by Scott Wrobel
Lately, my fifth-grade son has been drawing boobs and peckers on his class assignments. My wife Susie brings home one of Danny's construction paper artworks with a Post-It Note from the teacher attached that says, "Please re-enforce the message that this imagery is inappropriate." The imagery appears to be a set of testicles with a giant phallus pointing straight down. I could argue to Mrs. Peterson that an archetype is working through Danny, but I don't. One of my work-crews roofed her house last summer. Instead, I write on the return-note, "Sure, okay," because Susie says she can't deal with this embarrassment. She volunteers in Danny's class on Tuesdays. Danny says the picture is of a coyote riding a unicycle."Do you really think it's a unicycle?" Susie says in bed that night. She's reading a book called Easy Scrapbooking: the Complete Guide to Super Scrapbooking in Just 10 Minutes a Day while I'm trying to pretend I'm sleeping so I can get back up once Susie is asleep and have a cocktail on the deck and listen to the coyotes at the edge of the development.
"Where is he getting these behaviors?" she says.
"Not from me," I say. "I don't even have a nudie magazine in the house. I can't even remember what my balls look like."
"It sure is."
Susie sighs and flips a page in her oversized book. "I'm forming an official scrap booking club. We rented space at the church."
"You mean you have to pay?"
Not only is Danny a pervert, but now Susie tells me she's organizing an "official" scrapbooking club from her loose band of church and neighborhood friends.
"What do you think?" she says.
All I can think to say is, "I need to pressure wash the camper this weekend."
"I don't know. We only used it once. Maybe we need to use it again."
"Did you know there's a Scrapbooking Designers Guild?" she says. "I wonder if I should get our club into it." She sighs. "I already feel so overwhelmed." She sighs again. Susie sighs all the time, long, lugubrious sighs that burrow under my skin. She sighs when a kid's sock is inside-out, a jacket bounces off a coat-hook, when lettuce fragments fall to the floor while chopping a salad, when she realizes there's no more butter, when I say "What?" after she asks me something, when Danny won't leave the TV to come eat at the table, when I say I have a work meeting. The first time I used the pressure washer, I cleaned the siding, and then I power-washed my Skeeter bass boat, which didn't need washing since I'd only used it twice. Same with the 30-foot RV-trailer parked behind the garage, a 2004 Gulf Stream Prairie Schooner I bought used for $57,000, and can't remember why I bought it. Susie sighed when I bought the boat. She sighed even more when I bought the RV.
Before Danny started his drawings and Susie started scrapbooking, I stayed at work until 6 PM for fifteen years. Every morning, I nodded to employees, walked upstairs to my office and logged into the computer and played games like Windows Pinball or Solitaire. Some people brag about being self-made. Not me. When I was a semester away from an M.A. in Psychology, my dad walked into traffic because his liver turned his eyeballs yellow. He willed me the truss-construction and roofing company and I dropped out of college before finishing my thesis, my working title of which was, "Loss of Control Eating in Obese Adolescents." I was a fat kid. Now I'm a fat adult. I love Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chipotle.
I spent my first two years at Williams' Truss and Roofing firing people. The older employees hated me, but I was a good manager; I could tell who'd work and who wouldn't. Once I had the right people under me, I had nothing to do except be at the Christmas party to pass out bonus checks and tell bad jokes into the ballroom microphone. Still, I always put in my office time and the plant manager often drops by to show me numbers, and we pretend I understand them. In the meantime, I sit at the computer and play games or bid on E-Bay items. Last week, I bought a new depth-finder for my Skeeter even though the old one apparently works. I also bought a two-man tent. I hope to use both items some day.
Today, though, I log off the computer when I get a call from Danny's principal, Gabriel Abraham. He says, "Mr. Williams, would it be possible to have a meeting on this issue of Danny's? We're not overly concerned. We're just concerned."
"Sure," I say, "you want me to come by this afternoon?"
"I'm sure you're busy. We can schedule an appointment."
"I'm not busy," I say, and tell my secretary Marlys that I'm going to the Chipotle for lunch.
I walk out to my SUV, a 2003 Lincoln Aviator, and think about driving to the Badlands. It's only a twelve hour drive from Minneapolis. Instead, though, I drive to Michael's craft store and buy Susie a leather-bound scrap book and some Looney Toons stickers for the photos of Danny when he was little. He liked Bugs Bunny best. I like Wile E. Coyote. Susie wrote her college thesis on the effects of psychotropic drugs on children of differing socio-economic classes, and then she took a job teaching at Kindercare. In ten years, she's worked her way up from Assistant Program Director to Lead Program Director. Maybe scrapbooking will help her stop sighing.
