Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age —
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Compared to his classmates, Sean understands that his childhood is unfolding unusually. Not many others in Third Grade make their own lunches, only a few walk to school by themselves, and certainly no one else can pick open a Yale lock, a PGE or any lock at all, let alone identify them. And, no one seems to be in training for anything other than reading, math and coloring. Or, maybe soccer. Sean doubts that any of the fathers have allowed their sons to fire anything more than a 22 rifle, much less an AK47. The one Sean’s father prodded him to try was equipped with the third evil hole and a full-auto selector switch. It came from Russia via Afghanistan. It was heavy too.
While thinking of that heavy gun—was it six pounds, ten pounds?—Sean glances over at the yellow-sunrise MORNING chart full of colorful magnets to evaluate what is left TO DO. The chart takes up most of the space on the front of the humming stainless-steel refrigerator. His father insists Sean use the chart to keep stability and discipline. Sean has already moved the Fish-Food magnet, the Toilet magnet, the Shoes, and the Lunchbox magnet over to the DONE column. Now, Breakfast, on schedule. Two eggs cracked in one hand and scrambled with a careful dash of milk—tip the carton quickly in the time it would take for the Morse code dash as in the letter T—and cinnamon toast with butter.
Breakfast is eaten at the kitchen table at the end of the bench, where he can view the front yard while considering how much a single egg might weigh. Across the street, the house is for sale. A blue sign went up last year and now and then people stop, get out, go in and leave. Sometimes they walk around in the yard too, looking dismayed. Carlson says the old house has water damage from a plumbing accident and nobody will buy it. The word accident partnered with the word plumbing sounds mismatched to Sean, as if pipes would run into each other or water could crash.
He has spent many mornings gazing sleepily at that empty house while eating his breakfast and this is the first breakfast that includes some activity. A white station wagon pulls up, and a man
obviously hurrying gets out, digs something bulky out of the back of the car and props up a new sign with two big words and a bunch of busy little words beneath. Sean slowly sounds out, Open and spells H-O-U-S-E. From the back of the car, the man procures five pink balloons that burst forth appearing joyful in comparison with his harried grimace. He ties them to the sign, and drives off.
The balloons whip around in the breeze, bopping each other like playful brothers. Sean enjoys the sight of the lively banter while he finishes eating. The motorcycle that Sean notices almost every morning drives by, momentarily blocking the view. A longhaired man drives the bike and a woman with a braid is always on the back. The breeze from the motorcycle makes the balloons appear to abruptly squabble with one another until they calm down to their usual friskiness.
Then, he hears the motorcycle again, coming back. Facing the wrong way, the motorcycle pulls over and the man does something near the balloons. He hands the something to the smiling woman, which Sean realizes is the string holding the balloons. The man grins and readies himself at the bike again. They drive off in the direction they originally came from.
Sean stands up and walks to the window, watching the bike turn around in the street and the couple roar away, a clump of pink balloons fiercely knocking behind.
The colorful commotion has been snatched, just like that. Stillness in the street again, as if the balloons were never there. Just like Carlson says, don’t ever count on anything to last.
Sean isn’t sure whether to be shocked—they stole those! —or dismayed—thieves! Or, as he thinks about it—perhaps their spontaneous mischief is to be admired.
In the quiet kitchen he washes his single dish while the cat in the windowsill closes her eyes.
Although Sean doesn’t want to be told what to do, he has come to love the feeling of swiping a magnet from TO DO to DONE. While making motorcycle noises—zerrrrr, zerrrrr—he takes the breakfast magnet the long way over to DONE—engine revving, across the refrigerator and up and down the sides—gears shifting, around the chart a few times—brakes squealing.
Next, he’ll complete more tasks and slide more magnets: Backpack, Cat Dish, Dog Poop. The Dog Poop magnet is for Hudley, the sighing dog that tends to rest on the floor wherever one needs to walk, constantly tripping Sean, and Carlson. Carlson, Sean’s father, is rarely home though, so Sean gets the bulk of the tripping. He sets the backpack by the door, makes sure his math homework is there next to his lunch. He fills up his stainless steel water bottle. Pours cat food into the dish. The cat hops down from the windowsill with a thud, rubbing her side along Hudley on the way to the bowl.
Outside, in the back yard, the mist makes everything soft and quiet. Go Poop he says to Hudley who sniffs and patrols the perimeter of the spruce trees where Carlson and Sean’s property ends
and the National Forest begins. The fog covers the forest, which slopes slightly up. Now it looks as if the big earth ends at the trees where the yellow dog lifts his leg. It is a comforting feeling—this covering fog—like maybe the world isn’t so enormous after all. Sometimes when they come out here, Sean imagines he is being watched, maybe by a cold gigantic eye hovering in the woods, ready to snatch him when he isn’t using his awareness.
