
Alex looked around the kitchen floor. He may have been waiting for the pickles and glass slivers to hurl themselves at us in order to do us harm, but I don’t know that for sure. After a few seconds Alex shrugged.
“Do you understand?” I wanted confirmation that this critical life lesson had been received.
“Sure,” Alex said without looking at me.
“Okay! After we clean up we’ll make sandwiches. I have a spare jar of pickles behind the case of Diet Coke.” I smiled even though he wasn’t looking at me, because I knew I’d done at least one thing right this weekend.
Instead of using the pickles, I made the kid a grilled cheese sandwich, something he’d never before eaten. That convinced me his parents share none of my DNA. He returned to a fairly cheerful state by the time his evening TV and Gameboy marathon started. I even attempted to watch the Cartoon Network with him, and though I lasted only 15 minutes, he seemed to appreciate the gesture.
Alex’s parents were scheduled to fetch him about 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Cartoons and Gameboy ate Sunday morning, and we found a baseball game in the afternoon that we could both enjoy without mortification or brain damage. After the game, Alex asked me to make him another grilled cheese sandwich. I accepted that as evidence that I had performed my duties well.
I pulled the cheese out of the refrigerator, banged the door with my elbow, and watched a jar full of pickles plummet. It seemed to draw away from me with the grace of those space ships in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I willed gravity to cease, but the pickles smashed to the tiles anyway, with the predictable results.
For some unmarked length of time I stared at the floor. That probably lasted just a few seconds, but I wouldn’t sign an affidavit stating that to be the case. Then I looked over at Alex, who looked back at me with no expression. We stared at one another, and since I felt the need to say something I said, “Oops.”
I followed that incisive observation with, “I guess everybody makes mistakes. Sorry I was so hard on you.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. He refrained from saying any of the things that I so obviously deserved to hear. Instead, he fetched my broom and mop, which were unaccustomed to being used two days in a row and must have felt giddy at all the attention.
I spent the rest of the afternoon rather subdued, sitting in the den pretending to write while Alex watched something called “Almost Naked Animals.” His parents arrived on time, and all four of us scrambled around the house for 20 minutes making sure he was taking home everything he’d brought with him. All the time I writhed inside, waiting for him to tell his folks what a dope I’d been, and what I failure I was at something they must take for granted.
Alex and his parents stood at the door with a stuffed backpack and a full arsenal of modern electronic implements. His mom directed him to tell me thanks and goodbye. I waited with what I thought was admirable stoicism.
“Thanks. Bye.” Then he thundered out the door and down the steps like a Pekinese that’s been kept indoors all day. His folks echoed their thanks and extended a dinner invitation unlikely to ever be fulfilled. They mounted their Corolla and drove away. I swung my front door closed and realized I was doomed.
The little weasel can hold this over me for the rest of my life. At the decisive moment, when it will do me the most damage, he can whip out this evidence of my idiocy and stab me in the heart with it. Every kid in the world must be able to do this to any adult with whom they’ve spent a couple of days. And when these kids take over, we’ll have no defense.
I hope I don’t see that day. But just in case, maybe I should become a grilled cheese sandwich virtuoso.