© 2011 David’s Harp and Pen
For those who have never been, Palucci’s is like one giant, noisy, grease-oozing, carb-laden, token-sucking babysitter. Theoretically, one could leave one’s kids there for years without the children ever noticing their parents were gone, unless, of course, the kids ran out of tokens. They make the most fattening and flavorless pizza money can buy, but the kids don’t care, because it’s pizza and kids love pizza. Besides, what child cares about culinary excellence or nutritionally sound fare when there are video games, skee ball alleys, and a ball crawl bigger and deeper than most moon craters to contend with? Kids love the place because it’s endless fun. Grownups love it because, after a few hours, the kids are catatonic and in cholesterol coma and will often sleep until of they are of legal drinking age. Brittany, Zechariah, and Jonathan would always beg me to take them to Palucci’s, so as often as I could, I would.
Brittany went on her way to the giant Etch-a-Sketch machine and the boys headed to the skee ball lanes. Ryan and I got a booth and sat down to talk.
“They seem like great kids,” Ryan said.
“Oh, they are. They really are. They just need some TLC,” I answered.
“How many times did you say their dad was married?”
“And he’s been a Christian the whole time?”
“I know, right? I don’t understand it. You wouldn’t believe all the single Christian dads I’ve known over the years who just jump from relationship to relationship, rushing out of one bad situation into an even more disastrous one. And of course, it’s always God who told them to go looking for women online, through the mail, blah, blah, blah. The thing is though, especially with Arthur, his kids now have this totally screwy concept of God! I mean, it’ll be a miracle if they escape with any kind of sense of right or wrong whatsoever.”
“Eh, speaking of right and wrong…” Ryan said as he pointed to the skee ball lanes. I turned and looked, to my horror, to see both Zechariah and Jonathan picking up the skee balls and physically walking them down the lanes. Zechariah had a stream of award tickets shooting out of the skee ball lane a mile a minute. I darted over to the skee ball lanes to set the boys straight. Ryan followed me.
“What are you doing?” I accused, my voice getting squeakier as my temper flared. A large, elderly, nanny-looking sort of person walked up to me with consternation on her face.
“I was wondering when you’d come along. What a reprehensible example they’re setting for the other children here! What kind of mother are you?” she accused.
“I’m not their mother,” I answered defensively.
“Okay. What kind of grandmother are you?”
I was speechless, both from the accusation and the fact that Ryan had heard it. I could hear his suppressed chuckling behind me, and my personal campaign against embarrassment had been dealt another crushing blow.
“It’s interesting, Margaret,” Ryan observed in what I thought was a detailed and methodical manner, “when you get embarrassed, your cheeks turn about a thousand different shades of red in no time flat. It’s like watching twin volcanoes erupt simultaneously.”
As my brain scrambled for the proper reply, Jonathan walked up to me and asked, with that cute little lisp characteristic of all three-year-olds, “Mawgwet, why does Zechawhyah have maw tickets den me?”
“Because, Sweetie, he’s cheating,” I answered.
“But I’m cheating, too!”
“I know, but when Zechariah walks the balls down the lane, he drops them in the hoops, which gets him points. You walk them down the lane and drop the balls in the gutter, which really defeats the whole purpose of cheating in the first place.”
“Will you show me how to trow da ball in da hoops, pwease?”
“Of course, Sweetie!” I answered, hoping to salvage at least some of my efforts to appear motherly.
Now, I knew no more how to bowl properly than I knew how to pilot a Cessna to Ireland, but I couldn’t let Ryan or Jonathan know that. At the time, though, I thought throwing the skee ball down the lane would be pretty straightforward, without much margin for error. I grabbed the ball, reeled my arm back, and was about to release the ball, when I felt a tugging on my shirt. A little boy of about four years of age had walked up to me and was adamant about getting my attention.
“Mommy!” he cried out to me, most convincingly.
I was so shocked; I didn’t pay attention to where I was aiming the skee ball. I let her rip, and it shot straight for the metal edge of the plastic rim over the hoops, bounced off said metal, and hit me full force in the forehead. I fell flat on my back, and for a moment, the rest of the world faded. I looked off into the ceiling, not sure if I was alive or dead.
