- This Is How It Always Is
“Or a talking spider.” Ben was reading Charlotte’s Web.
“‘Or a talking spider,’ Grumwald thought. ‘Or some roses.’”
“Roses?” said Roo. “Why would there be roses in a suit of armor?”
“Yeah,” said Rigel.
“Yeah,” said Orion.
“You’ll understand in a few years. In any case, there was nothing in there, and Grumwald was about to close the visor and climb down from the stool he’d needed to reach it when he heard something.”
“A ghost?” said Ben.
“A zombie?” said Roo.
“It was a voice,” said Penn. “And the voice said…”
“Boo!” yelled Rigel.
“Roo!” yelled Roo.
“‘Once upon a time,’” said Penn.
“Once upon a time?” said Ben.
“The armor wasn’t empty. The armor was full. What was inside the armor was a story, a story wanting to get out.”
“Why did it want to get out?”
“That’s what all stories want. They want to get out, get told, get heard. Otherwise, what’s the point of stories? They want to help little boys go to sleep. They want to help stubborn mamas fall in love with dads. They want to teach people things and make them laugh and cry.”
“Why would a story want to make someone cry?” Ben was so much more serious than his brothers.
“Same reason you cry anyway,” said Penn. “You cry and then you feel better. Your owie stops stinging. Your feelings get less hurt. Sometimes you feel sad or scared, and you hear a sad or scary story, and then you feel less sad and less scared.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Ben.
“Nonetheless,” Penn explained.
“Was that all the story said?” Orion got back to the point. “Once upon a time?”
“Nope, the story was a magic story. It was endless. It had no end. It was unlimited. Every time it seemed like it was going to come to some kind of conclusion or moral or denouement, it went in a different direction and began again.”
“What did it say on the last page”—sometimes Ben’s literalism strained Penn’s creative talents—“where it’s supposed to say ‘The End’?”
“There was no last page. It was magic.” He showed them his blank spiral notebook again, how you could keep turning and turning the pages and never lack for another page to turn.
“Like a circle?” said Ben.
“Exactly like a circle.”
“Stories aren’t circles,” said Roo.
“Stories are all circles,” said Penn.
“I don’t understand, Daddy,” Rigel and Orion said together.
“No one understands,” said Penn. “Stories are very mysterious. That’s their other point. To tell themselves. And to be mysterious.”
“What happened next?” said Roo. “In the story?”
“Which one what?”
“Which story? The story about Grumwald? Or the story coming out of his suit of armor?”
“Lots. Lots happened next. In both.”
“Tell us! Tell us!”
Penn considered how clever it was of him to have birthed a Greek Chorus to hear his tales. “Tomorrow. More tomorrow. Tonight, we sleep.”
Bedtime took a further forty-five minutes and was followed by Penn’s scraping toothpaste off the downstairs bathroom ceiling, gathering up a whole load of discarded laundry from the floor in the hallway, and accidentally crushing a LEGO jungle dinosaur castle for which he knew he’d pay dearly the next morning. In all, a successful bedtime and an accomplishment on par with finishing a particularly difficult chapter or a tax return. It wasn’t diagnosing a pulmonary embolism, but it was not unimpressive, and it allowed a pulmonary embolism to be diagnosed. It could not, unfortunately, be followed up by work or by house cleaning, dish doing, lunchbox packing, exercising, or any of the other things that needed doing. Bedtime could only be followed by TV. Or drinking. On the night Claude became—the fruition of which, of course, would only make bedtime worse—Penn thought both at once sounded best and gave it a good try but was asleep on the couch before he was very far into either one.
Things They Told Doctors
Claude’s first word, when he was only nine months, one week, and three days old, was “bologna.” There was no mistaking that one. Maybe the cooing mas and das and bas were words, and maybe they weren’t, and maybe when he sat in the bath slapping the water and saying wa-wa-wa he was talking, or maybe it was just a coincidence, but he said “bologna” clear as a PA announcer. When had Claude started talking was one of the many questions on the many forms, one of the random facts medical professionals counted as clues. The doctors always looked at Rosie with condescending amusement when she got to the speaking-at-nine-months part. Then she was forced to have this conversation again: “Babies do start babbling around six months or even earlier, Mom,” the doctors would say. Only a few of them called Penn Dad, but she was always Mom. This must have been covered in the fellowship year if you did peds because no one in all her years of training had ever suggested to her that she call a patient’s parent Mom. If anyone had, she would have explained that its subtext—you know less about your child than I do, for I am a trained professional and also because, as a woman, you are slightly hysterical—was offensive, untrue, and frankly embarrassing for the physician.