I’m standing in my new neighbor’s kitchen watching my two-year-old, Benji, size-up her two-year-old Avram. She’s cradling her baby, a peach pink little girl named Elizabeth, and complaining about the landscapers.
“That putz of a developer swore the sod would be in by the time we passed papers and what have we got? A half acre of bare dirt. Four hundred and fifty thousand dollars and we don’t have a yard the children can play in.” She looks out the window above the sink. “The weatherman is predicting rain. It’ll be one big mud hole out there.”
She shifts the weight of the sleeping baby. Avram eyes the book Benji is holding – a welcome to the neighborhood present I brought for him. The Linskys are southern California transplants. The book is about snow. Avram reaches for it and for a minute I think my Benji will put up a fight, but he gives the book up graciously. Avram grips it with both hands and plops down on the floor. Benji plops down next to him.
“Thanks Marilyn,” Tamara Linsky says, “Avi loves books.”
Avram runs his plump hand over the cover illustration, a whimsical watercolor of a snowman.
“You sit. I’ll read,” Avram says in a voice that sounds more ten-year-old than two-year-old.
Benji patiently watches Avram open the book to the title page. He scans the picture and the few words and turns the page, then the next, and the next, and the next, with increasing speed, until he’s paged through the entire book. It’s picture book, appropriate for toddlers. He glares at the pages before he slams the book closed. At the bang of the covers, my Benji jumps.
Avram looks up at his mother and scowls.
“This is not a good book. There’s nothing interesting in it to read.”
There is something so mini-man in the way he says it that it strikes me funny and I let out a little laugh. The kid glowers at me. Benji struggles to stand. He toddles over and wraps himself around my left leg.
“Don’t be rude Avi,” Tamara says. “Say thank you to Benji.”
“What for?” Avram says. “There aren’t enough words in this book.”
He holds the book out to Benji, but Benji won’t let go of my leg so Avram drops the book on the tile floor.
The only hint that the Linsky’s brand new kitchen is inhabited is on the refrigerator. Colorful alphabet magnets, identical to the set on our refrigerator, cover the bottom half of the stainless steel door. At the center, in a clear space, the letters have been positioned to spell out, Avram’s House. Avram stands up and walks over to the fridge. Tamara smiles at me weakly. She juggles her sleeping baby from the crook of one arm to the other. The baby smacks her lips. Benji squeezes my calf tighter. I try to shake my leg a little, hoping he’ll loosen his grip, but he doesn’t budge. Avram scrambles the letters on the stainless steel door with both hands, clears a fresh space and starts to reposition them.
“He’s been a little cranky the last couple of days,” Tamara Linsky says. “I think it’s the stress of the move.”
“Of course,” I say. “Children act out when their routine is upended. The change of scenery alone must be disconcerting for him.”
Avram methodically selects letters and places them in the clear spot. Then he steps back and says, “There.”
Where it once said, Avram’s House, it now says, Avram wants you to go home.
That night, I tell my husband about the Linsky’s brilliant boy.
“It figures,” he says. “The husband is some kind of a hot-shot mathematician. He teaches at MIT.”
He takes Benji into the powder room off the kitchen to wash his hands before dinner. I listen to them playing with the water and wonder how big of a mess he’s letting him make. I call into him.
“The kid’s the same age as Benji and he can already read. It was spooky. He was spelling out full sentences on their fridge.”
Throughout dinner I watch Benji sit happily in his high chair, enjoying his food. He’s a good eater my Benji; scarfs down his salad with the same gusto he chomps on his piece of pizza. And he’s a gentle soul. Not nearly as aggressive as Avram Linsky. According to all my baby books Benji is right on schedule developmentally. I’ve checked Spock and Bettleheim. Nowhere does it say he should be able spell out words and phrases on the refrigerator. I try to remember when I learned to read. I think I was around six, already in school, when letters ceased to be shapes on a page and coalesced into people, places, actions and ideas. I don’t remember struggling to learn, it was more of an organic thing. My sister, the family brainiac, was reading at four and everyone thought that was amazing.
The next morning Tamara Linsky is at my door early. Her baby is strapped to her chest and Avram is waiting, leaning forward on his big wheel on the flagstone walkway behind her. He’s a sturdy looking kid, big for his age, with what my mother used to call high color and thick dark hair. Tamara is in jeans and running shoes. She looks younger today than yesterday.
“We’re headed out for a walk,” she says. “I thought you might like to join us, to show me the lay of the land around here, so to speak.”
