about a geek, a single mom with three children, dinner, and an
Chicago, IL – Today.
"Perhaps, we could get together another time," I suggested.
She giggled, gave me her address, and said that her kids really liked pizza. I thought of her warm smile and long, autumn-hued hair, and quickly asked, "Nancy, exactly how many children do you have?"
After twenty minutes of family-history, I agreed to meet Nancy and her three kids for dinner. The thought of her smile must've affected my thinking. I wanted to impress her and brought Chinese food. Even though the start of winter was officially a couple of weeks away, an early, light snow had begun to fall as she opened the door. I watched tiny mouths behind her work in exact unison and scream, "We wanna' go out and play!" Stepping inside and taking off my wet shoes, I caught a gleam in Nancy's eye. She took the Chinese food from me, announced it was dinner-time, and that was that.
Gwen, the oldest at twelve, seemed to appreciate the egg rolls. She poured several ounces of ketchup on her plate and pretended the egg roll was a big french-fry. Nervously sitting at the dinner-table and watching Nancy's kid put ketchup on Chinese food was rough, but when I was asked to take a bite of ketchup-dipped egg roll, I felt the first hint of perspiration form on my brow.
"Chop-sticks!" Kenny screamed, jabbing me in the side. Cute kid. Freckles, bright eyes, a working knowledge of civil law (thanks to CNN), and a breathing problem. Small lung -- one underdeveloped and one normal lung. The chop-stick jab stung and I concluded his health problem didn't prevent him from being annoying.
"How's the egg foo young, Maureen?" Nancy asked her youngest. The three year old sat at the dinner-table with a look of stark terror frozen on her small face.
"It moved...," the child whispered.
"Don't be silly, Maureen," Nancy chided. "The nice man, here, made sure all the little egg foo youngs were dead before he let them in our home!"
"Mom, would that make these white boxes their coffins?" Kenny teased, holding up one of the food-containers in front of his three year old sister.
"It's breathing!" Maureen exclaimed. "Mommy, this one's not dead!"
"Vampire Egg Foo Young!" Kenny screamed, thrusting one of his chop-sticks, like a tiny wooden stake, into the 'heart' of the egg foo young patty. Nancy seemed a wonderful mother. Well, all mothers are wonderful when push comes to shove at the dinner-table. Mothers appear to be able to affect the proper tone and pitch of their voice and get kids to stop fooling around. When I was growing up, my father would get my attention at the dinner-table with a heavy soup or tablespoon to the top of my head. Ouch! My mother could get my brother and me to stop 'rough-housing' with just a few words. Any words. Whatever she said always meant the same thing -- "Do what I say or else!"
"Kenny," Nancy scolded, using The Voice, "leave your sister's egg foo young alone!" And, of course, he did.
Meeting a date's children is sometimes just as nerve-racking as meeting their parents. In fact, usually worse. If you've got a job and no felony convictions, parents normally don't put up a fuss after you've reached a certain age. But, children demand answers to odd, personal questions often reserved for late-night talk shows.
"Mister! Answer a question for me?" Gwen asked.
"Sure, Gwen," I replied, adding, "and call me Brian."
"Okay! So, Brian...," she asked, feigning confusion, "do you use a brush or a comb on the hair in your ears, or do you just wash it and let it air-dry?"
"Good question!" I answered. "Are you just curious about my personal hygiene or do you plan on having ear-hair of your own someday?"
"Mom says you were married once, like her, but got a divorce... Is that true?" Kenny asked me.
"Yes," I said, "that's true... My ex-wife would only put butter on her mashed potatoes, never gravy. It just didn't work out. A man needs gravy sometimes..."
I try to never talk about my son from that marriage. Maybe someday, but not soon. There'd be little to say beyond that a stupid restraining order got me tossed from the hospital at his birth, I saw the kid four or five times during his first two months, and then she got remarried and they adopted him, and so I ain't got no legal claim on being a dad. He should be just starting fourth grade. I've found it easier to do my best to avoid the topic.
