Early Onset


I ought to be outlining my American Revolutionary History lecture for tonight’s class at the junior college, but I’ve spent the morning reimagining the closet, what we don’t need, what  we might need, what we can and can’t reach, etc. And without intending it, I find myself doing the same with the file cabinet, the kitchen pantry, the fridge. I’m not making what a sensible person would call progress. I’m exhibiting symptoms of an illness I can’t name, but which is becoming very common.

When Ted awakens from his nap, it’s a relief. He pulls up on my T-shirt—the T-shirt I’ve borrowed from my wife—and plunges his face into the left side of my chest. Does he really think I can nurse him, or is this just his way of saying he’s hungry? After a stupid search for a rubber nipple, I warm a bottle of soy milk in the microwave.

I hold him in my lap while he drinks and we watch a program on CNN—four men in suits talking about the war in Iraq. The men are
having what sounds like a vigorous debate, but not about the rightness or wrongness of the President’s current course of action, at least not in any moral sense. The men are inventing scenarios and comparing strategies. I hear no mention of civilian casualties. I hear very enthusiastic descriptions of satellite pictures and missile launchers.
I see maps and arrows closing in on targets, cities. It reminds me of the many football talk shows that filled the air at all hours only a few months before. Although I enjoy games of what if, with this I feel my neck getting hot.


Ted and I meet the girls at the school bus stop. “My hair is still a little bit short,” my seven-year-old Lucy explains to her good friend Abby, “but I don’t call it short anymore.”

We’re walking down our street to the playground. Lucy, Abby, Ted, curled in the baby jogger, and me. I’m making a conscious effort to be present, to notice what’s happening around me. I’ve been doing that lately. I’ve been trying.

“This is how teenagers walk,” Lucy says. She skips ten feet ahead with an exaggerated sway of the hips, one hand in the back pocket of her jeans.

“It’s more like this,” says Abby, showing the same sway, but with her chin thrust forward and one hand swatting at her bangs as if she’s got flies in her face.

“Dad,” Lucy says, “what if people were made of one hundred percent water?”

“What about two hundred percent?” says Abby.

“Or two hundred billion infinity?” says Lucy.

“Yeah,” says Abby.

I wonder how such terrible violence could be happening at this moment under this same sky? It is still and cloudless here and the blue of the sky looks neon blue against the yellow poplars.

“Dad?” Lucy says.
I’d seen some pictures on the Internet, the kind they won’t show on TV. I’d seen a man in a ditch. He had no legs. I saw a child with one arm. There was blood in the rubble.

“What?” I say.

“What if?”

“What if every time you sneezed, you grew another limb?” I manage.

“Yeah,” says Abby, “that’d be weird.”

“No,” Lucy says, “what if we were only water, like all of us?”

“I don’t know if we’d be people then,” I say.

“We’d be water.” Abby hoots. “We wouldn’t wear clothes. We’d come in bottles.”
“Some kind of container,” Lucy says. “Mrs. Green told us we’re mostly made of water. I almost can’t believe that.”

“I’ve had trouble with that one myself,” I say. “I guess there’s an important difference between mostly and one hundred percent, which means entirely.” What I want to say is, get used to it. There is the world of explanation and the world of experience, and they seem to have little in common. Get used to it, is that what I want to say?

“Is there water inside us?”

“It’s blood inside us,” Abby says. “But blood has water in it, right?”

“Water can’t think, can it?” Lucy is pulling her longest lock of hair. She examines the frayed tips with her left eye.

“How could water think?” Abby says. “That’s ridiculous.”

“It’s interesting to consider,” I say, and then, “We’d better stay close to the side,” as we come to a stretch of Highway 116. We cross a bridge over a shallow creek bed and our conversation gets smothered in the sound of passing cars. Drivers come fast around the bend and sometimes stray onto the shoulder. That’s all it would take.

