World’s Greatest Dad

I have been accused many times of saying things that are, at best, inappropriate. It could be because of circumstances (making a lighthearted death joke in a terminal cancer ward), audience (trying to make small talk with a barely-English-speaking Japanese foreign exchange student by bringing up a recent documentary I saw on a Japanese-American WWII brigade when it’s pretty clear that the only words this individual, who has never met me before, had any hope of understanding were “Japanese” and “WWII”), or both (making a lighthearted death joke about WWII in front of a terminal Japanese cancer patient). Two of those things are real examples of idiocy on my part. One of them is not. That’s not the big question though, is it?

Most people haven’t done that, but everyone knows what it’s like to out with something and have a carload of your friends who are already used to your sick sense of humor turn around with a look of horror on their face despite the clear fact that you are all in a soundproof environment and hurtling down the freeway at 75mph. To revolt your friends is one thing, but I have certainly had a few glorious moments when the look of abject disgust at my existence was being delivered by them on behalf of the entire global community.

That being said, if you really stop and think about it, even the most foul thing that finally makes it past your lips has already gone through about a half-dozen filters to ensure that it’s at least within the realm of thoughts that won’t make you a social pariah. It’s that fine line between “should I say this out loud, or should I not?”, and for the record, every single time I’ve had that thought it’s a total guarantee I need to let it slam into the back of my teeth and bounce back down my throat. I average about 4 for 10 regarding good judgement of this kind.

Then there’s all the stuff that you think but don’t even consider saying out loud. Stuff that you get nervous knowing you thought about in case some day you accidentally say it. If human beings ever develop true psychic abilities, I can guarantee that you will be able to count the hours until we wipe each other off the face of the Earth on one of the Penguin’s flippers, because if other people even knew a tenth of what goes on in your head there are going to be bullets and rusty hacksaw blades flying everywhere.

Seriously, the least believable thing in Star Trek: the Next Generation is that five minutes into the first episode Guinan wasn’t screaming for help from the bathroom in Ten Forward while trying to hold Deanna Troi’s body up to take the pressure off the noose attached to the ceiling fan.

Oh, but as much as we’d like to agree to agree that’s the worst of what we are, deep down in the darkest pit of our soul we know that’s not the end. I’m speaking of the truly horrifying thoughts. The thoughts you would un-think if you could, shiver in fear that these things actually exist in the universe, and make you consider killing yourself knowing that you are now patient zero of a though plague. They are the nightmarish, transient gossamer threads that slither to the surface of your consciousness like shades and revenants, whispering into the cavern of your mind unspeakable acts and images and then vanish just as quickly,  leaving you wondering if you even thought it at all…

…and I only mention it because I need you to get past the next few sentences so I can explain myself before you start making phone calls to federal corrections agencies specializing in chameleonic psychopaths:

For an extremely brief moment, I would have been totally and serenely understanding and supportive if my brother-in-law had grabbed my 5-year-old niece by the head and collar bones and wrung her neck like a pheasant.

I actually saw the whole thing in my head, and I believe the exact words that accompanied the image were “yep, that’s the last one. Poor guy. *drink* (casually looking back at the TV) “Alabama’s never going to make it to the post-season if they keep playing like this.”

Meanwhile, there’s just a slaughter going on in the hallway.

And I didn’t just have that thought either. I had that thought in a moment of uncorrupted perfect clarity of righteous cosmic balance, and what I am about to say I mean exactly:

If he would have cracked and actually done it at that precise moment and unique quantum state of the entire universe as a single entity of time and being, I honestly believe that my indifference would have been so profound it would have caused the very fabric of reality to shred like a billion bicycle spokes exploding out of a collapsing wormhole, and radically skew us off onto a psychopathic alternative timeline like if Marty McFly had caved and decided to take up his mother on her vehicular offer.

