What Child Is This

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

It is 8 a.m. and there is someone in my little boy’s bed.

Pushing up through the blanket is the outline of a man’s body. Draped over the edge of the mattress are a man’s hands, thick and slightly hairy. Something is wrong.

I am certain this is my son’s room. I stop here nearly every morning for small talk with a small child.  So why do I see Size 10 sneakers on the floor?

I knock firmly on the bedroom door.

“You up?”

Hearing no answer I nudge the unlocked door and tug the blanket. Someone tugs back. A man’s voice mumbles something about five more minutes. Five minutes later he mentions five more minutes. This will go on for an hour — assuming this is my son’s room, my son’s voice.  I step into the hallway.

Moments later, I hear sounds through the open door. New sounds. A deep, masculine hacking, not the thin raspy cough of a child. Then, other noises.  Grownup noises. The muffled buzz of an electric shaver and a TV thumping with replays of last night’s college basketball games.

A toilet flushes. A toilet seat crashes against porcelain. Some little-boy sounds never change.I have lost my child but not his childhood. Somewhere, in a closet rarely visited, or cleaned,  LEGO spaceships and Teenage Mutant NinjaTurtle action figures stand sentry over his past, waiting for the child to return. Or maybe they expect me to keep him from leaving.

They are too late; so am I.

The man in my little boy’s room wears a suit and tie. He has a paycheck and his own auto insurance policy. His dress wingtips sound like cannon shots as he gallops down the hardwood steps.

Without looking back the man-child shouts, “Running late, pop. Movie tonight?”

He does not wait for a reply. Just as well. He makes too much noise to hear the wobble in my throat; he moves too quickly to see the rapid blinking of my eyelids. My child is unaware that his manhood has begun; I am unaware that his childhood has ended.

Unaware, too, are the Lego toys and Ninja Turtle action figures. We’re all frozen in time, like flower petals pressed in glass.  I long ago stopped rushing toward the future.My hands are quite full, thank you, trying to restrain the present.  In this way, my little boy remains my little boy no matter how deep his voice or how rough his beard.

My son’s future is his own. His past, however, is mine to have and to hold.  It is my right as a free and irrational parent to comfort myself with what no longer exists:  Small talk with small children who are concerned only with the present.  That’s best part of living in the past. When all else fails, there’s always delusion.

The man in my child’s bed is sole owner of what has not yet come to pass, with all its inevitability and unpredictability.  I, however, claim title to the rest.  I own the memory of the wintry morning — was it third grade or fifth? — when I tiptoed into his bedroom and delivered the news all schoolchildren long to hear at daybreak:  “No school today. It snowed.”  He managed a sleepy grin and a raspy, “Hooray,” then rolled over and tugged the blanked to his chin.  I think the Ninja Turtles cheered, too.

In “Bark,” a New Yorker short story by British author Julian Barnes, an old man muses about the unpredictability of a life spent  raising rabbits, bees and doves. The rabbits often flee their warren and the doves bolt their cages. The creatures belong to whoever may find them, he explains. It cannot be helped.

“I mean,” the old man says, “that we make such certainties as we can. But who can foresee when the bees might swarm? Who can foresee whither the doves might fly?”

There is silence as the old man ponders his own question.

Who can foresee whither the doves might fly?

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