“Mommy!” The little boy, who I’ll refer to as Toddler X, since I never found out his name, screamed at the top of his lungs as he grabbed my hand to pull me up. Ryan grabbed my other hand and brought me to my feet.
“Stay here. I’m going to take him to the front counter,” Ryan informed me. Then he walked off with Toddler X in an attempt to find his real parents.
God, I prayed silently, this isn’t going well. I’m trying to get through the day shame and embarrassment free, but considering it’s me we’re talking about here, maybe it’s not possible.
It’s not about you, Margaret. Are you willing to look bad so that I can look good? answered that Still Small Voice inside my head. As I pondered what God meant, Ryan returned.
“Your son is a handsome little man!” Ryan said with a little snicker in his tone.
“Yes. He gets his blonde hair and brown eyes from me,” I answered as I batted my blue eyes and ran my fingers through my dark brown, almost raven hair.
“Good one! Say, why don’t we work on that throwing arm of yours?” Ryan asked.
Ryan picked up a skee ball and put it in my hand.
“Jonny, pay very special attention. This is how the pros do it,” Ryan said to Jonathan in a cute, fatherly fashion.
“Do pwos have to use quawters?” Jonathan asked.
“Pros get unlimited tokens, which is why you want to be one. Now, some people will argue that a good throw is all in the shoulder, but I say it’s equal parts shoulder and wrist. Like this,” Ryan explained. Then he stood super close behind me, put his left hand on my left shoulder, took my right hand in his, and threw the skee ball down the lane, landing it square in the million point hoop, the highest-point hoop there was. More tickets streamed out of the skee ball console as Jonathan squealed with delight.
“Yay! Do it again,” Jonathan exclaimed.
“Yes, do it again,” I whispered.
With his hands still on me, Ryan made a second bowling demonstration, landing another skee ball in the million-point hoop. I won’t lie. Having him that close to me made me feel slightly euphoric, and him being so close probably wouldn’t have happened had I not knocked myself out in the first place.
Wow, God!, I prayed in my head. He’s so understanding, and nothing I do seems to scare him off. He likes kids, he knows how to relate to them, and he knows how to bowl! Not only that, but he smells fabulous! Would it be too forward of me to ask him what cologne or aftershave he’s wearing? It smells so musky and woodsy, like he’s some gorgeous, rugged outdoorsmen who lives on the side of a mountain, and he spends all day splitting logs, hunting bears, chasing rainbows, and…
“Margaret?” Ryan interrupted my little fantasy. “Are you alright?”
I felt my twin volcanoes erupt again. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out, except carbon dioxide.
“I lost you again,” he said with a concerned look on his face.
“I’m sorry. I…” I tried to respond, but again, I couldn’t speak.
“No, it’s just that sometimes you seem to go to another place, even though you’re here.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I do. Go to another place.”
“It’s alright. Next time you go there, take me with you. It must be fantastic!”
“Oh, from your mouth to God’s Ears!”
God, I prayed in horror, did I just say what I think I said?
Ryan burst into laughter, confirming my fears.
God, perhaps I could avoid most of the embarrassment I feel if I could just keep my mouth shut, I prayed.
God answered, It’s not about you.
Oooh, how I hated it when God repeated something I never got the first time!
About an hour had passed since our arrival. The kids got loaded up on pizza and soda and were wiping up the arcade and casino floor and earning a whole Amazon rain forest’s worth of tickets. Toddler X made another appearance, insisting I was his mommy. Ryan and I deposited our charges in the ball crawl and returned to our booth when my phone rang. It was Arthur.
“Hi,” I answered. “What’s up?”
“I don’t believe it!” Arthur shot out. “I finally got through to Suzanne. Do you know what she had the nerve to say?”
I was sure I already knew, but to be polite, I asked anyway.
“She said I was smothering her!” Arthur answered, and he sounded genuinely confused when he said it, too. “She said I was moving too fast, and that I was draining her emotionally! Can you believe it?”
“Ummm,” I hesitated before finally answering, “yes! I can totally believe it!”
“Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“Yours! I wouldn’t tell you you’re an idiot if I didn’t care!”