He almost doesn’t notice them, two deer at the tree line. He’s seen these two before. Hudley trots forward, stops and wags his tail as if he wants to play. At first it seems the deer won’t mind sharing the yard with a friendly dog, but then, after standing still— so perfectly still—they amble off and up into the forest, vanishing soundlessly. Hudley gives out a low wuff, which to Sean doesn’t sound like his warning-wuff, but more like a come-back-again wuff.
Sean is left with that uneasy sensation of being exposed. It is a feeling Sean knows he needs to wrestle, to grapple, to conquer with confidence—a phrase he’s heard from his father many times. Without pooping, Hudley heads back toward the house, which means he’ll dash out the door the second Sean comes home from school. You shouldn’t make yourself wait so long, Sean says as he looks back toward the trees, towering and powerful, last chance Huds.
As they go back in, Sean has a flash of inspiration. What if he could train Hudley to move his own Dog Poop magnet over to DONE when he was finished? The dog could nose it over, or move it
with a paw. This might take a lot of work between the two of them. What would Carlson think when he saw Hudley participating in the maneuverings of the chart?
Tonight, Sean will swipe all the magnets back over to the TO DO column so they are ready for the morning. Swiping them all across is one of his favorite moments. It indicates, as Carlson says it, a day well endured. The swipe is often accompanied by the roar of an engine, the shrieking of brakes and a good crash. Usually his noises are car noises, but tonight, perhaps a motorcycle.
The wrongness of the Backpack magnet bothers him. If he had his way the backpack would not be red. His father had found a picture of a red backpack from a magazine, and like all the other pictures on the charts, glued it to a magnet. They used pictures instead of words because Sean is an Emerging Reader, despite what his father wants him to be, an Expert Reader. Words don’t come that easy to Sean; at least written words, but pictures make sense. However, the backpack should be blue like Sean’s, not red. Again, he thinks, if I had it my way it wouldn’t be red. Then, an itchy thought happens, sort of a run-loose rebellious thought, a thought that makes him feel almost as daring as the balloon-snatchers. He could have it his way. No one is here to stop him.
This bothersome discrepancy, Sean will fix. Sean’s decision thrusts him toward the Backpack magnet, where he zooms it far off the MORNING chart—zerrrrrr, screech—over to the REMINDER
chart alongside the Garbage Can magnet and the Water-Glass magnet. Carlson believes that drinking lots of water prevents all illnesses, especially parasites, which are white worms that eat your food in your own stomach and leave you hungry but with a big round belly, so although you are starving, you look like you ate ten hamburgers and hundreds of fries.
Sean watches his feet again trip over Hudley. If he saw his feet tripping, surely he should have been able to stop himself. While on the kitchen floor, Sean thinks that maybe tiny pieces of chicken
should be involved in Hudley’s magnet-moving training. He moves the Dog Poop magnet over to the REMINDER section with the Backpack and whispers Hudley Pudley.
On the Weekend chart, there is a picture of the washer and dryer, the recycle bin, the rake, the broom, the dishwasher, the bath. Every night a four-minute shower, every weekend a bath, laundry on Saturdays, do not leave it in the washer. Pew.
As he puts on his jacket, the blue one with the secret pocket, he reviews the SEAN chart, made up of a code made up by Carlson, a code that only the two of them know. The code is a mixture
of symbolism and significant words. Carlson wanted to call it Sean’s Responsibility Chart, but Sean won that argument; he wanted it to be called Sean’s Chart, that way if Sean wanted to make additions he could, and it wouldn’t seem like someone was bossing him around, because if there is anything that bothers both Sean and Carlson, it is bossiness. This they have in common. And of course, like all fathers, Carlson can be bossy, especially because he is teaching Sean things that could save his life.
He pats the secret pocket to make sure the three Lego Minifigs are still in there, two robots and an alien. Someone left them on the playground yesterday, but now, they are safely hidden where they won’t get separated.
Sean considers his father in training also, although he doesn’t tell Carlson this explicitly, instead the training idea is between Sean and Sean. In his private-under-the-mattress notebook Sean puts a checkmark on a calendar marking another day of Carlson gone. Another practice they have in common, secrets. This notebook is where Sean charts all absences and the occasions Carlson does not say please or thank you. A blue check for not saying please, a green check for saying please, etc. And while counting the no-pleases, the phone rings, causing Sean to instinctively do the three deep calming whistle-breaths Carlson has had him practice so many times.
If anyone stops by or calls for his mother, he is to say, “She’s on her way home from the game with Uncle Ted, Uncle Grant, Uncle Ron and Uncle Ray.” This way, whoever it is will understand that a houseful of men is about to descend. Of course, there is no Uncle anything, with the exception of Uncle Carver who doesn’t even know where they live. And, there is no mother and never has been.
