DO IT FOR THE CHILDREN
God bless the children, they say
Protect the little children, they say
Remember the children, they say
Do it for the children, they say
Work a double shift, they say
Overtime is mandatory, they say
Take the wages that we offer, they say
Just be happy and shut up, they say
Don't rock the boat, they say
Don't knock the system, they say
Accept things for what they are, they say
And just be glad it's not worse, they say
Want what we tell you to want, they say
Need what we tell you to need, they say
You can have it all, they say
Just do what we tell you to do, they say
Be a proud American, they say
Keep the economy healthy, they say
Work hard your whole life, they say
Take whatever job you have to, they say
Don't think, they say
Just do it, they say
Don't ask why, they say
Just do it, they say
And if you won't, they say
Then don't let the door, they say
Hit you on the way out
But before you go, they say
You might want to stop a moment, they say
And ask yourself this:
What's going to happen to your children now?
Do it for the children, they say
Remember the children, they say
Protect the little children, they say
God bless the children, they say
Although I still go out to my parent's house every week or so to
have dinner with them and visit, I have begun of late to feel more
and more uncomfortable in their presence. "Have you
started looking for a job yet?" they ask me, like clockwork,
each and every time we meet. "No? Well, you're going
to have to start sometime, you know. Don't forget, it's a dog-eat-dog
world out there." Of course, I know they're right.
My savings have run out; my debts are once again beginning to mount.
But beyond that, for my parents, having a son who's wallowing in joblessness
with all the apparent complacency – if not downright satisfaction
– that I demonstrate grates on their middle-class sense of
virtue. No one is supposed to enjoy existing in this
state; people are expected to not only need, but to want gainful
employment, if for no other reason than to prevent that sense of shame
which is, after all, the only really acceptable response to being without
a job. And I do feel shamed. Not however because I am unemployed
and have been unemployed now for many, many months. Indeed, I
found I was able to abandon myself to the freedom that joblessness
brings with ease, and have reveled in that greatest of all luxuries,
time, with unabashed pleasure. Rather, I feel shamed because I
know that this is what I am expected to feel, and because I know that
those who are aware of the length of my unemployment feel shame
for me; and I, like everyone else, am at least partly defined
by what those around me judge me to be.
I'm waiting outside my apartment house for my father to pick me
up. It's late afternoon, the waning half of what has turned out
be a rather spectacular day, weather-wise, its having been clear and
mild and not too hot. I'm waiting for my father to come pick
me up and wishing for the thousandth or so time that day that
I had a cigarette to smoke. For I have, at long last, given up
that habit, though not by choice: I simply cannot afford it
anymore. In this way I have been forced, cornered, trapped into
taking the first step towards becoming the rehabilitated man that
everyone wishes me to be. I miss it though. Cigarettes
provided me with my one easy source of self-gratification. But
perhaps their loss signals the advent of a new era for me. Perhaps
the control I am gaining over my body (even if it is currently raging
with rebellion over the sudden withdrawal of nicotine) will somehow
mitigate the loss of control over the rest of my life that I will
soon be required to endure. Perhaps the fact that circumstances
have conspired to force me into gaining control over one of my body's
more wayward desires is indicative of more positive changes to
come. Perhaps –
"Hey there! Howdy-hi!" my father calls. He
grins at me from behind the rolled-down window of his car, extracting
considerable amusement, I gather, from my look of surprise. I
hadn't been aware of his having pulled up, and it takes me a few
moments to realize that this is because he's driving a car I've never
"Hey!" I exclaim. "You bought a new car!"
"Yeah. You like it?"
"Mmm – nice." I hop into the passenger's seat
and glance about me at the plush interior, the array of lights and
dials glowing on the dashboard, the various knobbed gadgets and
gizmos protruding from ceiling and doors.
"Sa-ay!" he drawls, leaning over to give me a closer
look. "Looks like somebody got himself a haircut!"
I wince a little as he gives my now very short hair a scruffling with
his hand. It's the sort of thing one does to a child, when in
fact what I am is a thirty-six-year-old – albeit currently
unemployed – man. Surely there is something in all this
worth feeling annoyed about . . .