We cut behind Garden Grill, as usual, and the spokes of one wheel of the baby jogger get tangled in blackberry brambles. Lucy and Abby run ahead when they see a boy with a battery-powered jeep spinning slow donuts on the basketball court. Ted had been in the zone, tracking the sky. Perhaps looking for something familiar, or seeing an intricate tapestry that the rest of us have thoughtfully unwoven. I don’t know what he sees, but the bumpy path and the extra force needed to free the stroller from the snare bring him to full attention. He sits up fast against the waist strap and reaches for the Velcro tongues of his sneakers. He says “Wow,” and then something that sounds very much like “Uh-oh.” These are his only words and there seems to be no context for them, except now, because beyond the playground—the swings and slides and monkey bars, in a sea of wood chips—we all see the flashing lights of four CHP cruisers.

I notice six uniformed officers and two others, beefy fellows in gray sweatshirts and new denims, with heavy-looking pistols in seriouslooking holsters. It’s funny, the gravity of weapons. Funny and not at all funny here in our backyard. The two sweatshirts seem to have come from the white SUV and I’m guessing they’re in charge. As Ted and I roll closer, I can see all the police are focused like lasers upon a brown-skinned man with a black beard in the driver’s seat of a rusty yellow Nissan. I can’t see the expression on the man’s face, but he must be terrified. If not for the big show of force, it might simply be an ordinary bust, until with no apparent provocation, one of the cops drops into a half-squat and raises his pistol in line with the man’s head.

I say, “Lucy, Abby, kids, get over here.” The other officers drop and draw. “Hey, you guys,” I say, “I mean it. I mean right now!”

“I think he’s serious,” Abby says to Lucy.

Lucy shrugs. “Cut it out, Daddy,” she says.

