Lessons From Jack

Dancing in the Street,
Memoirs of a Stepfather In Training
an essay from the Kindle book
Lessons From Jack

My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say “You’re tearing up the grass!” “We’re not raising grass,” Dad would reply.
“We’re raising boys.”
—Harmon Killebrew

Bedtime Stories

Every night before Jack goes to bed his mother or I read him a story.

Most nights, as we are about to turn out the light and close the door, Jack will call me back.

“Will you make up a story?”

“It’s late, Jack. Bedtime. We just read a story.”

“Your stories are better.”

I don’t mind being manipulated, when it’s done by a master. I turn out the light, lie in bed next to Jack, and say, “Pick a number.”

“Number seven five hundred two thousand.”

“That story is too scary, Jack. Pick a different one.”

We began this routine when a Jack was four. He was amazed that I knew an infinite number of stories, each assigned a number and a place in my memory. Now that he’s six, I suspect he only pretends to believe. “Umm. Number eighty-two hundred hundred.”

“Oh. Excellent choice. Did I ever tell you about the time when I was a little boy, about your age, and I used my older brother’s chemistry set?”

“Tell me.”

I lie beside Jack, amazed at how much heat his small body can generate. I tell him how I mixed three chemicals, nose-a-drene, bombast, and hyperbole—to make a magic gas. I filled a balloon with the gas, then breathed it all in.

“Do you know what happened?”

“What?”

“I started shrinking. I got smaller and smaller until I was the size of–” I’m about to say I was as small as a gnat, but Jack doesn’t know what a gnat is. I think quickly. “Until I was the size of a flea!”

“Whoa!” Jack sits up in bed. He has watched his mom comb through our golden retriever’s fur, hunting for fleas. And he has watched as she casually grinds between her fingernails the tiny black specks she finds. He announces, “That’s really really tiny!”

“Know what happened next?” I ask.

“Your mom stepped on you!”

“Well, almost.” I quickly incorporate Jack’s idea. “She almost stepped on me, then almost swept me up with a broom, even though I was yelling up at her, “No, Mom! Don’t do it! It’s me, your son! I’m the size of a flea!” She couldn’t hear me because my voice was so small. I had to run.”

“Where?”

“I ran into the living room. I saw my father sleeping in his favorite chair.”

“Was he snoring?”

“Yes. How did you know? He was snoring so loud he made the windows rattle.” You can use a cliché when your audience is only six years old; it’s the first time they’re hearing it.

I ask, “Do you know what happened next?”

“You climbed up your dad’s leg?”

“Exactly! Are you sure I haven’t told you this story before?”

“No. No. Keep telling.”

“Well, that’s what happened. I had to use mountain climbing ropes and grappling hooks because I was so small and his leg was so huge.”

“What’s a grappling hook?”

I explain. I resume the story, with Jack as my collaborator. We work it out that, after scaling my father’s pant leg and then his shirt, I climbed onto his face, passed beneath the giant bristles of his mustache, bounced on the wet trampoline of his tongue, and was blown out onto the carpet when he sneezed. Then the magic gas wore off, and I grew back to my full, six-year-old size.

As I leave his room, Jack says, “Write that one down!”

Being An Artist

One day, when he was five, Jack sat at the kitchen table intently coloring. He asked me, “Do you think I’ll be an artist when I grow up?”

“You’re doing art right now, aren’t you?”

He didn’t look up from his work. “Yeah.”

“Well. An artist makes art. I think you’re an artist right now.”

He scratched his ear, switched crayons, and continued working.

Jack loves to “do art”: coloring with crayons, finger painting, cutting and gluing paper, molding clay. This past Christmas he sculpted purple and green clays into a pterodactyl. He gave it to me, sort of, saying: “I get to play with it when I want to but I always have to give it back to you when I’m done.”

I said, “Okay.”

I placed “my” clay pterodactyl on top of the desk lamp, where I could see it while I worked. The heat of the lamp melted it. The next morning, I broke the news to Jack. He didn’t cry.

Encouraged, I asked if he would create a new pterodactyl for me. His ever-practical mom suggested we first get the kind of clay that could be baked hard in the oven and would not melt.

Jack looked up from the cereal box he was studying. “I’ll make you a fire pterodactyl.”

When he was four, Jack had told us about the fire people who lived on a fire planet. “Fire people are made of fire. They burn you if you touch them.”

It took three weeks, four scrapped attempts, and some careful encouragement, but on his fifth attempt, Jack was satisfied with his creation. The fire pterodactyl fit in his palm. It had swirls of orange and yellow and red clays, a high pointed head, a snake-like tail and a beak like Jimmy Durante’s.

As we ceremoniously super-glued the fire pterodactyl atop my desk lamp, I said, “Jack, when you grow up, you’re going to be a great artist.”

He said, “I already am.”

Wrestling Demons

Jack loves to wrestle. Through trial and error, and patient, lengthy explanations, Jack has instructed me in this manly art. Rule number one: Jack is always the Good Guy. Rule number two: Jack always wins.

The bouts are choreographed, and rigged. Just like professional wrestling. We begin face to face; Jack is standing, I am on my knees.

“Who are you?” Jack demands.

I choose a wrestling persona from my Pantheon of Bad Guys. “I’m Muscle Spasm!”

Utterly without fear, Jack announces, “I’m Smell Man!”

Jack created Smell Man. Smell Man has deadly breath. Smell Man runs around the summer day care center blowing his foul breath in the faces of unsuspecting five and six-year-olds. They are supposed to fall down. They don’t always cooperate. Sometimes they call Jack a weirdo. However, when wrestling, should Smell Man expel his breath in my face, I always swoon, collapse to the floor, and beg for mercy.