“I’ve got a carpet cleaning company coming at eleven,” I say.
“Great. It’s only 9. You’ve got plenty of time.”
Benji attaches to my leg again and stares up at me, frowning.
“What do you say buddy? Want to go big-wheeling with your new friend?”
“Nup,” Benji says.
I give his shoulder a nudge.
“That’s not nice. Sure you do.”
Tamara, the baby and Avram wait outside while I unearth a wheeled ride, a horse that’s wedged under a mound of unused skis and sleds in the garage. It has no pedals. The kid sits on it and wheels it with foot power. I can’t imagine my son been able to coordinate pedaling or even being able to reach the pedals of a big wheel at his age. Ordinarily I’d put him in the stroller. I doubt he has the patience or stamina yet to make it through a long walk without eventually wanting to be carried. The prospect of carrying him and the horse doesn’t appeal to me, but Tamara Linsky looks confident enough to venture out with her two so I’m game.
Benji straddles the bright yellow plastic horse. He’s grown since the last time we took it out. It looks too small for him now. Avram takes off and zooms ahead of us. Tamara runs after him, shouting at him to stop, to wait for us to catch up. Benji stays close to me. It’s the end of August. Already the air has the cool snap and smell of fall.
Tamara inhales deeply and says, “This is what I’ve been looking forward to, the change of seasons and having some room to breathe. Where we lived in California the houses were very nice but they were all built right up next to each other. The outside wall of our neighbor’s was built on the lot line of our yard.”
“The Zoning Board would never let you do that here,” I say.
Avram has charged ahead again. Benji has given up riding his horse and handed it to me. Thankfully it’s light. He runs ahead a little but doesn’t seem keen on getting too close to Avram.
It’s quiet this morning. There’s no traffic. Our street ends in a cul-de-sac but you never know who might be pulling out of a driveway without looking. The houses are what I call phony colonial, slightly different styles depending on what custom features the owners can afford. Ours is pretty basic. Some of the houses on the larger lots have massive columns on either side of their front doors and fan windows over them. Our street is Hollyhock Lane. When I think of a lane I think of a country road not a suburban subdivision, and although I’ve tried to grow them, hollyhocks won’t take in my yard. They get leggy and fall over. Each of the streets in our development, Perennial Park, is called a Lane or a Terrace or a Place and is named for a flower: Delphinium Lane, Daisy Terrace, Poppy Place. Pretty silly when you’re trying to give directions.
The boys stop in the middle of the sidewalk. Avram’s voice rises above Benji’s sniffling. I run ahead, not surprised that Benji has burned out on walking.
“Too tired,” he says. He’s sweaty and his face is bright pink. Avram rides, circling around him, taunting, “Baby. Baby. Baby.”
Tamara Linsky says, “Avi, cut that out. Be nice.”
Elizabeth is awake and starting to fuss. I kneel down next to Benji to comfort him. He throws his arms around my neck. It’s a struggle to stand up holding him and the plastic horse.
Avi pedals past me, head down, knees and elbows flying, chanting, “Baby. Big baby.”
Tamara Linsky stands next to me stroking the top of the baby’s head.
Tamara’s kitchen looks a little homier this morning. There are sleek stainless steel canisters on the counter, a bright blue enamel teapot on the stove and dirty breakfast dishes in the sink. Yesterday’s refrigerator message has been replaced. It now says, Avram doesn’t like it here.
It’s ten fifteen. The carpet cleaners are due in forty-five minutes. I was reluctant to accept Tamara’s invitation to come in and Benji keeps saying, “I want to go home Mama.” But Tamara was insistent.
“Coffee?” she says. “Or should I put water on for tea.”
“Coffee’s fine,” I say.
There’s a pot already brewed. Avram stands next to his mother, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, nagging.
“Snacks. I want a snack,” he says.
Once again Benji has been hiding behind me. When he hears “snacks” he ventures out. My boy has a good appetite.
“How about some popcorn?” Tamara says.
Avram runs over to a cabinet, opens the door and pulls out an unopened box of microwavable popcorn. He tears the top off and pulls out one of the packets while Tamara moves a chair in front of the microwave. Avram motions to Benji to follow him as he scrambles up onto the chair, opens the door of the microwave, puts the popcorn in, closes the door, pushes 3, 3, 0 on the number pad and the start button. Benji looks bewildered. I pick him up. Position him next to Avram on the chair and stand behind them so they won’t fall. Tamara sits at the kitchen table nursing the baby. She’s set the table with two mugs of coffee, silver spoons, paper napkins, a pretty blue flowered creamer and a matching sugar bowl.
