Featured Artwork: By Vivian Mineker
By Anthony D’Aries
Otis struts past the new fiction and nonfiction, the cat calendars and Moleskine journals, pivots left, through the poetry section and into the kids’ corner. He leans both palms on the round plastic table, like a tiny CEO about to present his company’s quarterly report. He looks left, right, then behind him and jumps, claps, dives into the giant teddy bear’s soft stomach. I can hear his muffled laughter from across the store.
On my way over, I stop to spin a wire rack of small paperback books. The Who is…? Series. Who is Barack Obama? Who is Jackie Joyner Kersey? Who are the Beatles? I pick up the Beatles edition – caricatures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo playing to a crowd of wide-eyed, screaming teenagers.
“TeddyTeddyTeddy,” Otis says, hugging the bear’s neck.
“Oats. Hey, Oats. Come check out these new books.”
He starts to drag the bear across the store, but it won’t budge. He pauses for a moment, then leaves it behind.
“This book’s about the Beatles. Remember them? We listened to them on Da-Da’s phone?”
“Yeah, we heard them.”
“That’s right. The Beatles.”
“Bee-tolls,” he says again, the shape of the word lingering on his lips.
“Yeah, you wanna get it?”
“Yeah, we could take it home.”
“No pay for it?”
“Yes, we have to pay for it. We always have to pay for things at the store.”
He scrunches his forehead, then spins the rack.
“This one?” he asks.
“Which one? This one?”
“You want this one instead?”
“You don’t want the Beatles book?”
“They’re pretty cool, bud. They were the first ban—”
“NO WANT BEE-TOLLS!”
I put the book back on the rack and pick up his request: Who is Gloria Steinem? He holds the book close to his chest, tapping Gloria’s face. “This man looking at me!” I press my lips together. “Oats. That’s a woman. Her name is Gloria Steinem.”
“Stine-hem,” he says. Otis stands at the edge of the children’s section, gazing out at the novels and dictionaries and travel guides towering over him like skyscrapers. I grab the Beatles book and follow him to the register. He stretches up and places the book on the counter. The cashier smiles.
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?”
“Oats, we could get both,” I say, sliding the Beatles book onto the counter.
“No! No like this one!”
“Ok, ok. Just Gloria Steinem.”
As we leave the store, he holds the book in one hand, swinging it by the back cover, the same way he carries his blue pickup truck by the tailgate, the one I bought him last month for his second birthday.
That night – and every night for two months – we read about Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine. We used to read Go, Dog, Go! or Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, but now we’re reading about a different kind of movement. Steinem’s undercover work at the Playboy Club. Her battle with cancer and the death of her husband. Her travels to India. The book is long with few pictures. It’s the first book Otis owns that has chapters. He giggles when I teach him the word “dog-eared.”
In between chapters are mini-lessons about important historical events or figures. One section gives a brief overview of Gandhi’s life. I hope all of this information is sinking into Otis’s brain, that even though he’s staring down at the chair, running his fingers along the armrest’s white piping, he’s pondering nonviolent protest. And I’m hoping something in this tiny book soaks into me, helps me check my macho impulses that, since Otis was born, feel like beach balls submerged underwater.
The man across the park, yelling into his Blue Tooth headset, wears a baggy t-shirt that reads, in neon block letters: Man Up, Shut Up! Otis and I are having a snack while eight or nine or ten year olds dart through the park, flailing arms, kicking fences, pegging each other with dodgeballs. Otis’s basketball – my old basketball from high school – is slick as a marble and bigger than he is. He stands at the edge of the court in his orange overalls and blue sunhat, watching two kids take foul shots. Both are twice as tall as Otis – one sports a high-fade buzz cut, the other a thick, bushy mohawk like a big black caterpillar sleeping on his head. The man across the park continues to shout, every now and then glancing at the basketball court.
High-Fade walks over to the bench I’m sitting on and takes Otis’s basketball.
“Would you like to borrow that?” I ask.
“It’s yours?” His voice is deeper than I thought.
“It’s Otis’s.” I say.
High-Fade doesn’t say anything. He bounces Otis’s ball once.
“You can borrow it,” I say.
“No, Oates, the big kids—“
“Ok,” I say. “You can play basketball for a little bit.”
High-Fade gives me a look like I just offered him a green bean sundae. He turns and walks back to Mohawk. Otis claps and follows, watching High-Fade bounce his ball.