I can’t blame her. It’s the way I parent, always making up games always talking nonsense. It’s the way I teach, always posing problems,
some sort of junior agitator at the Junior College. “I’m not playing,” I
say. “Not this time. Okay? Please? Get over here!”
Lucy and Abby lower their shoulders in a show of disappointment,
then join Ted and me behind the fence.
The boy with the jeep stays where he is. “It’s probably a terrorist,”
he says. He seems bored.
“What’s a terrorist?” Lucy says.
“Shhh,” I say.
“What’s a terrorist?” she whispers.
“There are many kinds of terrorists,” I whisper.
“That’s not a good answer,” she whispers.
“Well, it’s a long discussion,” I say. “You might start by asking
“People who blow stuff up,” whispers Abby.
I have a little time to consider Abby’s definition and it is as good
as any I’ve heard. The uniformed officers are holding their positions.
One of the sweatshirts turns his back on the scene and lights a cigarette. The other seems to be holding a conversation on his cell phone.
He says something we can’t hear and the officers return their guns
to their holsters.
“I don’t get this,” I say. “I don’t get this at all.”
One of the cops leans against the windshield and speaks to the
brown-skinned man in the car. The car then rolls slowly behind an
acacia bush, down the street and out of sight. The officers gather
around the SUV.
“Can we play now?” Abby asks.
“Can I try your car?” says Lucy to the boy with the jeep.
I push the stroller across the courts to the scene of the thing I don’t
get. I can feel my pulse in my throat and I take a few deep breaths
as we roll closer. It’s a strange mix of outrage and trepidation; the
feeling I often have when one voice says you don’t have to do this and
another says you do.
“What was that all about?” I say to the first officer we come to. He
nods in the direction of one of the sweatshirts. The other has his foot 15
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on the bumper of the SUV. He’s scribbling on a pad. He straightens
to his full, imposing height.
“I was wondering,” I say in a voice that sounds too small, “what was
all that?” His unblinking face comes toward us.
“It’s nothing to worry about, I assure you.” His sudden smile seems
hard and polished, a customer service smile, a TV smile.
“You must’ve scared the crap out of that poor man. Was it like a
“Do you live around here?” he says. I can feel him sizing me up,
my ponytail, my goatee, my T-shirt—my wife’s shirt—with a faded
but discernible slogan: “The Incredible Shrinking Woman’s Right to
“Of course,” I say. “All these guns at a playground. What’s going
on?” He scribbles, looks at me again and scribbles some more. From
across the courts I can hear Lucy’s familiar whine, “But you had a
long turn!”
And Abby, uncharacteristically aggressive, “But you don’t even
know how to drive!”
“My dad always lets me drive his car,” Lucy says, way too loudly, “on
River Road.”
“That your daughter?” the officer says.
“They’re all with me today,” I say.
“But that one,” he points a finger at Lucy, “she’s yours?”
I’m thinking, How hot can my neck get? The heat is spreading up
my face. It dawns on me, not for the first time, for perhaps the eleventh time today, the hundredth time this week, that I don’t like being
lied to. I’m tired of it. I don’t like this no-accountability thing going
around. “You haven’t answered my question,” I say. This gets the attention of the uniforms and the other gray sweatshirt. He’s wearing
a black baseball cap with a postage-stamp-sized American flag sewn
on the side. He doesn’t smile.
“Yes, it was a drill,” he says. “Do you live around here?”
“Maybe. Did the man in the car know it was a drill?”
“What’s your name?”
“You don’t need my name.”
“It’s procedure.”
“It’s procedure,” I say back to him. What follows is a long ten seconds. I wonder how these men and I can live together in this little 16
early onset
community, can be breathing the same air. I wonder if the man in
front of me shaves twice a day.
“Thomas Paine,” I tell him. “P, as in patriot. A-I-N, as in nervous. E.”
I don’t have any identification on me. It doesn’t seem to matter.
“Well, Mr. Paine, we’ve got the situation under control. You don’t
need to worry.”
As we’re rolling back to the playground, I say, “Ted, we need to
“Uh-oh,” he says.
“Come on,” I say to Lucy and Abby. “We’re out of here.”
“We just got here,” they say.
“Right now!” I don’t look back, though I’m sure I got the attention of
the cops again. I fix my eyes forward and say in a level tone, “There’s
too much to do.” And as I say this, I feel that there is, but I don’t know
what or where to start. Again the girls answer with a dramatic lowering of the shoulders, but they follow. I don’t say goodbye to the kid. I
don’t like his attitude.
It’s quiet crossing back over the bridge. The creek below is nothing
more than a few stagnant puddles this time of year. If water can think,
it seems to be thinking very slowly.
I owe the girls an apology, or at least an explanation, but my
thoughts are going off in other directions. I’m remembering what
I’d told my students about the Bill of Rights, and how perhaps my
remarks need to be amended. By the time we reach our street, the
girls seem to have come out of their funk.
“This is how cops walk,” Lucy says. She holds her arms at her sides
and her wrists out half a foot from her waist, as if perhaps she has
a holster and gadgets on her belt. She spreads her legs wider than
usual and her movements are oddly stiff.
“Looks like a cop with a full diaper,” I say.
Abby screams, “That’s so gross.” She attempts a new variation, teenager cop with full diaper, but it doesn’t last long because she has to
hold her belly and laugh.
“Dad,” Lucy says, “what do you have to do that’s so important?”
“Yeah, we were playing,” says Abby.
“I’m sorry about that,” I say.
“But you didn’t answer my question.” 17
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“Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy says.
“Because I don’t know if there’s time for the long answer.”
“Better give us the short answer,” says Abby.
“Forget the closet.”
“What?” they say.
“Forget the refrigerator and the file cabinets and the pantry.”
“What’s he talking about?” says Abby.
“The house is on fire, girls. Get the hoses. Get your bikinis on.”
Abby giggles but Lucy does not. “Come on, Dad,” she says. “Please.”
I can hear the frustration in her voice and see it in the squint of her
eyes. It takes all my will to focus and give a simple answer, just another
of my battles to accept the war, to believe it’s real. I don’t know the
clinical name for what I’ve got, but I know it’s contagious. I see it on
TV and I hear from all my friends. It manifests as panic and preoccupation. I want to call it End of Empire, Early Onset.
“I have to get organized,” I say. “I mean, to organize. I mean, to
write letters and call people. I mean, I mean, the house is really burning, really, in a way.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Abby says. She looks at Lucy. I look at Lucy, too.
So often she propels my flights, but she also gives me the room and
the reason to touch down. My appreciation for her right now is almost overwhelming.
“No,” Lucy says, “I can tell he’s serious.”
“I am. I am serious.”
“I can tell.” Lucy turns her attention from me back to the tips of her
hair, but very briefly. She tosses her hair over her shoulder.
“What if you don’t get organized?” Abby says. “Then what will
“What if?” Lucy says. “It’s happening.”