"Yeah," I say.
"Gettin' yourself ready to go out and do some job hunting?"
"Umm . . . Yeah, well – pretty soon now," I
mumble. In fact, I'd gotten the haircut mainly as a way of battling
the summer heat. Fortunately his interest in this topic of conversation
is easily diverted. "So," I say, "what made you decide
to get a new car?"
"Oh, I dunno. The old one was getting . . . well, you
know . . . old. We were starting to have problems with
it, and rather than shelling out a lot of money to keep it running
a little longer your mother and I thought, hey! Why not just
go out and buy a new one? I mean, it was time."
"Ah," I say. As we begin the drive to my parent's
house my father starts pointing out to me all the car's features, the
power windows and the power locks and the power seats, the automatic
door opener and the automatic garage-door opener, the radio, tape
and CD players, the air conditioner and the compass and the little
gizmo that helps you keep track of the gas mileage, and so on and so
forth. I have no mechanical ability in general and haven't much
interest in all the modifications that have been made to cars in
recent years, but even I can see that they are no longer just vehicles
of transportation; they've become miniature, enclosed environments.
Do all these features, I wonder, give my father a greater sense of
being in control? Or does he perhaps feel, as I certainly would,
that it's merely a way of pacifying him into accepting a world which,
on any larger scale, he has no control over at all? But perhaps
he feels the trade-off is worthwhile. Perhaps he likes
succumbing to the status quo. Perhaps –
"So!" my father says, interrupting my train of thought.
"What's new in your life?"
"Oh, umm . . . Well, I had to testify at that trial last
"That's right! About the robbery. So how'd that
"Okay, I guess. It was kind of anti-climactic."
Although I had testified at a hearing about the convenience-store
robbery some months ago, one of the men involved had requested a jury
trial. He wanted to present evidence that the robbery had not
really been his idea, and that he hadn't known the other man was
intending to carry a knife. "I was pretty nervous about
it," I say, "but they didn't ask me anything I wasn't
expecting. Basically I just described to them what happened,
and that was it."
"Uh-huh, uh-huh." My father nods distractedly.
We're out on the thruway now, and he's paying close attention to the
traffic. I've noticed lately that he's become something of a
nervous driver. But then he is, I remind myself, nearly seventy
years old now. His shoulders have grown a bit stooped these
past few years; his eyes get a vague look in them sometimes; and his
hair, though still thick, has turned almost completely white.
Since his retirement from work his world has narrowed considerably,
and he's become, I think, a little frightened of anything that lies
outside its boundaries. Along with the fear an angry
conservatism has sprouted: it's as if he feels that no
one has listened, really listened to him his whole life, and
now that he's reached a certain age he can just let fly with his
opinions and tell everyone exactly what he thinks. And what
he thinks is that anyone who doesn't want to live the kind of life
he lived is an idiot, that anyone who refuses to accept the edicts
of the status quo is a fool. All of which means that there is
much about myself that I can no longer share with him. I cannot
tell him, for instance, of how, despite everything, I'd felt sorry
for the young man who was on trial. Even now his face still
lingers in my mind; almost I might say it haunts me. He was
just a kid, really, barely twenty; and his skin looked pasty; his
cheeks sunken and hollow; his stringy black hair was badly cut; his
hollow eyes were rimmed with dark circles. He looked to me
unhealthy, not only physically but emotionally as well. I had
the feeling that he had no hope left, and that he didn't expect anyone
to really believe his story about not knowing about the knife.
I can't say that I did.
My father has apparently caught something of my mood.
"Don't worry," he tells me. "I'm sure you did
just fine. They'll throw that little bastard in jail for a
long, long time. They'll have to! He's guilty as sin."
I make no reply. It's not that I disagree with what he's saying
– not completely, at any rate. The two young men who carried
out the attempted robbery should clearly be held responsible for
their actions, are deserving of punishment, and need to be segregated
from the rest of society, at least for a time. Yet I cannot see
how simply tossing them aside like a couple of dirty rags serves any
purpose. Unless some attempt at rehabilitation is made in
conjunction with their punishment, what will become of them?