“A true friend will stand by me and support me no matter what!”
“And I do! But I’m not going to keep saying, ‘poor baby’ as you keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over again, Arthur! It’s like you have no identity outside of a woman. When you have a woman, you’re okay, or you think you’re okay, and when you don’t, you lose all ability to function. Girls don’t like guys who are clingy and needy and, well, girly!”
“You don’t understand, Margaret. When I love a woman, I love her with everything I have. And if I know that she’s the one, I don’t see any need in waiting.”
“But you should. A girl with any sense isn’t going to make a lifelong commitment to a man without a chance first to test and observe his character. The fact that Suzanne got scared says a lot of good things about her. Any good woman, a woman you would really want to marry, would be scared off by getting a proposal after ten days when you hadn’t even met in person!”
“You don’t understand, Margaret! You’ll never understand!”
“You always say that, Arthur, and yet you keep coming to me for advice.”
“I’m going to hang up now!”
“Hey, before you go, don’t you want to know how your kids are?” Before I could finish the sentence, though, he was gone. At that point, I found myself so angry that I was growling like a grizzly bear.
“What is this man’s problem?” Ryan asked.
“You tell me,” I shot back, still fuming. “I don’t understand, Ryan. I really don’t. Maybe, since you’re a man, you can explain it to me. I have known so many Christian men through the years, particularly single dads, who just jump from relationship to relationship with no forethought whatsoever! They can’t live without a woman, but then when they have one, they don’t seem to fare any better! And they always make it sound like it’s God’s will for them to hook up with whatever girl happens to be there at the moment. Then, they get their hearts broken, but they turn around and do the same thing again and again! The problem here, though, is that Arthur’s kids now think that God is the One that keeps leading their dad into bad relationships, and they want nothing to do with Him!”
As I finished my little tirade, all the sleep deprivation from the night before began to catch up with me, and I feared I might have exerted the last bit of energy I had left.
“It’s a funny thing, Margaret. Most of us can talk a good line about being a Christian, but a lot of these men, by the way they live, are just practicing atheists. They don’t give God a chance to meet their needs. They don’t give God a chance to fill their hearts the right way. It sends a horrible message to his kids. It sends a horrible message to the world, too. What do unbelievers think when we talk about God being our All in All, but live our lives as if He’s anemic, stingy, and powerless?”
After talking to Arthur and listening to his childish talk about love and marriage, it was such a relief to have a grown up conversation with a grown up Christian man. He was making so many good points, and I wanted to make some good points, too, except I was getting very tired very fast, and in my attempt to sound spiritual, I sounded…not.
“You’re right,” I acceded, my voice getting louder as I continued talking. “But you know what the funny thing is? They say they can’t wait for whatever, that God wants them to be happy, yaddy-yaddy-ya, but then when they take matters into their own hands, they’re even more miserable. They’ve got a woman, but they argue all the time, the situation in the bedroom tanks almost instantaneously, and they’re scratching their heads and asking God what He did wrong. I’m sorry, but if I’m a Christian, and God didn’t spare His only Son for me, then shouldn’t I have more joy than an unbeliever? Shouldn’t my relationships be better and last longer than some unsaved person? If the God who lives inside of me is the One who created marriage and romance in the first place, shouldn’t I be having better sex than Joe the Pagan who lives next door?”
For a split second, there was dead silence. It was as if every eye and ear in Palucci’s was trained on me. I could feel my cheeks, AKA “Mount Saint Margaret,” about to blow any second. I turned my face away, because I didn’t want to see Ryan’s reaction. However, I happened to turn in the direction of a pair of very offended grandmothers.
“Blasphemous!” scolded Grandmother Number One.
“As if God has anything to do with sex!” exclaimed Grandmother Two.
I closed my eyes to avoid the women’s glares. As I did, I heard the sound of Ryan’s laughter. I wondered how many stupid things I could say and do in front of him before he realized just how hopeless I was really was. After a moment, I felt his finger as it tapped my shoulder. As I slowly opened my eyes, I beheld, for the second time since I’d known him, him on his knees in front of me as he raised and lowered his arms and chanted, “I’m not worthy.”