Next, I go to B. Dalton's bookstore at the mall and look for something on how to deal with kids who draw peckers on their homework. I tell this to the clerk, a kid with a bead-necklace and dreadlocks, and after a silent moment, he says I should scout through dream interpretation books. I pick up a copy of Carl Jung's Symbols of Transformation, which I'd read back college. I look in the index and find "phallus" on page 97. It says the phallus is "the source of life and libido, the creator and worker of miracles, and as such it is worshipped everywhere." I could make this argument to administration, that Danny's pecker-drawing is a miracle, when I get to the school, but the peckers aren't the only issue. Our last name is Williams, and Danny has been writing his name on his papers as Danny W., and scribbling dots on each descender of the "W", making the letter look like boobs. According to Jung, breasts represent life, the earth mother, provider. He says that in Egypt, a man could seek immortality by sucking the breasts of a goddess. You can't do that in the suburbs, though.
"Inappropriate," I tell Danny once we're gathered in the principal's office. I'm clenching my fists on the chair rails in front of Principal Abraham's desk. "This is really offensive to people." Mrs. Peterson's eyebrows are close together. She's standing by Abraham and wearing narrow eyeglasses with a neck chain like a 1950's schoolmarm. Danny looks down and rubs his hands together as if he's washing them.
"Do you understand how someone might be offended?" I say to him, playing to the script.
"Sure," he says. "Okay."
"I really appreciate you coming in," Principal Abraham says to me. "Danny, you can go back to class now. And thank you, Mrs. Peterson."
I stand to leave.
"May I speak with you alone for a minute, Mr. Williams?"
"Sure," I say. "Okay."
When Mrs. Peterson and Danny leave, the principal sits on the front corner of his desk, rests his hands on his knee and says, "I'm really sorry about all this. Listen, there's nothing unusual about what Danny did here. It happens a lot, but some are more sensitive than others, so that's what we have to deal with here." He winks as though we share some sort of male covenant, and for the first time, I notice that he's black. I've never noticed a black person in our suburb of forty thousand, except for an adopted kid named Dustin who plays on Danny's baseball team. Maybe the principal is Dustin's dad.
"It's no problem," I say. "I was on my way to Chipotle anyway."
"Pardon?" says the principal.
"Chipotle. It's kind of a fast-food gourmet Mexican restaurant."
"What I mean is, what does Chipotle have to do with what I just said?"
Behind Principal Abraham on a hutch is a 5 x 7 framed picture of him and his family smiling in front of the giant Epcot Center golf ball. The real name of the golf ball is something like "Spaceship Earth," which means there must be some sort of space-ride inside. We have the same picture of the huge golf ball in the background, with Susie and Danny and me standing in the same place as the principal's family, right in front of the entrance to the amusement park.
"I took my family to Disney World when Danny was six," I say, gesturing to the photo. "I don't remember a thing except that I was tired all the time." For some reason, I'm smiling. I shake Principal Abraham's hand and crave a burrito with a big dollop of sour cream.
I exit the office at 3:00 after going onto E-Bay and bidding on a green double-burner Coleman camp stove like I had in college, and then I let the truck idle in the parking lot. I stare at the leather-bound scrapbook and my Carl Jung book on the passenger seat. One of the books lies atop the other. It must mean something. The second-shift workers drive in and some of them wave at me as I unzip my slacks.
The cars pass from the street to the administrative lot, where I'm parked, and then disappear through a gate into the truss-construction facility out back. Since I sit up high in my Aviator, there is no danger of passing employees seeing my pecker. I can still wave, too, because I'm not masturbating, nor am I erect. I'm just pushing in my gut with my left hand, waving with my right, and looking at my penis, which I haven't studied for years. It arcs loosely over my zipper and sprawls on my slacks like a drunken partygoer passed out on a couch.
When I get home, Susie is opening and closing kitchen cabinets, and when she sees me, she scolds me for always unloading the dishwasher when the plastic containers and cups are still wet. I tell her I haven't unloaded the dishwasher for weeks, and she says she's not surprised by that. Danny sits at the kitchen table looking down and rubbing his hands together over his chubby belly.
"Do you want to ask your son what he did after your meeting today?" Susie puts her hands on her hips and sighs.
"No," I say, and walk back out the front door and into the SUV. I want to drive to the Badlands and bark at the moon, but instead, I drive to Pete's Small Engine where I bought my air-compressor.
"What can I do you for?" Pete asks. He wears a black baseball cap with yellow lettering that says "DeWalt."
"I need an attachment."
"How's the compressor working for you?"
"Good," I say. Also, I could tell Pete that I just ran out on my family, and now I need to drive home and eat dinner or this could be the end, but instead I say, "I'm thinking about getting a new pressure washer attachment."
"What's wrong with the old one?"
"I don't know."
I walk back into the house with my head down. The scrapbook still sits on the passenger seat of the Lincoln. It's been an hour since I left, and when I return, Susie is still banging around the kitchen and Danny is still slouching at the table and rubbing his hands together. Now, though, he's got a bunch of drawings in front of him.