"Do you like children?" Gwen asked, reaching for the ketchup bottle with one hand, and another egg roll with the other.
"Yes," I teased, "with a cornbread and raisin stuffing, I think children are great!"
"Gross!" Gwen screamed.
"Gross!" Kenny and Maureen joined in.
"Didn't you tell me you took a night-course in 'child-behavior'?" Nancy asked me.
I smiled. This wasn't that bad. "Oh, no," I denied. "I said I took a class in 'wild-behavior'... Sorry!"
"Mom, we're frightened of this guy! Ask him if he's got a gun!" Gwen pleaded.
"Scared!" Maureen yelled. She wasn't, but I was!
"I guess I should have brought pizza," I confessed.
"Next time, Brian," Nancy said casually.
A third date! Six little eyeballs doubled in size and stared at me. I'd reached some point without paying attention. I looked at Nancy and saw a great looking babe in full stride. Hot, focused and a responsible parent. The children seemed wary of seeing me again. I think the Chinese food threw them for a loop. I was an outsider, an interloper who might come over again and bring food that still breathes when it's on your plate!
"Anyone who's done with dinner, raise your hand!" Nancy instructed. Everyone, including me, raised their hand at once. "Okay, Gwen, ...you get left-over duty," Nancy said with a full-toothed grin.
"Do I put the stuff back in their coffins or scrap it into tupperware?" Gwen asked.
"Tupperware," Nancy answered quickly. "We don't want coffins in our refrigerator, do we Maureen?" The little three year old turned her head sharply to one side, then snapped it back. No coffins!
"What do I do?" Kenny asked.
Nancy thought for a moment. "I'm trying to figure that one out... Have you learned how to raise the toilet seat yet? Pick up your room?"
Her motherly kidding was dismissed by Kenny with a soft, barely audible "shucks, Mom..." -- or, it could have been something else. It started with a "sh" and went somewhere I couldn't hear. Judging by the scowl on Nancy's face, she'd heard it as the something else.
"How about you help your sister learn the alphabet, Kenny? Read Maureen a couple of comics; just not the ones with the nudity and violence!" Nancy seemed on familiar ground.
"I don't collect those any more," Kenny said with a shrug.
"Which ones? You mean the only comics you buy now are the ones with nothing but nudity and violence?" The kid's smile was a sufficient answer.
"I'd like to help Maureen learn the alphabet," I said impulsively. "I'm not an expert, but the history of the alphabet is my hobby. ... Real good with my abc's, you might say!"
"Dessert!" Maureen screamed.
"No dessert, honey," Nancy said.
"Dessert!" the three year old continued to scream. I was tempted to join in -- dessert sounded good.
"Tell me about the abc's, mister..., err, Brian!" Kenny challenged with his best serious voice.
"Dessert!" I screamed.
"No dessert, honey," Nancy repeated.
I looked at little Maureen, who'd stop screaming and was busy thrusting her lower lip out as far as childishly possible. It looked like neither one of us were getting dessert. Ouch!
"Hey, Gwen!" I called out to the kitchen. "Can a guy get a cup of coffee around here?"
"There's a Dunkin' Donuts on Addison, around the corner," the twelve-year old replied. "Bring me back a Boston Creme or a chocolate honey-dip. Thanks!"
I couldn't help myself. There are certain things you're supposed to do with money. It's Tao, it's cyclic, it's the end-product of hours of labor -- spending! "I BUY, you FLY?" I asked.
Gwen was at my side in an instant with an open hand extended. She was nervously stepping from foot to foot like a fresh-from-the-country filly spoiling for a race. The spending of someone else's money was a test of responsibility Gwen believed she was ready for. But, her mother was faster.
"I don't want Gwen going anyplace there might be trouble -- it's safe around here, but on Addison after dark, she might get mistaken for someone else. I'll go!" Who could argue? I handed over a twenty towards donuts or whatever and watched her put on her coat.