What will they be like when they get out of prison, having festered
in a cell for months and years with no one but other criminals
for company? What will become of the rest of us in consequence?
Along with the defendant, there was one other person at the trial
who'd made a strong impression on me. This was the man whose
job it was to bring the witnesses from where they waited in the
hallway into the courtroom. An older fellow, he was, I learned,
one of several retired men who performed this duty as a way of
usefully occupying some of their spare time. Short in stature,
small and trim in build, he wore a neat red jacket and a red-and-black
striped tie, these having the look of a sort of uniform that had been
perhaps provided to him by the court. When
he came to fetch me he called out my name with a gentle formality that
bore no trace of either pomposity or condescension. After I had
finished giving my testimony and was leaving the courtroom, I caught
sight of him again out of the corner of my eye. He was seated in
a wooden chair near the courtroom door, and as I passed by I thought I
noticed him looking at me. Looking again, I saw that he was
indeed nodding to me, and was smiling too, in an approving manner.
His smile, I noticed, was something more than courteous: it was
kind. I imagine he does this to everyone as they leave, but I could
not help feeling the force of it anyway. It was as if he were
saying: "I know this was a hard thing for you to do, but you
did it well. You did everything that you were asked to do, and your
effort has not gone unappreciated." His face struck me at that
moment as being one of the most sympathetic that I had ever seen, and his
smiling nod a gesture of the purest generosity. There was not a
trace of falseness in it. I could not help but smile back at him.
The faces of these two men – the one looking so battered and
defeated, the other so gentle and kind – have gone on lingering in my
mind ever since. I don't suppose I'll ever forget either of them.
"Hey!" my father cries out suddenly, interrupting my
reverie. "Did I show you this?" He reaches up
to a small, flat box attached to the roof of the car and presses a
button. A tiny number lights up on a tiny screen. He
presses the button again, and another number appears.
"See?" he says eagerly, for all the world like a child
showing off his newest toy. "This first number here tells
you what the temperature is outside. And this other number here
tells you what the temperature is inside the car."
"Oh!" I say, trying to sound impressed. "I
see. Well! That is nice."
My father gives a little smile and tilts his head, seeming to
consider this. "Yes," he says finally, "it
is. It means that you can never forget how comfortable you are."
"I suppose that's true," I say. I turn to look at
him. He's still smiling, and so I smile too. At least,
I try to smile – I want to smile. But I'm
not sure it's working. I lean my head towards the window beside
me, trying to find my reflection in the rear-view mirror sticking out
on the passenger's side of the car. What sort of look is it, I'm
wondering, that shows on my face right now? If I lean back just
a bit I can see myself – a man who is no longer young, but not yet
old: yes, that's me. The man with the questioning,
questing look in his eyes.
When I arrive at my parent's house, the first thing I see are my two
nieces, come to spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa's, running down
the driveway to greet me.
"Uncle Simon! Uncle Simon!"
No sooner am I out of the car than they've latched on to my hands,
Carrie grabbing the right one and Lisa the left. They're
shrieking with excitement, tugging me down the driveway towards the road.
"C'mon, Uncle Simon!"
"This way, Uncle Simon!"
"You're coming with us!"
"I am?" I say. "Why? Where're we going?"
"Across the road," Lisa, the younger of the two, informs
me. "Carrie wants us to build a fort."
"And you have to help," says Carrie decisively.
"I do? Well . . . Shouldn't I go in and say hello to
"She's fixing dinner," Lisa tells me.
"It's okay, she knows where we're going," adds Carrie.
"Oh." I turn round and call to my father over my
shoulder. "Help!" I cry. "I'm being abducted!"
"I see that! Have fun!" he says, waving a hand at me
and disappearing into the house.
When we get to the end of the drive, Carrie says, "Okay Lisa,
you make sure he stays here. Don't let him get away!" Lisa
throws her arms around me and holds on tight as Carrie bustles back
towards the garage.
"Where's Carrie going?" I ask, looking after her.
"I don't know," says Lisa.
"Ah. Well, where exactly are we building this fort?"
Lisa lets go of me long enough to point across the street.