"He did it again," Susie says, igniting the gas range like I was never gone. We have Maytag appliances. "Your little meeting sure helped a lot."
I sit at the table. "Inappropriate," I say, fanning out the evidence. "I want no more nipples on your W's, Danny."
"Bruce," says Susie, laying a cutting block on the counter, "this isn't funny."
"I know it's not," I say. "All I'm saying is that there are certain things we can't do in certain places." My eyes get hot. "Right, Danny?"
"Sure," he says, looking down, and for the first time, I notice how Danny's pudgy, swelled face is full of freckles and bright pink zits, dense and compressed like a rash. He squints up at me for a second but can't focus on my face. His eyeballs float from side to side like he's trying not to look into the sun. I want to get in the truck and drive with my hazards on all the way to South Dakota. I want my son to look me in the eyes. I want him to see me for once.
"Danny, I'm really serious about this. It has to stop." I can't make my voice rise and fall anymore.
"I can't help it," he says. "I'm bored."
""There is no excuse for this behavior," says Susie. "Tell him, Dad."
"I just did. I don't know what else to say."
"Me neither," says Danny.
Before dinner, I go into the bathroom and as I'm leaning over the sink with my face six inches from the mirror checking my nose hairs, Susie walks up behind me and says, "You need to spend more time with Danny. Why don't you take him into work tomorrow so you can show him what you do for a living."
"What do I do for a living?"
"Maybe that's the problem."
In the evening, Susie reads to Danny while I go out on the deck to watch the tree-line and listen for the coyotes that roam a stretch of woods and vacant fields that border the edge of our development, just west of the under-construction community center that will have an indoor waterslide with a tropical theme—plastic palm trees, rubber coconuts, cabanas, the whole bit—and workout rooms. I sit on a deck chair and listen over our backyard to the yips that skate the neighborhood, bouncing between houses. It sounds like a dozen coyotes roaming the edges of the development taunting the kenneled dogs, but two or three coyotes can sound like twenty.
Once, when Susie and I were in the Badlands, before we had Danny, we took a hike but went too far and couldn't get back to the campground before dark, so as we stumbled back, we walked into a dried up creek-bed that we knew was the last obstacle between us and the campground, and we couldn't find a way up the other side. The creek wall was ten feet high with no grooves. Coyotes started yipping. The voices bounced around the creek bed, sounding like hundreds of crazed dogs running toward us. Susie scrambled for the wall, fingers digging into sandstone, and she clawed her way up like Spiderman and ran across the meadow to the lantern lights of the campground. She didn't scream or sigh. She was lovely when she was afraid of something that mattered.
The Aurora Borealis's green gases squiggle fuzzily over the yellow suburban lights. The coyotes yip and seem close. I walk down and lie on the lawn and look up at the Northern Lights. The green gases are a veil and the dim stars behind it are freckles and zits.
From inside the house, I hear, "Are you going to be up all night again?"
I walk upstairs to Danny's room. I squeeze his chubby shoulder and he rolls onto his back and squints up at me with red eyes like he's been crying. I sit on the edge of his bed and tell him a coyote story. I tell him that in 1987, a Coyote sat on a butte in the Badlands and stared up at the slowly arcing moon. The Badlands Moon, when full, looked like a shiny hunk of quartz. The Badlands Moon, when full, smiled from lunar ear to lunar ear. The Badlands Moon, when full, looked like a large cup of floating ice-water, ready to tip. But it never did. From horizon to horizon, the coyote craned its head and licked and nipped at the full, moist, celestial body. Every night for three days, he returned and sat, and licked and nipped, until the sky clouded up.
"I don't know how the story ends," I say.
"Okay," Danny whispers. He closes his eyes.
"Wait, I remember the ending," I tell him. "It started to rain real hard and the moon disappeared and the wind started blowing hard, so we packed up camp and drove to a motel in Wall, about twenty minutes away. Then we went to Wall Drug the next day and ate at a huge buffet."
"What about the coyote?"
When I'm done with the story, I smoke a cigarette on the deck and listen to the barking of a Pit Bull down at the end of the cul-de-sac. The sliding door cracks open and Susie says, "You gonna be up all night again?"
I don't want the pecker to be a stick-figure on a unicycle. I want it to be a stick figure atop an amazing pecker. I want the stick figure to be awed at how huge it is, how he swings his legs over its side, running in space like a cockroach pinned to a board, and all because of this amazingly large pecker.
"I'll be right in," I say, and I am. I lie in bed and listen to Susie sigh in her sleep, and stare up into the plaster, but then the light clicks on and Susie sits up and says, "I'm reading for awhile. Go sleep on the couch if you have to."
She pulls her book, Easy Scrapbooking: the Complete Guide to Super Scrapbooking in Just 10 Minutes a Day, off of her nightstand.