The corn begins to pop and the boys gleefully mimic the noise. When the timer reaches thirty seconds Avram begins to count down. Benji tries to count along with him.
“…10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” and Avi shouts, “Done.”
With the baby still at her breast, Tamara gets up, pulls a plastic bowl out of the cupboard and hands it to Avram who drops to the floor with it and the bag of the popped corn. Benji squats next to him and watches as Avram tears the top off the bag to let the steam escape.
“Careful,” he says to Benji. “Very hot.”
They wait until Tamara says, “Okay boys. Dig in.”
Avram shakes the popcorn into the bowl. Benji is shy in the neighbor’s unfamiliar kitchen. Avram eats the popcorn by the fistful. Tamara and I sip our coffee. The baby is asleep again. She has a thatch of dark hair and a round face that reminds me of the porcelain Geisha doll my mother kept on a high shelf when was I a little girl. Once I pulled it down and the little black wig fell off. I caught hell for that.
The boys eat quietly. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that I just watched a two year old use a microwave to pop corn or that his mother is sitting across from me acting as though there’s nothing unusual about that. Tamara and I sip our coffee in silence until Avram gets up and brings her a single unpopped kernel. He turns it around and around between his thumb and index finger before he hands it to her.
“How does this work?” he says.
I think about the story I might tell if Benji had asked me the question – something magical about fairies trapped inside, yearning to escape to fly free in the world.
“Inside each unpopped kernel,” Tamara says. “There’s a little bit of moisture. When the kernels are exposed to heat, the moisture, which starts out as water, converts to steam. Steam takes up much more space then water. As it expands it cracks the shell of the kernel, cooks the insides so they fluff up, and the result is popcorn.”
Avram picks the piece of popcorn off of her palm and scrutinizes it.
“Boom,” he says. “An explosion.”
Benji sits on the floor. He hasn’t listened to a word. While Avram was learning how to blow up the world, he took the opportunity in his absence to finish the popcorn.
My husband insists that such precociousness isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Those kids are always the ones who turn out weird,” he says.
We tell each other stories about the “gifted” kids we knew growing up. He tells me about a boy who blew up a tree in the middle of his parents’ lawn when he was nine. I tell him about girl who was doing calculus in the second grade but was fat and lisped and had no friends. I make more popcorn and try to explain the science to Benji, but he’s not interested.
Friday morning it’s raining. Tamara Linsky calls and invites me over for coffee. Her kitchen smells delicious.
“Yum,” I say.
“I’m making cardamom ginger muffins,” she says. “They’ll be done in few minutes. Avi loves them with a little tangerine marmalade.”
Avram sits crosslegged on the floor looking through a pamphlet. I pry Benji off my leg and encourage him to sit beside him. Avram holds the booklet up. It’s a fire safety manual.
“You have to have a plan,” he says and reads aloud:
You should be able to find two ways out from every room in your home. The first way out should be a door. Every way needs to be planned and practiced with grown-ups. Before opening any door in a fire, feel it first. If it is hot, there may be fire on the other side. Try to get out another way. Stay low to the floor when escaping a fire. Agree on a safe and easy-to-remember place outside the home to meet your family after you get out. After you get out, call 9-1-1 or the fire department. Stay outside no matter what. Don’t go back for anything!
So eerie watching a toddler, the same age as my own son who still seems like such a baby to me, read. What’s even eerier is how much I dislike the kid for it. I try to see him as cute but I can’t. Every move he makes, every word he utters comes off as condescending. I know how irrational my reaction is. I have to keep reminding myself; he’s a two-year-old.
A buzzer goes off and Tamara slides the muffin pan out of the oven. She turns them out onto a platter and sits back down to wait for them to cool. On top of a pile of pamphlets about our town’s recycling policy, trash pickup schedule, and emergency numbers, is a pair of window decals, black and red profiles of a fireman’s helmeted head. There’s an identical decal on one of the windows in Benji’s room, a gift from our local fire department.
“I see you got your Welcome to Rowley kit,” I say.
“Avi’s fascinated. Last night he insisted we have a fire drill. We made a plan and picked a meeting spot. He wanted to wait until Benji was here before he put up his sticker.”
Avi overheard her and asks, “Now. Can we do it now?”
“How about muffins and milk first,” Tamara says and then to me, “They’re best when they’re still warm.”