Of course, right after that I had to address the fact that the experience was real, and seriously take stock of myself as a human being worthy of continued existence. I’m talking like Pol Pot kind of indifference and approval of visceral human suffering here, I actually felt like a danger to society just knowing that I thought it.

Mark my words though: You parents say you’ve never thought about killing your kid? Oh yes you have. You know you have. Search your feelings. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate. It may have only been a split second, but you know you did. You know it.

So anyway here’s what happened:

Robyn and I are up in Breckenridge visiting her sister’s family.  There are four of them: Meg, James, Olivia – their five-year-old, and Emily, who’s three.

They are staying in a small condo, and since they live in Albuquerque and we don’t get to see them much we decided to drive up and stay overnight on the couch. That evening, Robyn and Meg tell us they’re going to have a girls night out and James and I could stay home and have Man Night.  Here’s a little background on Man Night:

When we were all playing in the Charleston Symphony ten years or so ago, we all lived in the same apartment complex. It was about a two minute walk to their place if you stretched it out, so it was inevitable that the four of us hung out all the time.

All the time…

A few months in we all came to the simultaneous conclusion that we either needed to split up, or start beating each other with tire irons once a week – it was one or the other. We decided that once a month Robyn and Meg would go do their thing, and James and I would do the same. This is long before there were any kids around, so you could just “do” things.

Man Night, as the ladies began calling it, consisted of James gathering some choice cigars, and me getting an expensive bottle of scotch to go with them. We went through a vast array of diverse, high-quality tobacco products, as well as all the Classic Malts of Scotland and many other rarer varieties. I have no idea where the money came from, so don’t bother asking. This was long before there were any kids around, so you could just “do” things.

This went on for some time. We would sit out on the back porch on humid Charleston evenings with rich clouds of tobacco smoke enveloping us like an evanescent mosquito net, constantly renewed between sips of earthy, peaty scotch sliding down our throats. We felt like kings. From this experience I took away three things which have stayed with me to this day:

  1. The worst thing you can do to the smell of a fresh cigar is light it.
  2. I appreciate one glass of good scotch as an experience of contemplative relaxation in the presence of the curious and rare. Any more than that and I feel like a decrepit Winston Churchill chugging turpentine that was desperately sloshed around the inside the last empty scotch bottle at 2 AM, except the drunken haze doesn’t include fortifying reveries of glorious battles fought and victories won on behalf of all mankind.
  3. For a perfect gin martini with a twist, combine St. George Terroir gin with the inside of a glass and add a twist of lemon. Consume this indoors in the air conditioning while not smoking, or outdoors anywhere north and west of the congealed swamp upon which most of the South is built.

I have to be reserved with how I phrased that last one, because James himself is from the South. Prattville, Alabama if I recall correctly, and it’s pronounced “prAT-vull”. We stayed there once during our grand exodus towards the promised land of “as far west of Charleston as we could possibly afford”, and I have to say Prattville was a charming little town and Alabama is quite pretty in some areas. Texas on the other hand, well, let’s just say this: the next time Ohio has an earthquake and all of your silverware slides off the table towards the southwest, it’s because Texas finally build one too many mega churches and it’s upset the tectonic and intellectual stability of the continent.

Being from Alabama, James naturally had a choice to make, and I’m sure all of you Buckeye fans out there already  have smugly mocking grins peeling out across your faces. Yes, the dawning of the year 2015 was not a good one for my dear brother-in-law, but it’s not like it was as bad as the Auburn game the year before. That one almost turned his neighborhood into the final scene from Carrie, and much like the Cuban missile crisis, I’m not sure the good people of Albuquerque will appreciate for many years to come how close to the end of the world they came over a few bad decisions a small number of people living far away made in the name of cultural superiority.

So back in Breckenridge, our wives put on their makeup and head out to have sister time, and James and I hang back with the kids, drinking beer and getting ready to watch the Alabama/LSU game. About the time the game started was also bedtime, so James put the girls to sleep, gently closed the door to a crack, and we settled into the couch with three bags of Doritos and a six-pack of one of Colorado’s finest craft microbrews.

