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 seen before.

"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 week –"

"That's right!  About the robbery.  So how'd that go?"

"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 Grandma first?"

"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?  Anyone know?"

"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 many adventures.

"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."