"Over there," she says. Almost directly across the
street from my parent's house is a small plot of land which nobody
seems to own, presumably because it would be too much trouble to do
anything with it. There's a kind of a bog in the middle of it, fed
by a small, underground spring. It's covered with a thicket of
young trees, maybe ten or twelve feet high.
"I see," I say. "You think it's alright to do that?"
"Grandpa said it was."
"Grandpa said what was?" asks Carrie, trotting back towards us
with a hammer in one hand and a box of nails in the other.
"Okay for us to build a fort across the street."
"Sure it is," she says. "Why wouldn't it
be?" She thrusts the hammer into my hand. "Here,
Lisa, you carry the nails."
"And what are you going to do?" I ask her.
"I'm the leader!" she proclaims loudly. "C'mon, let's go!"
I look down a little doubtfully at the hammer. Pounding things
together has never been my specialty. Still, how hard can building a
fort be? I turn and trot after the two little girls.
Apparently I'm about to find out.
Once inside the tiny woods, I begin to get a little more in the
mood. I like this miniature, self-contained world. True,
the bog at the center makes it feel kind of muggy – and
buggy – in here, but the smell of damp earth and growing things
immediately invigorates me. "Okay!" I cry.
"I'm ready. Let's get to it!" Carrie races
ahead, scouting out possible locations for a building site while
Lisa and I, holding hands, try to keep up.
"Have you ever built a fort before?" I ask her.
"No. Have you?"
"Not really." I never built a fort myself when I was
kid, although my brother and his friends made any number of them in
the little woods behind the local playground. They were
ramshackle affairs, nothing more than a few boards nailed to the
trunks of trees, but it didn't take more than this barest of skeletons for
everyone to get the idea. Having completed the building, my
brother and his friends would then divide up into teams, one group
of boys rushing up and trying to defeat the ones who held the fort,
generally to the accompaniment of many bloodcurdling whoops and
frequent enactments of violent death. After awhile they'd get
bored and move on to some other game, and that's when I'd move in
– straightening up the mess they'd left behind, cleaning up
the debris scattered across the floor, then pretending to cook up
some scrumptious concoction made of pebbles and acorns, shredded
leaves and tiny pinecones. My brother and his friends played
Cowboys and Indians; I played House. To each their own, I guess.
Fortunately, Carrie had plenty of ideas about how the fort should be
built, and I soon understood that I was here mainly just to provide manual
labor. First she located four trees that were the proper
distance apart, then she located several long, dead branches and had
me and Lisa pull them to her. With Lisa holding one end of the
branch up against a tree trunk and me holding the other end, Carrie
proceeded to nail it into place. She's remarkably proficient at
this for a ten-year-old, and her skill at carpentry, along with her
love of sports and disdain of all things "girly," has often
made me wonder if she was gay – or would be, someday. Lisa,
on the other hand, is quite the opposite: she loves dressing up
and putting ribbons in her hair and playing with dolls, and perhaps
because she already knows that she will never be required to make the
kind of break with societal norms that Carrie may eventually be forced
to, quietly assumes a level of independence which her sister must
assert with greater force.
"Uncle Simon?" says Lisa.
"Do you think the trees can feel it when the nails go into them?"
Carrie rolls her eyes. "Trees can't feel," she says.
"Trees are pretty big and strong," I tell Lisa.
"Maybe they feel it just a tiny bit, but not too much."
"You mean, it's like a little pinch?"
"Trees can't feel!" shouts Carrie, pounding her hammer harder.
"Well, if they do feel, I think a little pinch is probably about
right," I say.
Lisa nods, solemn and satisfied.
Since we have nothing but tree branches to build with, I'm at
something of a loss as to how we're going to construct walls for the
fort – but Carrie already has this figured out. She nails one
branch to one side of the tree trunk and another branch to the other
side, and the two of them together create a sort of slot into which she
proposes we insert a number of smaller branches. Standing them up
on end, we'll create the approximation of a wall. While she hammers
away Lisa and I go around fetching the smaller branches. I've
just brought an armful back and lain them down when, "Ooooh!"
I hear Lisa cry, her voice rising to an excited shriek.