This was not to last.

While Emily was capable of sleeping even if her face was on fire, Olivia was clearly not going to be able to handle Daddy AND Uncle Ben enjoying themselves in peace and freaking quiet for a few minutes. It started with the normal collection of sounds that grate on the brainstem of anyone who’s ever tried to put a kid to sleep. There’s giggling, followed by laughing, followed by some kind of bonking. James begrudgingly hoists himself off the couch.

James: Girls, you know it’s bedtime and Daddy and Uncle Ben are trying to watch the game. Can you get back in bed please?

He comes back out, picks up his beer, and breathes a sigh of contentment. Five minutes later, the same thing happens again. He gets up for the second time and lopes down the hallway.

James: Girls: it’s bedtime. You know it is bedtime, and I need you to get in bed and go to sleep, OK?

Olivia: But Daddy, I’m not tired!

James: Just get in bed, you’ll be tired in a minute.

Olivia: No I won’t. Daddy, can you please read me a story.

James: OK Bun, I’ll read you a story, but then it’s bedtime.

I have to give him credit, he’s an extraordinarily patient man, and although my first thought was that tying her down and shoving a piece of crumpled up newspaper down her throat might solve the problem, he had a parent’s sense of the nature of the situation. He tells me he’ll be back in a minute, and goes back into the room. I can hear a gentle murmuring of Goodnight Moon, and just as he gets to the part about “goodnight mush” it’s drowned out by a gigantic roar from the TV.

Ten seconds later I hear:

Olivia: But Daddy, that’s not the end of the story!

James: Yes it is Bun, see? Look. There’s the Old Lady whispering “hush”. So hush and go back to sleep, OK?

Olivia: But Daddy!

James comes eagerly bounding down the hallway.

James: Dude, what did I miss?

Me: LSU just scored.

James: Aw, you see that? Dammit! That’s the same useless piece of s&$^ that’s been blowing his coverage all season. That’s like the fiftieth time he’s screwed us!

James slumps onto the couch, and his expression betrayed a slight hint of what I’m guessing was five solid years of bedtime PTSD. I think his right eyelid twitched, but I can’t be sure.

Two minutes later, Olivia appears at the end of the hallway. She looks unhappy.

Olivia: Daddy, you didn’t finish the story!

James: (slightly exasperated) Well honey, we’re trying to watch the game. You know Daddy and Uncle Ben are watching the game, you knew we were going to watch the game, and you need to go to sleep so we can watch the game.

Olivia: Daddy, you promised!

James: Olivia, no. You have to go to bed.

Olivia: (Pouty face) You promised.

James: ERRGH…OK. Listen Bun, the first quarter will be over in a few minutes, and then I’ll come finish the story, alright?

Olivia: Fine.

Olivia walks back in the room, but the pouty face did not go away. Clearly this was a Band-Aid on a shrapnel wound, and deep down I think he knew it. Alabama went four and out. Then LSU went four and out. Fifteen seconds into the second quarter, Alabama gets the ball and they actually start to move the chains. Ten plays later, Alabama throws a 20 yard pass deep into LSU territory. Alabama is perched on the 15-yard-line, first-and-10.

Olivia: Daddy, you said you’d read me a story!

James: I know Bun, in a minute!

2nd down and 10.

Olivia: You promised!

James: Yes! Just…OK…just one minute, alright? Give Daddy one minute and I’ll be right there!

3rd down and 10.

Olivia: (stomping her angry little foot) NOW!

James: OLIVIA! DADDY IS GOING TO GET VERY, VERY ANGRY IN A SECOND. NOW IF YOU WANT ME…

FG unit comes on the field

goddamit, these jackasses can’t even score a touchdown from the 15…TO READ YOU A STORY, YOU WILL GO BACK IN YOUR ROOM…

Snap.

RIGHT…

Kick.

NOW!

Miss.

