For a while now their adolescent son has been turning into a book. He’s no longer wearing blue jeans and T-shirts and when he goes out he’s taken to wearing endpapers and a dust jacket.
His mother and father, somewhat troubled by this turn of events, feel helpless to stop him. Every other day he grows larger by a page. Their sense is he’ll leave when he reaches 250 pages. And some part of them is okay with this because of late he’s taken to dressing in ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME. Two caps on his head, caps pinned to his shoulders, and caps on his endpapers. His demeanor seems to have changed overnight from a placid child to a restless young man.
His page count hits 272 and he leaves them.
Unsure how far he’s gone, they’ve been considering asking for him in a bookstore. But, to their surprise, they find him on a shelf in the library, a mere seven blocks from their home. After checking him out they walk home, clutching each other’s hand. Their faces are aglow in the late afternoon sun. Dropping hands they stand still, studying the coral clouds in the sky above their neighbors’ rooftops as if they’re mariners of yore forecasting the next day’s weather. Ever so slowly they turn around and step up to their front door.
With quivering voices they begin reading him to each other. After finishing the first chapter, they realize they liked what they were reading. Sitting forward on their easy chairs, they continue reading his childhood memories of flying kites, roller skating, and magical Christmases.
After reading two more pages they look to one another, waiting for the other to say something. The light in their living room dims as the sun descends below the horizon.
They hadn’t realized his longings. He’d taught himself to touch type, thinking he would type up his dad’s trip reports. Instead, Dad had hired an office service. He’d dreamed about becoming an amateur scientist and doing genetic experiments with fruit flies after reading an article in a magazine. Mom hadn’t realized he never felt he was good enough. He tried so hard to be their perfect child but felt the bar was always changing for what he needed to do in order to gain their approval. He hoped if he were the best child, they’d all be happier.
They pause and sink back into their chairs, not quite so comfortable as they were a few minutes ago. The tranquility that had filled the room as they started reading him has wafted away. His mother recalls being concerned about a pregnancy because she was in her early 40s. But she acknowledged her husband’s need for an heir, a child he could do things with, and the prospect of grandchildren.
“Reading him is a mixed blessing, isn’t it, Dad?” she asks, not looking at her husband but down at her knees where she had held their son and rocked him to sleep, humming “Happy Trails to You,” his favorite cowboy lullaby.
Dad is speechless and only nods in agreement. After a few seconds, he says, “Well, say goodbye to our dreams about grandbabies.”
“Don’t give up so easily. Try imagining grandbaby books.”
Mom pictures herself in a rocking chair lovingly leafing through them.
Dad interrupts her reverie. “He was shelved with the non-fiction but I think he’s making things up. I don’t recall things happening that way.”
Their son’s memories are vividly permeating the room, pushing aside their own memories of his childhood. They wonder aloud to each other, “Is it better to know him through his own words or to have him here?”
Agreeing to continue reading him tomorrow, they shamble off to their bedroom, don their sleepwear, and brush their teeth.
“We’re lucky, aren’t we?” Mom says as she climbs into bed and kisses Dad goodnight. The slight tremble in her voice betrays that she doesn’t really mean what she just said.
Her husband furrows his brow and says, “You understand him better than I do.”
“Let’s finish reading him before coming to any conclusions,” she says. She leans over and smoothes his brow. While Dad is snoring lightly, Mom remembers their son in his cowboy flannel pajamas and singing to him as he fell asleep.
Silently she gets up, puts on her pink terry cloth robe and tiptoes to their son’s room. She switches on his reading lamp.
She’s kept this room as a shrine. His favorite books are piled up on the nightstand and the midnight blue corduroy bedspread looks more forlorn than comforting. She backs up and holds tightly onto the door frame and scans the bookshelves. She knows now these books were his solace and a lens into his future. The dust jacket on the back of his desk chair is a tangible reminder of his metamorphosis. She imagines him here sitting at his desk, as they tell him they did their best.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Menda City Review.
Rick Trushel tutors recent immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, helping them improve their spoken and written language skills. Recently he’s had short pieces published at 101 Words and The Sun magazine. He likes to procrastinate, as he erroneously believes his writing improves when he does this.