I know I’m bringing too much of my own past to this moment. I wasn’t bullied much growing up, but I was often on the sidelines, the edge of the playground, toeing the border of grass and gravel, watching the cool kids do their thing: dangle from monkey bars, dive for footballs, play H.O.R.S.E. I remember once standing beside the basketball court, watching them play. I turned for a moment and when I turned back, the pimply skin of their basketball smashed into my nose. Giggles, whispers. I tried to laugh it off, but could feel tears swelling in the corner of my eyes like soda rushing to the brim of a glass. I didn’t want to keep standing there, but I didn’t want to run anyway. So I did nothing.
Twenty-five years later and some part of me, some buried rusted artifact of that day is unearthed by watching my son watching Mohawk and High-Fade. Don’t be too polite, I want to tell Otis. Don’t smile at them. Don’t watch from the sidelines – run out there and take your ball. But he’s the sweetest, kindest, most open and generous human being I know, and I don’t want to damage that. Or let anyone else, either.
I stay on the bench as Otis walks out onto the basketball court. Mohawk and High-Fade pass Otis’s ball back and forth, running past Otis and shooting layups. They play one-on-one, as Otis picks up rocks and tries to make them clang against the metal pole. On his way back to midcourt, Mohawk snatches a rock from Otis. Otis smiles and claps. Mohawk and High-Fade whisper.
Other kids – all in yellow t-shirts – run across the grass, pump their legs on the swings, play tag or zoom down slides or hang from rings. They must all be part of a camp or some kind of program – the young teens who brought them here sit on top of the picnic table, sipping neon-green energy drinks and staring at their phones. I’m the only one watching the basketball court.
Mohawk’s elbow grazes the brim of Otis’s sunhat. I stand up. Mohawk’s smile fades. My heart races, a familiar cool-hot rush up the back of my neck. Otis stands still for a moment, then decides to walk toward the swings. I exhale.
Though I haven’t been in a fight since Bronson Kurtz whacked me with his bike helmet beneath the bleachers, I have to resist the urge to walk onto the court, push Mohawk and High-Fade aside, and take Otis to another park. (I sometimes wonder if I’d given Otis a different name, something like Bronson or Butch, he’d have been born with more brawn than soul.) Otis is only two, for Christ’s sake, but that fact doesn’t register in moments like this. While I like to think of myself as a 35-year-old man with enough self-awareness and self-control to not be provoked by nine-year-olds on a basketball court, I can’t deny the powerful, physical impulse to protect my son.
I follow Otis to the swings, leaving his ball behind. We’ll get it later, and besides, Otis is more interested in playing with the little girl in the sandbox. He watches her move methodically from the big hole she’s dug to the ring of stones and sticks in the sand. She walks back and forth, piling more and more sand into the middle of the ring. She smiles and laughs, the sand trickling between her little fingers. Otis steps closer, laughing when she laughs. He bends down and picks up a handful of sand and as he watches her work, the sand trickles between his fingers. She stops, stares at him, then looks to the woman on the opposite side of the sand box. The woman smiles and nods.
“Juega comigo?” the little girl asks.
Otis looks up at me, wide-eyed. The little girl smiles.
“Juega comigo.” She takes Otis’s hand and guides him to the railroad ties and into the sandbox. Together, they get to work. Digging up sand from the deep hole and piling it in the middle of the stones and sticks. I look up at the woman. She smiles at me. I smile back.
I’m grateful for moments like this, the little details that restore my faith in humanity, that remind me that all of us, deep down, are good. That our foundation is not a fractured slab of cruelty, but solid blocks of love and generosity and kindness. Otis and the little girl don’t need rubber balls or the rules of a game to follow. They are content, working silently together with sand and rocks and sticks. After several trips between the hole and the pile, they no longer seem to notice anything else.
A whisper. A giggle. Mohawk throws Otis’s basketball into the sandbox and crushes their work. Otis stands up straight, forehead scrunched. The little girl begins to cry. The woman isn’t smiling anymore.
Mohawk picks up Otis’s ball and walks back to the basketball court. I step in front of him.
“Hey. That was really mean, you know? They were building something and you came over and wrecked it for no reason.”
Mohawk stares at me. Through me. He bounces Otis’s ball. I catch it before he can.
“This is ours. Otis and I want to play basketball now.”
Mohawk giggles and runs off with High-Fade toward the monkey bars.
“Come on, Oates. Let’s shoot some hoops.”
But he doesn’t seem to hear me. He’s not interested in playing basketball. He and the little girl have already sat back down. They’ve wiped away their tears. In their different languages, they’re deciding how to rebuild.