God-DAMMIT!!!!!!  GOD-F^#&*$#-DAMMIT, S&#$! ALL SEASON HE’S BEEN F&*$@*% US OVER!!! ALL  F&*$@*% SEASON! HOW IS HE EVEN ON THE TEAM?!? JESUS CHRIST, HOW CAN YOU MISS FROM THE FIFTEEN F$%^#%* YARD LINE?!!!

This went on for a few minutes. Olivia had conspicuously gone back in her room.

Alabama and LSU go back and forth, and between Alabama losing a fumble on its own 18 and LSU immediately throwing an interception, a highly diverse collection of emotions and thoughts were first hurled at the screen, and then openly celebrated in the center of the room with what was still his first beer held aloft. It would seem Alabama’s season was still in tact for the moment, although the beverages were getting lukewarm.

Mercifully, the third quarter passed without incident but for LSU tying the game at ten apiece. However, things were not looking good. Alabama gave up two massive drives, and they were lucky to escape with their hide. They ran a total of seven plays the entire quarter, and the defense was starting to look ragged. James was nervously shoveling Cool Ranch Doritos into his mouth, and I’d already finished off an entire bag of Nacho Cheese by myself along with four of the six beers. What? I don’t care. I like to drink and I knew there was a bottle of Colorado whiskey sitting unopened on top of the fridge that I wanted to try anyway. Don’t act like you don’t think your needs are more important than everyone else’s.

The fourth quarter began with a whimper and a bang. Alabama’s first play of the quarter was a punt, and the frequency of this disease was beginning to look chronic. The bang came from the girls’ room.

James jumps up, and this time I follow him. Emily is in the crib, and Olivia is nowhere to be see. Wheeling around, we see that there, sitting in the closet, is his darling daughter.

James: Olivia. Bunny…WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE CLOSET AND OUT OF BED!

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

Olivia: Emily bonked her head!

James: What? How did she bonk her head?

Olivia: She fell down.

I look over at Emily. She’s fast asleep.

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

James: She’s asleep…so how did she fall down?

Olivia: She stood up and then fell down.

James:  Bun. Listen. Get out of the closet. Get out of the closet now. I am going to count to three, and if you are not in your bed you are going to get a major time out.

I couldn’t help thinking that telling her to go to bed or she would have to sit on it wasn’t going to have much effect, but for once in my life I kept my mouth shut. The little counting ritual proceeded exactly as you would expect, and just as he was saying three she leapt on the bed.

James: Good. Now. I don’t want to have to come in here for the rest of the night. Do you understand me? Daddy is going to be very upset, so I. DO. NOT. WANT. TO. HAVE. TO. COME. BACK. IN. HERE.  Now GO TO SLEEP.

The look on Olivia’s face gave me the strong impression that this little masquerade was done for the night. We sat back down, and James crumpled onto the couch with all the force and agitation of a center for the Knicks trying to wedge himself into a non-emergency-exit row economy seat.

For the next ten minutes, the game goes four and out about six times. Then, with four minutes left in the game…

Olivia: Daddy! Daddy! Come quick! Emily swallowed something!

We both bolt upright, me knocking the final beer from the six pack all over the table, and run into the room.

James: Bun, where is she and what did she swallow!?!

I thought the first part was a bit odd as the kid was clearly lying in her crib passed out in exactly the same position as when we left, but the second was potently relevant. We go over and look at Emily. We check her mouth and breathing, and mercifully she appears to be totally fine.

Me: Olivia, look at me. What did she swallow?

Olivia: It was a toy!

James: Which toy? Where is it?

All of a sudden there’s a gigantic roar from the other room.

James: I’ll deal with this, you go find out what happened.

I came back a minute later.

Me: LSU just kicked a field goal to take the lead with 50 seconds to go.

James: WHAT?!? Dammit!!! I F&$^@*# knew they would blow it! Great. My kid’s going to die and Alabama’s out of the playoffs. Olivia! Tell me right now what toy she swallowed.