"Can I come too, Mom?" Gwen begged.
"Nope!" she called out. "You get to listen to Brian tell you all about the abc's. It'll be just like NOVA on Public Television!"
The door opened and closed, leaving me with three children waiting to hear something profound. A lesser or perhaps smarter man might have quaked in fear at the prospect of not only entertaining three children, but educating them as well. I answered the challenge with silence.
"Well?" Kenny asked, after a moment.
"Well what?" I queried in return.
"You're supposed to be some alphabet-scientist, aren't you? Like on NOVA?"
"An alphabetologist, you mean," I said.
"NOVA!" Maureen giggled at the big word, clapping her hands.
"Gwen, could you bring me some paper and a pencil?" I asked.
The three kids seemed fairly bright for their respective ages. The presence of comic-books in the house was evidence of a book-friendly environment encouraged by Nancy. Gwen handed me a yellow legal-tablet and a sharpened number-two pencil. They played the role of 'audience' well enough to put me at ease and have a go.
"Okay..." Big sigh. Sharp pencil in hand and lots of blank paper. I took a deep breath and recited the abc's to the standard tune, while writing down all twenty-six letters of our alphabet. Maureen tried singing along for a bit, but lost it around "j, k, l, m, n, o, and p..." Still, the three year old made a decent effort. It was way cute.
"Basic stuff; ready?" They all nodded. "This is the letter 'A'," I said, drawing a large capital 'A' on the yellow paper.
"Apple! 'A' is for apple!" Maureen proudly yelled out.
"No apple, Maureen! 'A' is for 'alpu', a bull," I said while turning the legal-tablet so that the capital 'A' was lying on its side and the legs of the 'A' resembled the horns of a bull. "Can you see the bull, Maureen?"
"No apple?" The three year old was suddenly near tears.
I quickly flipped the page and drew a large lower-case 'b'. Pointing at it with my pencil, I identified the letter as "'Beth', a house; mind you, a small house! One-room, four walls, and then there's the..." Flipping to a clean page, I drew a large capital 'D', and continued, "Door! 'D' is for 'daleth', a door to the house with a bull out front!"
"What happened to the letter 'C'?" Gwen asked.
"'C' is for cat! Kitty-cat! Meow!" More adorable associations from the three year old.
"The letter-order went 'A', 'B', then 'G', then 'D' for fifteen hundred years, before the
Romans changed the 'G', which was written like our 'C' to another place... So, the character 'C' was there, only it was a 'gimmel' or a throwing-stick, like a boomerang... The Latin 'C' was hard like in cat -- not soft like the 'c' in cedar, the tree," I explained. Gwen didn't appear impressed.
"More! We want to hear more!" Kenny demanded. Good kid.
"More!" Maureen seconded.
"Why the story?"
"What story?" I wasn't sure what she meant.
She flipped her eyes up and into her head, repeating, "...a door to the house with a bull out front! And, like, someone's gonna' throw a stick at it!" Clever! The twelve year old wasn't just pretending to listen, she was actually paying attention. Cool! "So, why the story?" she asked again.
"Well, I personally think that's probably the single best question about the alphabet, Gwen," I said, warming to the topic. "Why are there elements and characters of a 'story' in the letter-names of the alphabet? What story is being told, by who, for who, and why was it so important to keep the story straight and never change anything around?"
"We give up!" all three children said. Gwen added, "And the 'story'? Is there more of it?"
"It's called a 'mnemonic'," I answered. "A mnemonic is something that helps you think of something else. A story or rhyme that helps you keep a particular order or pattern. Like if you wanted to remember the musical notes e-g-b-d-f; that would be 'every good boy deserves favor'. Easy, huh?"
"Still waiting for the 'story', mister!" Gwen reminded me.
"Right!" I laughed. So far, so good. "Hold on tight, because the next part is going to be weird..."