Another ring. Sean remembers all of his directions, all the possibilities, what to say if it is school, a wrong number, or A Person of Authority. Carlson makes him practice every time he comes
Again—this happened last time the phone rang, and the time before—Sean has a panging and irrational hope, maybe it is my mother calling. He dismisses this thought, Carlson has made it clear
she would never be coming back or calling. If she wanted to, she would have by now, he always says.
The phone stops ringing and Sean watches the clock. Exactly one minute later it begins again. Their code. On the fourth ring, Sean answers and accepts the operator’s collect call.
It is the rough voice of his father, the man he can only call Dad at home. The voice sounds as if it is coming from a faraway train or a room full of strangers. Carlson never says enough words on the phone for Sean to gather the voice and study it. Sean is relieved to hear his father, but would never say so. If Sean acts the least bit reluctant to be alone, Carlson will give him The War Lecture, how in World War II his grandfather Bass took care of himself after his father went to war and his mother and grandmother died. Carlson always adds new tidbits to the story, which occasionally makes Sean want to pout on purpose, just to hear more about Grandpa Bass, the child who lived like a man. The stories, full of starvation—bug swallowing, bark eating, leather chewing—always come with lessons like, see, in comparison, you have it easy, which makes Sean feel like he isn’t quite trying hard enough to reach Carlson’s ultimate goal, Well-Earned Self-Sufficiency. The tales make Sean’s life of autonomy-in-training seem like the world of royalty.
Sean wants to say, when are you coming home? But, to admit loneliness is to admit defeat, Sean knows this like he knows every wall of his house. No son of Carlson’s is a defeatist. Carlson
would no doubt give him a few reminders on the value of solitude.
He debates telling Carlson about the motorcycle incident, but decides to keep it to himself. A secret. A secret weighs how much? Carlson probably will say something like, see that as a lesson,
never let yourself be vulnerable.
Hello Carlson, Sean says while twirling the River Bail Bondsman magnet upside down.
Two more weeks, maybe less. I’ll teach you to rappel. Think rocks, think sides of buildings. In the meantime, eat at least three meals a day or four, the rumble-train-voice says and hangs up.
Sean whispers the phrase that often comes next, do not wait for the stomach, do not listen to the appetite, feed the body fuel, and retrieves his secret-under-the-mattress-notebook again. He loves this notebook: it has no stickers on it, no magnets, no words, no things TO DO, just a smooth unmarked green surface. It always reminds him of the meadow behind school where the grasshoppers leap when you wade through the grass. Soon, Sean will find a way to train his father to stay home more often. He hopes that he is just on the verge of coming up with a plan, after he collects the relevant data. One more blue check to enter because of that latest lack of please.
Think sides of buildings.
For a long time the two of them, Sean and the beloved notebook, sit on the edge of the bed, picturing his mother walking in with Uncle Ted, Uncle Grant, Uncle Ron and Uncle Ray. She would have
helmet, two gold bracelets that jangle like the substitute teacher wore in Kindergarten, and she would be laughing at Carlson. You two are going rappelling? She wouldn’t be laughing a put-down sort of laugh, the kind his third-grade teacher Mrs. Davis wouldn’t tolerate, but an aren’t-you-clever-and-handsome type of laugh. Then she’d turn to Sean, and he would receive that laugh from her too.
So he isn’t late—Sean must never be late—he stops the gloriously-private but far-fetched daydream to unzip his jacket and remove the three Minifigs, while whispering his father’s words, always keep your body warm so it doesn’t have to work so hard.
The blue minifigs are about two inches tall. He lines them in his palm, a robot on each side of the alien. The robots are scarier than the alien, with their frozen stares and empty eyes. The alien has a look of surprise and ferociousness. Sean imagines the alien would fight to the death, chopping pieces of the soulless robots and stomping on the metal of their AK47s. Maybe even eating them.
If Carlson knew he had the robots and the alien he might tell him to turn them in to lost and found, or depending on his mood, he might say finders keepers. Carlson imagines his mother would urge him to return the lost toys; a little boy just like him might be looking for them. But, she isn’t here to say that, is she? And, is there another boy just like him anyway? Sean squeezes the three in his hand as hard as his fist possibly can. He opens his palm and there they are, unharmed, unblinking, the same three stares as always, two empty, one fearless.
Time to go.
He has his backpack, filled with lunch, homework, the doesn’t-ever-leave-you-emergency kit, and water. Polarized sunglasses, a nondescript blue cap. Always best to dress plain and not advertise oneself. Five steps down, fifty-six to the sidewalk, a pause before turning left. While turning, a quick glance to make sure one isn’t followed. Pleased it’s still foggy, Sean is thankful, the mist hides him from that ever-watching enormous sky. In the fog, the dangerous world is not nearly as large. In fact, this way, it feels just the right size for a boy and his backpack, going off to school, like everyone else.