She halves four muffins and slathers them with marmalade, puts two on plates for us, the other two on paper napkins for the boys, and pours them each a glass of milk. Benji looks surprised when she hands the glass to him. At home he drinks out of a plastic sippie cup. I watch him take careful sips.
The muffins are warm and moist and fragrant with ginger, a treat after the mealy blueberry muffins I usually buy at Stop ‘n Shop. The tangerine marmalade has a sharp citrusy tang. There’s no label on the jar. I figure Tamara probably made the marmalade, too.
Benji eats all of his muffin and drinks most of the milk. When they’re through Avram grabs the decals and we follow him upstairs. He carefully climbs the steps holding onto the handrail. Benji scampers up them on his hands and knees.
Tamara takes one of the decals from her son and says, “Show Benji your room.”
We follow them down the hall.
“I need to check on the baby,” Tamara says.
The nursery next door is a frothy mix of pink and white striped wallpaper, eyelet lace curtains, and a big upholstered rocker and ottoman that glide. The baby is napping in the crib. While Tamara peels the film off the front of the decal and presses it to the window glass I watch the baby sleep and wonder if she’s a little genius. Too early to tell.
In Avram’s room Benji’s expression is rapt as Avram reads from an old volume of Carl Sandburg’s, Rootabaga Pigeons:
One morning when the big white clouds were shouldering each other’s shoulders rolling rollers of a big blue sky, Blixie Bimber came along where the Potato Face Blind Man sat shining the brass bickerjiggers on his accordion.
He looks up from the page and turns to Benji.
“Isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?”
My Benji’s face is a blank. Avram’s room has captivated him. Benji still sleeps in a crib. Avram has a toddler bed. Mobiles of dinosaurs, the solar system, insects, and butterflies hang from a ceiling wallpapered with a dark blue map of the stars. Built-in bookshelves cover one wall. They’re full. I spot a dictionary, a thesaurus and an encyclopedia as well as children’s books and poetry. In the corner, a blackboard stands on a child-sized easel. Written in a confident but obviously immature hand is: Avram’s New Room.
After he affixes the decal to a windowpane Avram wants to see what it looks like from outside, so we leave the sleeping baby in her crib and trek downstairs, back through the kitchen, out the door, onto the front lawn. The rain has stopped. The landscapers have finally arrived. They’ve sodded half of the lawn. We stand on the wet carpet of fresh grass about ten feet away from where one of the workmen is unrolling a strip of sod while another workman tamps it down. They look up and wave.
Tamara turns her back on them and says, “Damned developer.”
She picks Avram up under the arms and holds him high so he can get a good look at his window. He claps his hands and says, “Good. Very good.”
I’m annoyed that the boy’s lips are so red.
Benji points to the decal in the window of his room across the street and says, “My have one too.”
My husband is an electrical engineer. He went to college. So did I. I’ve always thought we were pretty smart, that we’d have smart kids. But apparently smart comes with different degrees. I guess we’re what would be considered cum laude while the Linskys are summa cum laude plus a PHD. I don’t know why it bothers me, but it does. It’s not like Tamara Linsky has ever said anything that enlightening. In fact she doesn’t say much at all. Overall her company has been a bore, but her kid fascinates me. The other day they came over and I dumped a hand full of change on the table just so I could watch him tally it up, six dollars and twenty-seven cents. While he divided the change into neat stacks of quarters, nickels and dimes, Benji kept trying to put the pennies in his mouth.
My husband says, “Give it a little time. The novelty of the whiz kid will wear off.”
I confess. “I keep finding myself comparing him to Benji, which I know is ridiculous. Benji’s a normal two-year-old. That kid is a freak.”
My husband says, “I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. He’s still just a two-year-old. Kind of a dangerous one from how you describe him. He’s all info in, but he has no life experience to color what comes out. So he reads and he comprehends what he reads up to a point. But does he understand subtleties and consequences? I doubt it.”
My husband is a bright man. We sit in our living room, looking out the bay window, admiring our yard. Our lawn is a nice dark green. We seeded it ourselves when we moved in. It was just about this time of year. If you want a lawn that will last, you want to seed or sod it in the fall, before the first frost but after the worst of the summer heat is over. The new sod at the Linsky’s is a yellower green than our grass and it’s perfectly even. It looks more like Astroturf than the real thing. The beds around their foundation are empty except for a blanket of bright orange mulch. I hate orange mulch. Their shrubs, a couple of flowering cherry trees and a maple, she told me, are supposed to be delivered tomorrow. I tried to warn Tamara about the maple. It’ll drop seeds that will sprout all over the place in the spring, but she’s enchanted with the prospect of the colors it will turn in our New England autumns.