“Brilliant. Eloquent. A tour de force!” He said, tongue in cheek.
Pretty soon, it was time for Palucci to make one of his regularly scheduled appearances. All the kids loved Palucci, especially Zechariah. When he came out and began to walk around the play area, the kids came to our table and stared at him in awe. Palucci had all the qualities that children love in a fictional character: largeness, a good sense of humor, furriness, and lots of video games. No one really knows if Palucci is animal, vegetable, or mineral. He’s not human, or not entirely, but we’re not sure if he’s a mammal or even some kind of alien. He’s a bit like Goofy, Mickey Mouse’s friend. Zechariah began to bounce up and down and squeeze my hand in excitement as Palucci made his rounds. However, when Palucci got near our table, Zechariah suddenly got shy and buried his face in my side.
“What are you doing, Z?” I asked. “Palucci’s coming by! If you shake his hand, he might give you some tokens!” Zechariah shook his head violently.
“Why are you getting all shy now? You have no problem peeing on bushes for all the world to see but you’re too shy to talk to Palucci?”
Apparently, Zechariah saw my logic and decided to approach Palucci in all his genetically ambiguous and anthropomorphic grandeur. As the rest of the children rushed at Palucci, I sat back and took in the whole spectacle. Some of the kids were jumping on him. Some were just jumping up and down and screaming in front of him. All of the kids were indulging in silliness of the highest order, without reservation. It was both a heartening and convicting sight. My attention then turned to the sound of a coin being dragged across the table to under my nose.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Penny for your thoughts. That’s still the going rate, isn’t it?” Ryan asked.
I sighed and answered, “Oh, I was just thinking about how when we’re kids, and we’re so free and uninhibited and unashamed of who we are and how we look. I wonder what it is and when it is that we become so wrapped up in appearances and such that we can’t do anything without asking ourselves a thousand times, ‘Will this make me look stupid?’ Is self-consciousness instinctual, or is it learned behavior?”
"It's probably a little of both. When was it for you?" Ryan asked.
"When was the moment when you became worried about how you looked? When was it that you lost your freedom?"
“Lost my freedom? You make it sound so, so…”
I made the mistake of looking into Ryan’s eyes, which were like optical sodium pentothal.
“Wednesday, September 16, 1981, 9:47 a.m.” I blurted out.
Ryan tilted his head to one side and widened his eyes, as often happened whenever I said something that caught him off guard, and said, “Interesting. You have total recall or something?”
Before I could answer him, Brittany came running to our booth, grabbed Ryan’s hand, and begged, “Ryan, would you please come to the ball crawl with me? I need you to protect me from the other kids.”
“Of course, milady,” he replied, switching to a British accent, like a knight in shining armor. “Your wish is my command.”
The two then ran off and jumped into the ball crawl. As I looked on, I saw two little boys already inside, dressed like space aliens, carrying play laser guns, and shooting up everything in sight.
Some time passed as I sat at the booth, alone with my thoughts. Ryan was right. I had lost my freedom. I surveyed all of Palucci’s. Everywhere I looked, there were kids and adults and space aliens and yet-to-be classified life forms having the time of their lives, playing make believe, screaming at the top of their lungs, and giving no thought as to how they looked to anyone else. Everyone there was free, except me.
Oh, Father, this is just silliness beyond silliness, I prayed. Every person here is having fun, totally unconcerned with appearances, or worrying about saying something that might sound stupid or embarrassing to those around them. I should just, I don’t know, let my hair down and have some fun!
No sooner had I finished the prayer than Zechariah and Jonathan approached me with ants in their pants.
“Mahwgwet,” Jonathan pleaded in pitiful fashion, “we have to go potty.”
I looked towards the ball crawl, but Ryan looked like he was having such a good time with Brittany, I didn’t want to disturb him. So, I decided I would take them to the restroom. Now, the restrooms in Palucci’s were closed due to some plumbing problem, so we had to use the mall restrooms. I had wanted to take the boys into the Ladies’ Room with me, but the two protested, saying they were big boys and could use the Men’s Room on their own. I compromised and told them they could go to the Men’s Room, and I would stand guard at the door.
I will never learn.