"Maybe I'll read, too," I say. "I got a book today." I don't mention the leather-bound scrapbook still sitting on the passenger seat of the SUV.
"What?" She creases her eyebrows and sets her book on her lap. "Why are you reading all of the sudden?" I tell her about my visit to B. Dalton's and she says, "It sounds like you acted like a parent today."
"Listen," I say, my voice rising. "Remember that class we took on counseling methods our senior year? Remember the Jungian analysis part?"
"Sure you do. The archetypes, remember? The dream symbols? Listen, the breasts Danny's drawing are not any particular boobs. They're everyone's. He has archetypes working through him. He can't help it."
"You're talking crazy."
"Boobs, peckers, coyotes. They're connected."
"What are you talking about?"
Susie flips another page in her book on scrapbooking. "I can't believe we were fed that garbage in college. What were we thinking?"
"We were thinking."
The curtain drifts into the room through the open window as a breeze picks up outside. I put my book back on my nightstand. "I got a new pressure-washer nozzle today."
"What was wrong with the old one?"
"I don't know."
I close my eyes and listen through the open bedroom window for coyotes, for the yips getting closer. In my imagination, I stare into the darkness of the woods. Beyond the darkness, more blackness, and the yips dance from tree to tree as though the animals are running in circles.
"I think we've repressed Danny," Susie says as she reads. "That's what his problem is. Maybe you're accidentally right with this archetype stuff." Her theory is that we've been throwing blankets over TV screens, towels over body parts, and jumping for volume controls so much that he's wondering what we're hiding, and so maybe his collective unconscious is coughing up the answers: boobs and peckers. We keep doors locked when we bathe or shower, and we only mate once every four months, late on weekend nights when Danny is sleeping, and we each give the act half-attention because our ears are trained to the floor above us where Danny's room is.
"We need to talk more to Danny," Susie says. "We're hiding too much from him. We need to be more open."
"Like Amsterdam," I say into the pillow.
"The Amsterdam stereotype," I say, though I really want to tell her that Carl Jung says that the "phallus often stands for creative divinity," but I'm trying to pretend I'm going to sleep so I can get back up again and go outside once Susie is asleep.
"We should go camping this weekend," I say, but I don't mean to say it out loud.
"I have scrapbooking at the church on Saturday, remember? It's our first time renting out a space, Bruce."
Once Susie is sleeping, I walk out to the truck and grab the leather-bound scrapbook from the passenger's seat. In the basement office, I lay the scrapbook on the carpet, open it to the first page and start digging through white plastic bins containing rubber stamps, stickers, scissors, ribbon, colored paper, glue, glitter, laminate, and baby wipes to clean the rubber stamps, and I create a collage of images from piles of magazines such as Outside and Redbook. I set my digital camera to the "close-up" setting and take a couple photos of my erection, the first I've had in ages. I load the photos through firewire into my computer and print out color copies. When I'm done cutting, pasting, drawing and writing, I place the book in a bin, underneath the scrapbook Susie is currently working on, titled "The Birthday Boy," about Danny's various birthday parties. She's scrapbooking the parties by theme rather than chronology since Danny's birthdays were all controlled by themes: Thomas the Tank Engine, Toy Story, Scooby Doo, Star Wars, whatever merchandise was front-center in the Wal-Mart party section at the time.
Friday evening, Susie loads her bins into her mini-van and heads to the church. I walk upstairs to Danny's room and knock.
"What?" he says. I can tell from his muffled tone that he's not facing the door.
"Can I come in?"
I hear repetitive electronic music and pinging noises, the sounds of PS2.
"Open the door. I have an idea I want to run by you."
"Open the door. Let's take a hike into the woods."
As the sun dips into the earth, I stand in the backyard and stare into the woods until the woods go black. Beyond the forest, which is a quarter-mile deep, is a field of upturned dirt being smoothed for more cul-de-sacs. As I walk into the darkness, I imagine that no more houses will be built here. This is where the coyotes run around . I want Danny to walk out here with me, but he won't unlock his door. He's playing Rampage. And I imagine, just as I get to other edge of the woods and stare into the black field, that Susie notices the new scrapbook at the bottom of the bin. She's in the church basement, her friend Dana sitting to one side and her friend Mary on the other at a long table. Her eyes spring wide for a second when she sees a yellow coyote with an erect pecker riding a unicycle across the first page. Then I imagine that she smiles.
Scott Wrobel has published stories and essays in The Rake, Identity Theory, Pindeldyboz, Great River Review, Minnesota Monthly, among other publications; he is also the recipient of a 2006-7 Loft Mentor Series Award. Scott is currently finishing up a book, Cul De Sac: Stories about Suburban Guys. Visit www.scottwrobel.com for more information on the mysteries of power-washing the stain off of decks.