"Carrie! Uncle Simon! Come quick! Come quick!"
Carrie and I exchange a worried glance, then run over to where Lisa's
standing. She's pointing down at a large cat that's hunched
over on the ground, growling softly. I look closer and see that
the cat's chewing on something. Something small and furry and bloody.
"What's it got, Uncle Simon? What is it? What is
it?" the two girls squeal.
"Looks like a chipmunk," I say, bending over to see better.
"But – where's its head?" cries Lisa.
"The cat must've ate it!" shrieks Carrie.
"The cat must've ate it!"
The head of the chipmunk is, in fact, nowhere to be seen. The
cat, a large orange tabby, eyes us suspiciously for several moments,
and then, having determined that we aren't there to steal its
catch, begins to gnaw once more on the bloody carcass. We stand
watching a few moments, listening to the sound of tiny, sharp teeth
crunching on bone.
"That's gross," says Lisa.
"Yeah," Carrie agrees.
It is, rather. But, "That's what animals do," I say.
"C'mon you two," says Carrie, turning away from the grisly
sight with determination. "We've got work to do!"
"Goodbye, kitty-cat," says Lisa. "Don't get sick."
"Goodbye, Mr. Chipmunk," I add softly.
Lisa slips her hand into mine as we follow Carrie back to the
fort. "Uncle Simon?" she asks, her voice small and curious.
"How's come things have to die?"
"Oh," I sigh, "I don't know. So that other
things can live, I guess."
Carrie glances back over her shoulder at me. Her eyes look hard
and mean. "I think that's stupid," she says.
"Me, too," agrees Lisa.
The two girls look up at me expectantly. I give another little
sigh and shrug.
"Me, too," I say.
An hour or so later, we've got one wall just about completed.
We've gathered up all the smaller branches we can find, stood
them vertically between the two larger branches nailed to the
trees, and created . . . well, if not a wall exactly, at least
a sort of a screen. The problem is, there's no more branches
left lying about for constructing the other three sides of the fort.
"What do we do now?" Carrie asks me.
"I don't know," I say. "Use your imagination."
"I have used my imagination," she says.
"No," I tell her. "I mean like this." I
step inside the fort and turn to face an empty space where a wall
should be. "I see a wall!" I cry. "Right
here, I see a big, beautiful wall!"
Lisa giggles with delight. "Uncle Simon!" she squeals.
Carrie rolls her eyes. "Don't encourage him," she says.
Just then we hear the sound of someone whistling in the
distance. "That's Grandpa," I say.
"Must be time for dinner. What're we having, anyway?
"Spaghetti," says Lisa.
"With salad and rolls," adds Carrie.
"And tapioca pudding for dessert," says Lisa.
"Sounds good," I say. "C'mon, let's gather up
the tools. We'd better be heading back."
As we enter the house we all pause a moment, smelling all the tasty smells
of cooking that come wafting to us through the air. Then Carrie and
Lisa burst into the kitchen, shouting news to their grandma of the day's
"Well! Sounds like you two had a good time!" she
says (they haven't got to the part about the chipmunk
yet). "Why don't you go get washed up, and you can
tell me all about it while we're eating."
She's standing at the stove with her back to me as I go in, dishing
up the spaghetti into a serving bowl.
"Anything I can do to help?" I ask.
"No, everything's taken care of. Your father's set the
table and the food's all ready. Why don't you just go on in,
wash up and . . . Oh!" she exclaims, turning round,
catching sight of me for the first time. "My! Don't
you look nice!"
"Hmm?" I say, nonplussed for a moment. "Oh – the
haircut, you mean."
"Yes! You look very handsome. Getting ready to go
out and do some job hunting, I suppose?"
"Umm . . . Sure," I say. And I wish, for the
thousandth-and-second time that day, that I had a cigarette to
smoke. "Pretty soon now. Pretty soon . . ."
"Well, you'd better hurry up, don't you think? After all
"I know," I say tiredly, "I know. It's a dog-eat-dog
world out there."
She purses her lips together and stares at me for several long seconds.
Her eyes look hard and mean.
"Yes," she says finally, "it is."