"Weird!" Maureen screamed in joy. All children, and some others, enjoy the physical pronunciation of the word 'weird'. The 'w' and the 'r' and 'd'--the word is just fun to say!
"Waiting!" Gwen was getting impatient.
"Now, one of the oldest alphabets is the Hebrew, which only needed twenty-two letters to work," I began, losing the children's interest immediately. "Like our alphabet, it starts with the letter 'A', which was 'alpu' or 'aleph', the bull, but their alphabet ends with the letter "T' called 'taw', which also means a 'bull' or 'ox'. The Arabs called the bull 'thaur', in Latin it became 'taurus', and the Norse borrowed the word for their god of thunder 'Thor', which is where we get Thursday or 'Thor's Day' from. Why do you think someone would want an alphabet which started with a bull and ended with a bull?"
"Are you Jewish?" Kenny asked me.
"No, I'm Irish," I answered.
"Don't tell us about their alphabet before you finish with the other one," Gwen beseeched me.
"But, everyone's got the Irish 'alphabet' on their fingers!" I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. "The ancient Irish could talk with their fingers! It was a kind of an 'alphabetic' sign-language..."
"The 'story', mister!" Gwen began to annoy me.
I took little Maureen's hand in mine and spread her fingers as wide as the digits of a three year old could manage. "Okay, this is weird too...," I began.
"Weird two!" Maureen sang out.
"Everyone's heard of the Druids, right? The guys who worshiped trees and hung out at Stonehenge, wondering who built it?" I asked. Before either Kenny or Gwen could answer, I continued, "Well, the tree-guys thought letters and words were too important and special to write down on paper or anything. They figured people would start getting lazy and their memories wouldn't work as well..."
"I forgot what you just said!" Kenny joked. My glare told him I didn't find his remark funny.
"So, the Druids talked with their fingers," I said, demonstrating the technique by wiggling my fingers in Maureen's face. She liked it and laughed. "They only had twenty letters," I continued, "fifteen consonants and five vowels. But, they changed the entire order of the letters to tell their own 'story'!"
Silence. Three blank looks told me to talk faster. I held out my left hand before them, and pointing to one spot at a time, said out loud, "Brave Lad Fear Surely Not Hidden Death. Time Conquers Questions. Money Gains Knowledge. Justice Reigns. And now the vowels... Apollo Our Ultimate Eloquent Illusion. See, twenty letters on your hand! Pretty amazing stuff, huh?"
"Hardly!" Gwen sighed loudly.
"Kenny? Don't you think it's pretty neat that Druids talked with their fingers?" I asked, wiggling my fingers some more.
"Sounds yawn...," Kenny replied. I half-expected the kid to yawn right then, but he didn't.
Nancy returned loudly. The front door slammed and we heard huffing and puffing, and the sound of snow being kicked from her shoes. It was all very loud. Something was wrong.
The kids were frozen in their chairs around the dinner-table. All wore a look of concern for their mother. Too much commotion.
I stood and walked down the hallway towards the front door. Nancy was hanging up her coat and gave me a wounded and angry look. "Is there anything wrong?" I asked.
"A guy followed me in the alley. It scared me!" she said, her trembling voice just above a whisper so the kids couldn't hear. "He said he wanted to...to...you know...have sex with me... It really scared me!"
"Do you think he's still out there?" I asked.
"Probably," she answered. "It just happened out back. I told him my 'boyfriend' was going to beat him up and ran in just now!"
I opened and ran out the front door without any shoes on. A thick ticking of snow had begun to accumulate and there was that eerie quiet outside I had always loved so much. It didn't seem that cold out.
Jogging quickly to the alley, I looked both ways. Down at the Addison-end, I thought I saw a someone slip around the corner. I wasn't sure. It was night and the end of the alley was too far away to see clearly. Running from the alley past Nancy's coach-house, I saw her in the doorway and her children's faces pressed attentively against the living-room window. Time was important, if anything was going to come of my actions, so I ran a little faster. I figured if I was going to do something, I might as well try to succeed, rather than just go through the motions.