Recently, Jack has endowed Smell Man with an ability to intensify his bad breath. He achieves ultra-nasty breath by eating tuna fish, or sucking up odors from dirty laundry and wet dogs, right before wrestling.

After we introduce our wrestling selves, comes the Ritual of the Rules. I recite, “No kicking, no punching, no slime-ing (i.e., licking).”

Jack adds, “And no tickling!”

The match begins. Jack always lands the first blow, usually a pillow to my face. I trap him in a pretzel hold. He squirms free. I eat more pillow. I tickle him. He laughs uncontrollably. He is defenseless. And outraged.

“You broke the rules! No tickling!”

Guilty, I confess. I promise to stop. Satisfied that order has been re-established and his dignity restored, Jack slams a pillow into my face. We grapple, squirm, struggle, until my next breach of etiquette. I really try not to, but I can’t keep from tickling him. After all, I’m a Bad Guy.

Spy Cats

Jack glides from the real to the imagined with the greatest of ease.

One afternoon, when we were walking the dogs, I began counting the many cats we saw. Jack helped with the counting.

Before long, a myth was born.

The cats we counted—sighting them beneath cars, on roofs, in trees, and sprawled on porches—became Spy Cats. Spy Cats are foot soldiers in a vast army lead by The General. A ferocious warrior who has mauled and scarred many a dog, But The General is also a noble and wise leader. Jack explains to anyone who will listen, that Newton, our ninety-pound golden retriever, would never be attacked by the army of Spy Cats, because Newton’s father had, many years ago when he was a puppy, saved The General, who was just a kitten then, from a pack of Mean Dogs. So, in gratitude, The General granted Newton’s father, and all his puppies, immunity from Spy Cat attacks.

I am secretly in awe or, and inspired by, how Jack always provides safety, immunity, and protection, for himself and everyone he knows.

Loss

When my bicycle was stolen, Jack was devastated.

“We’ll never ride together again!” he gasped.

I hadn’t expected him to take the news so hard. “I’ll buy another bike, Jack. Very soon.”

He was crying. I hugged him.

The bicycle had been special to me, my favorite possession. The shock of having it stolen, gone forever, hurt. The adults I told this to were sympathetic, but looked at me as if I was being absurd: After all, it was just a bicycle.

Through his tears, Jack said, “Maybe they just borrowed your bike.”

I had to smile. “Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

He was struggling to understand. He asked, “Did they leave a note?”

Traveling Suburban Minstrels

One night last winter, Jack and his mom came with me as I walked the dogs. The houses that had security lights intrigued Jack. These lights would detect our motion, and click on, flooding the sidewalk with brightness. Knowing a certain house that had a whole battery of these automatic lights, I ran to it. I leaped into the darkness and the lights clicked on. In the bright glare I dropped to one knee and did my Al Jolson impersonation.

A block later, when another light clicked on, Jack, a pint-sized and perfect mimic, stood in its circle, dropped to one knee, spread his arms wide and belted out, “Mammy! How I love ya! How I love ya! My dear old Mam-mie!”

We made another circuit of the neighborhood, a traveling theatrical comedy troupe of one woman, one man, one boy, and two large dogs. We performed our act, sometimes solo, sometimes as a duet, sometimes the whole company, in the glare of every automatic spot light we crossed.

I felt sorry for the people inside the dark houses, staring at their glowing televisions.

Dancing in the Street

If something catches Jack’s attention, he becomes an instant authority on that subject.

He has patiently instructed me in the differences between plant eating and flesh eating dinosaurs. He has lectured extemporaneously on helicopters, panda bears, snakes, and pianos. He also gives dance lessons.

My dance lessons occur while we wait downtown for our bus home from Jack’s day care. Jack climbs to the flat top of a nearby concrete wall.

“Watch me. Do what I do.” He dances, his head bobbing, his arms flailing, his sneakers dragging and scuffing. He dances in one sustained burst, until he can barely stand, barely breathe.

Then he looks at me. “Your turn.”

Sometimes, I beg off. But my cowardice shames me. I worry I’ll pass my inhibitions on to Jack. I see flashing memories of myself, eleven-years-old at a dance in a school gymnasium, in my twenties in bars and clubs and at the weddings of my friends. In every remembered scene, I am constructing Byzantine rationalizations to prove that dancing is not cool, not required to get girls or have fun. Secretly, I have always wished I could dance, and dance well. Once, I spent fifteen hundred dollars on dance lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio on West 57th Street in Manhattan. I learned that love is not the only thing money can’t buy.

But sometimes, there on the busy sidewalk, I do take my turn.

Then, as the cars and taxis and buses pass, I flail my arms and scuff my shoes. Jack stands on the high wall above me, arms crossed, a master choreographer looking down on an inept student. As I dance, I sneak glances at the very adult faces in the windows of the passing buses and cars: puzzled, amused, blank, smirking.

I keep dancing. I think how, if I behaved like this when not in the company of a six year old boy, I would need good lawyers to keep me out of society’s assorted institutions for those who dance, go about naked, or converse with imaginary friends, in public.

As I dance, I imagine myself being arrested, hauled before a censorious judge in a packed, hostile courtroom. I stand, accused, alone. Suddenly, Jack arrives. He takes the stand as my character witness. Then I see him in the jury, and he winks at me. I turn, and he is beside me, in a three-piece chalk stripe suit with gold cufflinks and blue silk pocket square: my four-foot-tall defense attorney.

Jack gets me off. In no time at all, I’m back on the streets, dancing.

And this time, as I dance on the sidewalk, an admiring crowd encircles me. Every person I glimpse through every window of every passing bus and car is smiling, laughing, approving.

I’m dancing. I’m having fun.