In the middle of the night my husband and I roll into each other and wake up just long enough to smell something.
He asks, “Smoke?”
And I answer, “I tested the alarms a couple of days ago.”
He shakes himself awake and gets out of bed. I sit up and sniff. Definitely smoke. My husband walks to the window and pushes the curtain aside.
“Oh my God,” he says.
I can hear the distant wail of fire engines.
The Linskys are standing in the middle of our front lawn. Tamara is holding the baby. Her husband, who I’ve never met before, is holding Avram. He’s a small stocky man with the same dark hair as his son. He’s wearing pajama bottoms and nothing else. His back and chest are covered with thick wiry hair. Tamara’s baby blue nightgown has spaghetti straps. One strap has slipped off her shoulder. Her feet are bare. I run back into the house and bring blankets out to wrap around them. The husband mumbles thank you. More fire trucks scream onto our street. I walk over to Tamara and ask if she wants me to take Elizabeth. I try to drape a blanket over her shoulders and around the baby but she shrugs it off. I can feel the heat of the fire. Flames shoot out the windows and draw a line along the peak of the roof.
I start to ask, “How did it…?”
Tamara says, “Don’t.”
She stares at Avram. He’s grinning. Her husband can barely keep hold of him. Every time the flames leap Avram laughs, claps his pudgy hands and his thick bowl cut hair bounces. He twists around in his father’s arms and presses his hand to his cheek.
“The book was right Dada,” Avram says. “Everyone gets out just fine if you have a plan.”
My husband wants me to offer them our guestroom,
I say, “Let the Red Cross put them up in a motel. I don’t want them in our house. I don’t want their kid near our kid. Not right now.”
We try to go back to bed but can’t sleep. I press my nose to the back of my husband’s head.
“We reek from the smoke,” I say.
He rolls over to face me. He’s smiling.
“Shower?” he says.
We stumble through the dark to the bathroom. I snap on the light. It’s painfully bright. My husband turns it off. He hugs me from behind.
“Let’s do it in the dark,” he says. And then. “Aren’t you glad we don’t have a Whizz Kid?”
We shower together, long and luxurious, the first time since before Benji. He soaps me and I soap him. The washing turns to lovemaking and the sex feels better than it has for too long a time.
“We should do this more often,” my husband says as we rub against each other.
By the time we’ve dried off and redressed in clean P.J.s, dawn has crept up on us. Where the sky meets the horizon it’s the same shade of orange as the glow in the smoldering ruins of what was once the Linsky’s house.
“Remember how we used to be able to stay up and party all night long?” my husband says.
I kiss his forehead.
“I’ll make some coffee,” I say.
Benji’s is awake, singing. Every morning he sings to his stuffed animals before he calls for me, wordless, tuneless, sweet songs. I crack the door and peep in. He scrambles to stand up and I’m so taken with his sleep swollen face that I want to hug him and never let go. I lift him out of his crib and twirl him once, twice, three times around the room. He laughs. Then he sniffs the air.
“Smells funny,” he says.
He slept through the whole thing.
I carry him to the window and point to what’s left of the Linsky’s house. It’s a smoking pile of blackened char surrounded by a screaming green lawn. Before they left, the firemen jury rigged a fence around the ruin, black and yellow striped hazard tape strung on metal stakes they stabbed into the ground. “What happened, Mama?” Benji says.
He presses his palm to my cheek to make me look into eyes the same way Avram did to his father in the middle of the night.
“An accident. But it’s okay. Everyone is all right.”
He looks at me, quizzically concerned and I realize that it never would have occurred to him that everyone might not be all right. I carry him downstairs into the kitchen to put the coffee on. I hold him tighter than I usually do. He squirms until I loosen my grip and put him down. While I start the coffeemaker and drop a couple of slices of bread into the toaster, he stands in front of the refrigerator staring at his alphabet magnets. With a sweep of his hands he knocks most of them onto the floor, stands back and lets out a delighted laugh. I watch him bend over to pick up a handful and wait to see what he’s going to do with them. One by one he sticks them on the door. They make little clinking sounds as each of the magnets adheres. He steps back to admire his handiwork. I kneel down next to him and kiss the top of his head. His hair is warm and silky and smells of baby shampoo.
“Good work,” I tell him. “Very, very good.”
BtfSpLk, it says.