Olivia: The puppy.

Me: What? How did she swallow that? It’s right there.

Olivia: No, there’s a bead!

We look at the dog, and there’s a hole in it. A few plastic beads the size of a small pea are falling out of the hole. There is another roar. Without being asked, I check on the game.

James: Let me guess. It’s over.

Me: Nope, overtime. Alabama tore down the field and kicked a last-second field goal.

James: ERRRF…

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

Although he still looked pissed, I think the relief of the game temporarily calmed him down enough to think rationally.

Me: Do you think we should take her to the hospital?

James: Ugh, probably. Olivia, how many of these did she eat?

Olivia: ….

James: Bun, this is serious. I’m not mad, but you need to tell me how many of these she ate right now.

For the first time that whole evening, Olivia looked a little worried.

Olivia: Only one.

Me: Are you sure? Only one, right?

Olivia: Yes.

James: Positive?

Olivia: Yes.

James: How do you know?

Olivia: Because she spat it out.

James: Wait a minute, if she…HOW DID SHE GET IT IN HER MOUTH?

Olivia: …

James: OLIVIA!

Olivia: I fed it to her.

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

James: OLIVIA!!! YOU CAN’T JUST…

That’s when the third roar came. James’ head almost sank down to his bellybutton, probably from some combination of relief and total exhaustion, and all he could muster was:

James: Olivia. Bun. Please. Just go to bed.

We both walked out to see what horror awaited us on the screen. The game was clearly over, and I fully expected that if Alabama lost James was going to fade out of existence like Edward Norton in The Illusionist.

That didn’t happen. Alabama had won in overtime, and it would seem that at least some balance had been restored to the universe.

James: Fffffffff—%$^………….

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

We stood there in silence watching the slow-mo replays and listening to the commentators describe how ridiculously amazing the finish was. As relieved as he was that nobody died, and more importantly, Alabama still had post-season hopes, his hollow eyes were fixed in a thousand-yard stare through the TV screen, the wall, the planet, the solar system – out somewhere in the most ethereal mists of the galaxy, where the dispersing photon image of his life the moment before his child was born was streaking at the speed of light out and way; out and away from all human memory; out into the void of non-existence, never to return from the godless infinity that is the unalterable past.

Olivia: Daddy?

——————————————————

For an extremely brief moment, I would have been totally and serenely understanding and supportive if my brother-in-law had grabbed my 5-year-old niece by the head and collar bones and wrung her neck like a pheasant. 

I actually saw the whole thing in my head, and I believe the exact words that accompanied the image were “yep, that’s the last one. Poor guy. *drink* (casually looking back at the TV) Alabama’s never going to make it to the post-season if they keep playing like this.” 

—————————————————–

Of course, that didn’t happen. He breathed a deep, sad, Onceler sigh, and slowly walked back down the hallway.

James: Come on, Bun. I’ll read you a story.

I watched the post game show for about thirty minutes, pulled out the sofa bed, crawled under the sheets, and drifted off.

About two AM, Robyn and Meg slip back in the door.

Meg: (whispering) Hey. Who won the game?

Me: Oh, hey guys! How was the drink?

Meg: Shhhhh. Keep your voice down or you’ll wake up the kids.

Me: Pssshhh…he, he, he.

Meg: How are the kids?

Me: I don’t know.

Meg: What? Is everything OK?

Me: I don’t know.

Meg: You’re being weird. Where is James?

Me: I don’t know. You might want to check the bathroom ceiling fan.

Meg: Ugh! I’ve still got to brush my teeth tonight! Seriously, do you have any idea how many sh*&s he takes every day?

Me: I don’t know. I’m guessing at least one big one…

I passed back out.

The next morning, I was awoken at six-thirty AM by the two girls bounding out of bed. From the bedroom, I hear Meg say, “Can you get them some cereal? I was up all night and I’m really tired.”

Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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