Big, wet flakes of silent fluff danced in the air around me. It was lovely. I slid to a halt and looked at the end of Nancy's street as it met Addison. Again, I saw someone slip around yet another corner. In only my thin, dress-socks, I ran to the end of the block in just a few seconds. Lightly stepping and jumping over ice-chunks and slush-puddles, I was soon on Addison searching for the 'someone'.
Fifty-feet from me walked a young couple. A hundred feet past them was another couple. Walking in front was a short or young male looking back over his shoulder. He started running. So did I.
I was quite calm running down Addison in my socks during the pre-season snow-storm. My breathing was even, my feet didn't seem either cold or wet, and for an instant, I thought of Legolas the Elf, from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and his "light shoes, ...and his feet made little imprint in the snow." The Elf ran across the worst snow of Mt. Caradhras. Surface tension. Magic. He wanted to run fast across the snow and he did. So did I. It was too brief.
Addison meets Lincoln Avenue and The Ravenswood in an awkward test of pedestrian skills and traffic-flow. Six corners perpetually vie for importance. With the light of nearby street-lamps and the reflection from the freshly fallen snow, I could see fairly well.
A couple of hundred feet down The Ravenswood I thought I saw movement. Jerking. Suspicious. Too far. The snow was getting thicker and inner-clocks were winding down. I didn't trust myself. No.
Bundled-up pedestrians passed me by without giving my stocking-feet or lack of coat a second glance. I paced a bit and tried to find a reason to run down The Ravenswood in pursuit of something 'less' than a shadow. I turned around and headed back. If whoever I was chasing had decided to kick it into gear and really outrun me, and had ran down The Ravenswood, whoever would be long gone.
I walked slowly through the snow of a restaurant parking-lot and caught my breath. I wasn't so much winded from the run as I was bummed from the lack of success. Failure. Defeat. My feet, surprisingly, still weren't that cold.
The tracks I'd made just a moment or two before were already being filled with fresh snow. I'd cut across the parking lot from Addison to reach The Ravenswood. Mine were the only tracks visible, ...except for faint footprints heading into the restaurant!
The restaurant must have been getting ready to close. No customers. A white-haired waitress was talking to an even whiter-haired cook. The apparent owner was sprawled in a booth close to the cash-register, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. He looked like he weighed three-hundred pounds and, I guessed, even if someone had just ran in his restaurant a couple of minutes ago, he might still be working up enough steam to get up and out of the booth.
"Did someone just run in here?" I asked.
"The bathroom," he replied, pointing the way with his cigarette.
I stepped to the bathroom door and gave the standard heavy, loud as Hell, three-beat pounding usually administered by angry police officers. And doing so, I came to terms with the possibility I might not enjoy what was on the other side of the door.
A kid opened the door. "I'm sorry," he said meekly.
He was probably twelve or thirteen. Real geeky looking! Tall for his age, no doubt, and had a huge, shaved head, but under his opened starter-jacket was pure scrawny. And scared, too! He was shaking and I couldn't say I blamed him!
"You know what you did, right?" I asked. He nodded. "You scared someone real bad!"
"I'm sorry, sir! I thought I knew her! I thought she was my age!" the kid explained.
Thinking of twelve year old Gwen, I yelled, "You don't talk to girls of any age like that!"
"I'm sorry, sir!" the kid repeated. "I'll never do it again!" he promised.
I stared at him for a moment, deciding what to do. He didn't look like a street-thug and probably couldn't buy himself into a gang. I got the thought he might be mildly retarded. The creepy tone of his voice and the way he shook and cowered! I got a sad feeling from the kid. He was a loser and would likely stay that way for the rest of his life. Still, he had a mean streak and a foul mouth.
"Never talk to girls like that! Got it?" I commanded with as much authority in my voice as I could muster.
