By Gerald Caldwell
I want to tell a story, but I need a beginning. All great stories have a beginning. This story involves drama. At least, it involves drama from the perspective of the affected individual. The audience in this case might not feel the same internal drama – audiences rarely do. But I digress.
Here is one way to begin the story:
It was a large rat, nearly the size of a chihuahua. Not a large chihuahua mind you; closer to a regular-sized chihuahua. The family was watching a movie; just entertaining enough to capture their attention, missing the rat creeping up to the couch from behind. This rat was dextrous, able to quietly crawl to the top without notice from the popcorn-gorging movie patrons.
The teenage daughter, sitting on another couch which did not contain a large rat creeping along the top edge, was the first to notice this foul creature. She grabbed a baseball bat – not that a normal person would have a baseball bat while watching a movie, but this is a story about drama – and she ran toward her family screeching at the sound of a drugged rock concert attendee. The screaming teenager swung violently, knocking her father unconscious.
No, wait. This is not how the story begins. Let me try it from the perspective of, well, me.
A quiet afternoon. A deeply cushioned recliner. Rain pattered on the window with a fire warming my feet. This is the setting I want you to imagine. Can you feel the comfort? I can. Oh, and do not forget an engrossing book with a glass of red wine at my side. There was even a dog resting at my feet. You get the picture.
You know the part in a great book when you can’t wait to turn the page to see what happens, but there are still two more sentences to go before you get to turn the page? Of course, you do. We have all read novels of this magnitude. Well, Next, I had just one more sentence before I turned the page. One more sentence and I get to find out if Professor Plum really did shoot The Hobbit with the precious ring.
Remember the dog resting at my feet? You know, the picture of comfort right out of a fifties television show? There was a knock at the door. The peaceful creature beneath my feet transformed into a raging gargoyle, sending my heart out through my throat along with my blood pressure.
It was not an intruder who come to steal my flat-screen television, along with my bottle of wine. Nay, I tell you. It was my teenage daughter, recently of legal driving age; the same one who I imagined whaling me unconscious in the previously drafted beginning. She decided it would be humorous to knock on an unlocked door and rile the slumbering dog. My amusement did not match hers.
“Hey, Dad! Guess what happened at school today?” she said. I tried to make a wild guess of what happened at school today but was not afforded a break in her train of thought.
“Amy was, like, walking along, doing nothing at all wrong” – all stories from school begin with someone doing nothing at all wrong. I have come to realize her school is full of perfectly behaved students, hounded by evil teachers with medusa hair – “when Mr. Johnson told her she needed to chill.”
Immediately gripped in inner turmoil, I reminded myself to find the right words in response as I am a person who learns from mistakes. For example, giving advice to a teenager at the wrong moment can, and often will, lead to an emotional explosion of tears and shouting. I desperately wanted to look back down at my book. Only one more sentence before the next page, I reminded myself.
“What did Amy say to him?” I said.
“Great Dad. You always assume we did something! Weren’t you listening to what I said?”
Uh oh. Not good. It was time to present a measured response, one which could only be construed as neutral, interested, and above all, lovingly supportive.
“She didn’t say anything. Mr. Johnson is just a jerk,” said my emotionally charged daughter.
As I worked to fashion my next response I concurrently struggled to remember the last sentence I had read in my mesmerizing novel. How did it go? “Yonder through the window I gazed at the wandering rat.” No, that was not it.
“Well sweetheart, perhaps Amber said something to you, and Mr. Johnson thought she was speaking to him, and maybe Mr. Johnson was having a bad day and obviously he should be more careful before he yells at unsuspecting students, who are certainly not doing anything wrong in the slightest bit,” I said.
My daughter stared at me while I patted myself on the back for providing a neutral comment which clearly sounded as if I was fully interested in the events where her friend was unjustly told to “chill.”
“Now you are just being condescending! Why can’t you ever listen to what I say! I hate this family,” said my daughter, as she threw her books on the ground and stormed up the stairs in tears.
The book resting in my lap called out to me. “Just one more sentence and you get to turn the page,” it said.
I struggled with my next move. Do I go upstairs and continue what is certain to be an emotionally charged discussion with no resolution in sight? Or, do I simply bend my head ten degrees in the down direction and continue the epic story about something, which I cannot seem to recall at this juncture in the life of managing a teenager.
I made my decision and bent my head, but only reached four of the required ten degrees before I heard loud footsteps descending the stairs. I have learned that teenagers walk with the grace of elephants when they are upset.
“Oh, and by the way, Daaad. Mr. Johnson also yelled at Samantha today, and she was not doing anything wrong either,” said my daughter.
“Think man, think!” I said to myself. There has to be a sentence I can utter which will remove me from this hellish conversation. I’ve been married for twenty-one years. Surely I have learned something in that time. Married! Of course, I got it. Women love to listen, and they love empathy.
“Wow, sweetheart, it must be really tough to have to deal with a teacher like that. Are Amy and Samantha okay?” I said.
“Yes Dad, it is tough. Oh, thank you for understanding,” said my daughter as she walked to the couch next to my chair. “Just wait till you hear this next story!”
“Noooo!” I screamed inwardly. She was supposed to go upstairs. One more sentence and I get to turn the page. What the hell was I reading anyhow? “There was a rap, tap, tapping at my door.” No, that’s not it either. That is how I was distracted from my book.
“And then, Mrs. Knickerdoodle gave us all extra knuckle work.” This is not really what my daughter said, but it is what I heard. I started thinking of words which begin with a “n” sound but contain a silent consonant at the beginning. Next, I imagined the sentence I so desperately wanted to read went as such, “The naughty boy carried his knapsack while crying about the gnats drinking blood from his skinned knee.”
I was not certain where that came from, but it was better than a rat through yonder window.
“Can I go to a concert next week?”
I heard something relevant. She said something important which requires a fatherly response. A concert. Yes, she said something about a concert. My wits returned but I feared they would escape again so I quickly asked, “What day is the concert?”
“It is a Thursday night. But I can get my homework done ahead of time, and I have not missed any classes this year,” she said.
If I say yes my daughter will likely run upstairs to tell her friends, and then I can proceed to read the next sentence. If I say no she will likely explode into a raging inferno leaving a wake of destruction. But if I say yes my wife will beat me senseless with words of “what kind of idiot allows his daughter to attend a concert during school?”
“No, it’s a school night,” I said.
“Please, Dad! Please!”
“No, absolutely not. That is the final word.”
“You never let me do anything. I hate living here!” she said, and then stormed back up the stairs. I listened for a return of the elephant’s footsteps. Two minutes passed by – nothing. I dared to bend my head down. As my eyes gazed upon the page my wife emerged from our bedroom, stating, “Honey! The toilet is stopped up.”
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