My son said he wanted to play baseball. I didn’t know if he really wanted to do it or was just being charitable: I had a lot of free time that summer. His teammates were changelings, gnomes, humanoids. The whole outfield were creatures out of Herodotus. A boy with a German Shepherd’s head; a boy with a face in the middle of his chest; a boy with his head tucked under his throwing arm. My son was at second base but spent a lot of time kicking the heads off dandelions in center field. In between sips of Gatorade the manager spoke to the kids in soft, druidic tones. “It helps to make them believe they’re smarter than you,” the manager said. I asked which one was his. He pointed at an empty spot between first and second. “Handsome fella,” I said. He nodded gravely. The team did not play well. The pitcher, who was sleep-deprived or afflicted with a stupefying plague, struggled to get velocity on his pitches. “He’s got nothing,” the opposing manager told his players, “swing hard in case you hit.” When a ball rolled between the hooves of the kid playing shortstop, the boy who held his head had to drop it to run after the ball. The ball wound up in the middle of the street. The boy picked up his head and threw his cap to the ground. He sat in the grass and pressed his face deep into his stomach. How easy it is to forget that they’re just boys. They were disappointed in themselves. They didn’t understand their shame. The score was 17-0 after two innings. A kid from the other team hit a triple and the third baseman stuck out one of his talons and sliced him open from jockstrap to jaw. The German Shepherd sprinted in from center field and began devouring the mess spilling out. “Kayden,” shouted a mom on the bleachers. “Kayden!” The umpire and coaches agreed to call the game. “Did you have fun,” I asked my son on the ride home. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.” “Well that’s what matters.”
Experts in the Field
The therapists convention was in Winnipeg. Who wants to go to Winnipeg? My wife, it turned out. She said poetic things about expanses and frontiers and agriculture. Then the kids wanted to go. I said fine but you have to tell me an interesting fact about Winnipeg first. My daughter said it had more Nazis per capita than any large city in Canada. My son said it’s the Nollywood of Canada. The three of them sat together in the back of the CRJ-700 because my convention discount meant I had to book my ticket separately. I sat beside a fellow reading a tract. Faith is the evidence of unseen things, it read. I spent a while trying to make sense of that.
I counseled a client with a rather unusual condition. She had a debilitating sexual attraction to the striding green figure at crosswalks who indicated it was safe to go. Sometimes she masturbated in the middle of the street. She had climbed the pole where he lived in his box and kissed his tiny round featureless face. That’s what got the cops, then the courts, then me, involved. “Walk with your head down,” I advised her. “You’ll not only cut off your compulsion, but you’ll be taken for a crone and that will create an erotic vacuum and you’ll be able to cross the street in peace.” It wasn’t like I ordered her to be perfect!
We bundled into the car and drove to a part of the city we’d never visited to see The Execution of An Unnamed Astronaut. It was showing on the top floor of a multiplex. To get there we passed levels that looked like corporate headquarters, looted shops, archives of forbidden literature. Afterward we walked outside in the warm darkness. My daughter asked for ice cream and my wife said we weren’t likely to find any nearby. My daughter looked stunned. “Kitten, we’ll get some on the way home,” my wife said. “Try and hold it together.” “It’s just ice cream, you corpse,” said her brother. My daughter pressed her tiny head against my side. “Kitten, let’s think about the movie,” I said softly. “Let’s think about that brave lady on that exploding moon or that homeless man and his dog who stopped that mob so the doctor could get away. Think about how brave they were. Do you think you can be like them.” My daughter stopped walking. “I just want an ice cream cone,” she said desolately. “Do I have to die to stop a mob?”
The Melancholy of Appliances
My wife and I sat quietly at the kitchen table. Which is a thing people do when something seems off. She had a glass of water. I didn’t. The dishes were clean, the kids asleep. I played with a breadcrumb that had fallen from the chicken at dinner. It’s built into us, the act of being quiet in the kitchen. The kitchen is our psychological nest. She tilted her head toward the window above the sink like she expected to hear or see something. Nothing was there yet. Was she looking for something outside of the house or something that had already found a way in? Her face, unbothered by certainty, was the invitation to the question. I will not strive to answer because I will not be at my table in the assembled evening with someone who is not a mystery. When the history of the end stages of America is written it will be called White People Sitting in Their Kitchens.
My daughter reported that a girl at school had called her a name that you could be arrested in some places for saying out loud. We drove to the girl’s house. It was two old jetways taped together in a parking lot. “I’m so sorry,” said the mother, “we’re descended from savages. She hasn’t had the civilizing ceremony yet.” The girl stood behind the mother rubbing her eyeballs and giving my daughter a nauseating grin. “We have no bad intentions,” the mother said. “We’ve abandoned geocentrism and are working on gravity. And we whittle our own pencils.” The girl held one up — a perfectly rendered Hellfire missile — and jabbed it into her cheek. “Can you imagine that one day, if we continue to strive, we may be as decent and insightful as you,” said the mother. The girl was on her hands and knees, lapping up the blood that spilled from her face. Her mother patted her head and smiled meekly. “If you accept our apologies your forgiveness will feed us for many nights to come.”
That was the year my son went trick or treating as the pileup from Godard’s Weekend. There was a full mile of wrecked Peugeots and Citroëns fixed to his waist. My wife was in an odd mood and had the time to pull off a get-up like that. She mocked up a few cardboard French people and glued them to the cars. She dressed them in Lacoste shirts and tennis skirts and gave them all stupid expressions. Then at the last minute she gave them little plastic jack-o-lanterns for candy. When my son was done trick or treating, they had more candy than he did. “You’ll never win against the leisure class,” my wife said. “It’s good to learn that now,” I said.
Settle a bet: Which had a better life, the British Empire or Yuri the betta fish I flushed down the toilet yesterday? After the flushing I needed the kids out of the house for a bit. They took themselves to the movies and an angry man walked them back home. He told me a hat would make a better parent and demanded I pay him back for the price of his ticket. The kids said it depended on the kind of hat. Better than a cowboy hat but not as good as the wool ones you wear when it snows. It was a fair assessment, I thought. They couldn’t agree about baseball hats, though, and when my daughter began making threats it was time for them go back in the house. I told the angry man I’d give him the money if he would bring Yuri back to life. He said who’s Yuri? I told him forget it and mind your own barking business and slammed the door. So once again it was me and the kids. Sometimes in traffic or in line to get coffee I wonder if people are aware of their motives or just get off on causing stuff to happen. I confess: the bet I made was with myself. The fish, I say. If I’m right I get to lay in bed under the covers and let the kids do whatever they want to the world. If it’s the Empire, we have to get a new fish.
Pete Segall lives in Chicago. His fiction has appeared recently in failed states, HAD, and The Bennington Review.