He nodded and I took a step back. I looked down at my stocking-feet and, for the first time, felt cold. The restaurant floor from the front door to the bathroom was wet with tracked-in snow that was melting. I gave the kid a last, hard look. He'd seen me look at my feet, and it wouldn't have taken a systems-engineer to figure out I must have wanted the kid kinda' bad to run out of Nancy's house with no shoes on and chase the kid for three and a half blocks or so. I shook my head to indicate disgust and walked away.
I flipped a wave to the owner. He smiled and waved his approval of my handling of the situation. Of course he'd heard my yelling at the kid -- the restaurant wasn't that big. He was trying to remove himself from the booth as I left, probably to get the kid out of the bathroom. Good, I thought to myself; he'd burn the kid's ears with a few more lungfuls about morality and conduct.
Walking back to Nancy's, I allowed myself a small sense of satisfaction. I'd pursued an unknown and resolved it. Maybe I should've slapped the kid around or called the police, but I thought the kid had learned a lesson of some type. Yeah; shut-up or learn to run faster! The snow continued to fall and I was officially freezing! I began to jog back to Nancy's house.She was waiting on her front-steps. Her arms hugged herself against the cold and snow encircled her like a shawl. All of Nancy's children still had their faces pressed against the window. Maureen waved when she saw me. What a welcome!
"Are you okay?" Nancy asked, opening the front-door for me.
"Yeah, no problem," I answered. Her face seemed unreadable to me and I didn't know how freely to talk in hearing-range of the children. "It was just a kid, no more than Gwen's age. I yelled at him and let him go."
"You caught him and you let him go?" she asked, incredulous.
"He was JUST A KID," I explained.
"And what he said to me! That was scary!" Nancy's voice openly acknowledged her outrage. This was not the reaction I'd expected.
"I think he might have been a little retarded. There was something wrong with the kid." I found myself defending my actions and didn't care for the feeling. I hadn't done anything wrong!
"You should have called the police! He was a pervert and he scared me!" Ouch! My self-granted status was just revoked. I searched myself for a reason WHY I hadn't called the police from the restaurant.
Was it a guy-thing? Yeah, I'd scared him and maybe that was punishment enough. He'd called me "sir" a couple of times and not mouthed off. At least that was a smart thing to do. The kid seemed not worth any more of my time. No physical punishment. No lecture. No police. I told him to talk nice to girls and hoped the message got through.
"I think I did the right thing," I said slowly.
"And it was your decision to make? ALONE?"
"Sure was!" I tossed back. "I chased 'em. I caught 'em. And, I think he was just a harmless kid..."
"You think... YOU THINK! What about me? I'm the one who got the crap scared out of her! What about me?"
I didn't want to argue. Nancy's three children were watching and listening to us from the living-room and that made me feel uneasy. They didn't know me from Adam and probably thought I was completely nuts for running around in the snow without any shoes or coat. Well, whatever they thought, I didn't want them to think it was okay for a stranger to come into their home and argue with their mother.
"I'm going to go now, okay?" I asked, putting on my shoes.
"Fine," Nancy agreed. She might have felt empty or numb. That's how I felt.
"Fine," I seconded. I slipped on my coat and mumbled, "I'll call you sometime..."
"Do that...," she answered without emotion.
I turned to the children and smiled, saying, "Have a goodnight, and it was nice to meet all of you. Sorry about the Chinese food!"
"Thanks for the alphabet-stuff!" Gwen called out.
"You're welcome. Bye!" Nancy added, holding the door open for me. It didn't hit me in the ass as I left, so I considered myself fortunate. I'd made it through the dreaded second-date. Barely.
The snow continued to fall and I enjoyed the hushed, muffled still of the flakes floating wildly to the ground. The silence gave me a chance to think. I just couldn't make up my mind what to think about. So, I made a list.
'A' would stand
for an apple and cinnamon spiced donut, as I still wanted a dessert.
~The End ~