The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
The Road to Manhood
Tommy became a baritone today. How can such things be? It was only yesterday
he was an alto, and the day before that Tommy Alexander shat in my lap while
his parents did their weekly shopping at Waldbaum's. "It's okay, it's okay,
Mrs. Alexander," I said, " ... please don't fuss, it'll wash out. We were
watching Hawaii 5-0 and Dan-O's car went into the bay."
The Alexanders used to leave young Tommy with me without a word of warning.
Lacking the benefits of a personal live in grandfather, the next best thing was
the old widower living next door.
We accepted each other, Tommy and me. I wouldn't say we were buddies, we were
friends at arms length. There was no blood relationship, and he often eyed me
just as warily as my cat Mehitabel eyed him. People of kin can turn their
backs on each other in relative security. They can be separated by fifty or
years and still know what to expect from each other, but there is always a
break-in period for strangers. I know this argument doesn't hold water when you
look at Cain and Abel and the English history plays of William Shakespeare,
but those cases are rare, so rare that they've found their way into religion and
literature. As far as you and I are concerned, if we have a brother, we can
pick up the soap in the shower with reasonable safety.
So Tommy and I had to go through our break-in period. We had to get used to
each other. That took a while. I would read him stories of pirates and
Huckleberry Finn rafting down the river -- he, in turn, would look at me
occasionally pull my eyeglasses off my nose. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark
Twain joined me in the humanization of Tommy Alexander, I could not have done
it alone. His mother and father would probably have preferred Dr. Seuss or
Disney, but if that's what they wanted they should have left him with somebody
else. I never condescended to my own children, or kootchie-kooed them either,
and I certainly wasn't going to pull any punches with Tommy.
Tommy had a real grandfather, but he lived in Midville, Iowa. I had a real
grandson, but he lived in Montreal. So on holidays, Tommy and I wouldn't see
much of each other. We were more than casual acquaintances however -- somewhere
between the man who comes to read the water meter and the man who reads you
asleep at bedtime.
The Alexander's were young. They were in that consumer phase of life and
their nest was sparsely feathered. They bought things every week, furniture,
mowers, washing machines -- you name it, they bought it. Children can be a
burden when you're shopping for major household items and they severely limit
cargo capacity of the average American automobile. When you consider the car
seat, the stroller, the toys, the food and the changes of clothes, a tot like
Tommy can be an albatross around the neck of the dedicated shopper.
It was easy in the beginning. Phyllis would appear at my door with Tommy in a
basket. He would be sound asleep and looking like something out of Norman
"Would you mind keeping your eye on Tommy? We'll only be an hour or so, we
need a new mattress." In the basket with Tommy would be two bottles of formula
and an assortment of playthings .... enough to keep him busy for four or five
days. I would watch them drive off, then turn and look at Tommy. He would grow
restive and wake in a foul mood almost immediately.
He would begin with a tentative whimper, hardly louder than the squeak of new
shoes. Finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, the whimper would blossom
into a whine, then to a sob. Seeing me, he would commence to gather breath in
preparation for an all out trumpet blast of protest. This was my moment for
the first bottle. As his chest expanded for his first salvo of grievance, I
would insert the nipple and put him and the basket on my back porch.
Because I am on the La Guardia approach pattern, I have installed triple
glazed windows back there and very little noise can get through. I would go
my work inside, glancing at him from time to time. I would see little more
than a gaping toothless mouth surrounded by a crimson face of fury. When he
exhausted himself and became passive, I would go out and have a chat with him.
quickly learned that in order to get any attention from me he must be calm and
above all, quiet. Then, and only then could we discuss Huckleberry Finn and
Long John Silver.
He grew to toddling age, and as neighbors will, he would wander in to visit
Mehitabel and me. On his own, he learned to steer clear of the rose bushes and
Mehitabel's summer outdoor sanitary facilities. I would simply tell him, "Stay
out of there, Tommy, Mehitabel shits in there." I am subject to my cat's
preferences. People living alone are easy marks for domestic animals. Lacking
human companionship, they must obey the whims of animals or suffer even greater
loneliness. Tommy would approach Mehitabel's sandbox, turn to me and say
"Hnits." Therefore, after Daddy and Mommy, his third word was "shit." I
that a sign of great promise, he was beginning to put things in their proper
When he toddled off to school with his mother, I was as buoyant as she. She,
because he was out from under foot part of the day - me, because I could renew
acquaintances with people my own age, and Mehitabel, who could now stalk
sparrows and use his sandbox without fear of interruption. Yet, sad to say, from
that day forward, a curtain of estrangement descended between Tommy and me. A
new and exciting world had opened up to Tommy Alexander. A search for self, for
recognition and praise from students and teachers alike. He drifted away.
I have always noticed that neighbor's children grow in spurts. My own
children, though well past mid-life crisis, seem to be mired in infancy. It was
yesterday I held them at the Baptismal Font; it cannot be possible they are
now planning for retirement. I would turn my back on Tommy, however, and when I
looked again he was on a bicycle or in a baseball uniform. His alto voice
could be heard from time to time in anger and ecstasy with friends and family
and just today he appeared as a baritone at my front door wanting to know if I
would consider him as my 'lawn mower'.
It will require thorough consideration. I am sure he is a terrible lawn
mower, and if such is the case, it could strain our relationship even further.
the other hand, it could rekindle old ties.
I wish life would work these things out for itself instead of involving me.
©Harry Buschman 1998
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work