It’s finally summer in New England, which means that–much like the rest of the world–the days are longer. We accordingly let the kids s-t-r-e-t-c-h out their bedtimes a bit, knowing they don’t have to get up early for anything other than day camp, archery lessons, junior t’ai chi, and Intensive French Mime lessons. We wouldn’t want to be accused of “over-scheduling” them. Still, after catching the last living firefly in the six-state region, they begin to show signs of fatigue.
“Up to bed, you two,” their mother says, hoping to clear some free space for herself on their hectic school vacation calendar.
“Dad, will you tell us an Alger Horatio story?” Scooter, the older of the two at twelve, asks with an overtone of a whine rising in his voice.
“It’s getting late,” my wife says, her brow furrowed with concern like a sorghum field in central Missouri. I mean she’s concerned, not the sorghum.
“Just one, dad–please?” Skipper, the younger brother at ten years old, begs.
“What’s an Alger Horatio story?” my wife asks.
“It’s a riches to rags story, the opposite of a Horatio Alger story,” I explain. “They help build intestinal fortitude.”
“What’s that?” she asks.
“I don’t know, but Paul Schwartz, my eighth grade football coach, said it was something you need if you’re behind at half-time and expect to come back and win.”
“Whatever,” she says. “I’ll be out on the porch if you finish before the sun goes down.”
“Yay!” the boys scream in unison, then scramble up the stairs to their bedroom.
“Let’s see,” I say, as we settle down on the floor. “Which one do you want to hear first?”
“Tell us the one about the Great White Rapper!” Skipper says as he snuggles belly-down on the floor and props his head up with his hands.
“Okay,” I begin. “once upon a time there was a white rapper named ‘Vanilla Shake.'”
They both giggle. The thought that boys are allowed to get sillier as they get older always amuses them.
“And he made a tape that he took around to all the record producers, but no one would listen to it. So he’d go home at night and cry himself to sleep, wondering what he needed to do to become famous.”
The undercurrent of sadness, so characteristic of children’s fairy tales, disrupts the prevailing mood of levity and tugs at their heartstrings, if only just a little.
“Wasn’t he good at any sports?” Scooter asks, knowing this is the most direct route to follow if you want to be popular.
“Sadly, no,” I say, as I pat his little cotton-clothed shoulder. He’s had a tough week in Little League, only getting two trophies, one for showing up, another for bringing water bottles.
“Is that why he became a rapper?” Skipper asks.
“That’s right, Skip,” I say in an avuncular tone, even though I’m their father, not their uncle. “You’ll find, as Nick Carraway’s father said . . .”
“Who’s Nick Carraway?”
“He’s the narrator in The Great Gatsby, a book you’ll read when you’re freshmen in college. Anyway, Nick’s father suggested to him that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.'”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, your English teacher will tell you what it’s supposed to mean, but to me it has always meant that some people are good at some things, and some people are good at others. And you’ll find that most boys who are good at sports are terrible rappers, and vice versa. Like Ron Artest.”
“He was a good basketball player, but not a very good rapper. Anyway, Chocolate Bunny, one of the other rappers, saw Vanilla Shake sitting on his front steps one day looking very sad, and he said ‘Vanilla Shake–what is the matter?’ And Vanilla Shake said ‘I am not good at basketball, I am not good at rapping. I am so sad I think I am going to kill myself.’ And Chocolate Bunny said ‘Don’t kill yourself, other rappers will do that for you!'”
The boys laughed at that one; I’m glad to see they’ve acquired my sense of black humor, and not the controversy-free comic stylings of my wife’s family.
“So did Vanilla Shake get shot?” Scooter asks.
“Nope,” I said, as I tousled his still-wet hair. “That untoward comment . . .”
“What does ‘un-to-ward’ mean?” Skipper asks.
“Improper, indecorous, unpropitious. Meaning it was a rather awkward thing to say . . .”
“Like the kind of stuff mom wishes you wouldn’t say when you go to other people’s houses?” Scooter asks.
“Exactly. Anyway, that one rather rude remark got Vanilla Shake thinking, so he decided that from then on he’d take the same approach to life. Pissing . . .”
They both laugh, knowing this counts as a “swear” for which I’ll have to put a quarter in a jar we keep by the back door. The family member who goes the longest without referring to a private body part or sexual act or deity of a world religion gets to spend it all. “Okay, he decided to pee everybody off as much as he could, and all of a sudden, he started to sell a lot of CDs and became very successful.”
“Like, what did he do?” Scooter asks.
“Well, he got a lot of very offensive tattoos to go along with one he had that said ‘Mom’ . . .”
“Why would he get a tattoo for his mom?” Skipper asks.
“I guess some mommies appreciate the gesture,” I said.
“Mom told us we aren’t allowed to get tattoos–ever,” Scooter adds.
“Well, as the great social philosopher Sly Stone once said–different strokes for different folks. Anyway, Vanilla Shake started to make a LOT of money, so he could buy anything he wanted.”
“What did he get?”
“Many cars, and a big house, and a lion and a tiger, and a boat and jet skis . . .”
“Cool!” Skipper says.
“And a lot more tattoos. And he’d buy presents for girls . . .”
“Like rings and bracelets and necklaces. And he’d buy jewelry for himself . . .”
“Dad, why don’t you wear any jewelry?” Scooter asks.
“Well, Scoots, in our ethnic group, it’s not considered appropriate, okay?”
“But Vanilla Shake was white too, right?”
“Yes, but you didn’t let me finish my story. So anyway, after buying all this . . . stuff . . . one day Vanilla Shake’s bank called him up and told him he didn’t have any more money.”
“It was all gone?” Skipper asks.
“Yep. And he owed the bank money, so they sent people over to take all his cool toys away, then they towed his cars away and threw him out of his house.”
“Where did he go?” Scooter asks, a look of primal fear in his eyes. His Boy Scout troop got caught in a thunderstorm on their last overnight hike.
“He took a seat on the sidewalk next to all the other daddies who run out of money.”
“And he has to live there now?”
I put my arm around Scooter, to comfort him. “Yep. And now he wishes he hadn’t spent his money on all those stupid things. He should have saved his money so he’d have something to fall back on once people got tired of listening to him. That’s a very important lesson, and I hope you kids ‘get it’–okay?”
The two of them have that look–made up of equal parts relief and terror–that the tragic arts inspire in us.
“Well, I get it,” Scooter says, just as my wife comes to the door to make sure the evening’s tale will eventually come to an end.
“What do you ‘get’?” she says, one eyebrow arching skyward in skepticism.
“You should never–ever–buy a girl a present,” he says with emphatic certainty.
She gives me a simmering look that could blanch an almond. I shrug my shoulders and say “That’s not quite what I intended to convey to them, sweetie.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” she says as she hustles them into bed. “You probably just told them never to spend more than $10 on a gift for a girl.”